Manipur unrest

Why a blanket ban on the internet in troubled Manipur is not a good idea

The lack of information only fuels rumours, say civil rights activists.

Nearly all access to internet has been blocked in Manipur following violent protests on Monday and Tuesday that left eight dead and reduced the homes of MLAs and state government ministers to ashes.

This restriction on internet access follows upon a similar block in Gujarat last week in the wake of the Patel agitation. Reports from Manipur seem to indicate an even wider blanket ban, with nearly all broadband connections also severed, with the exception of some BSNL lines. This has come as a surprise to residents of the state, where earlier press reports had indicated that only Facebook and Whatsapp services would be blocked.

Though such blockages have been a regular feature of life in conflict -ridden Kashmir, this is the first time that they have made an official appearance in Manipur. Local activists, however, suspect that blockages have long been a tool used by authorities to clamp down on information during anti-insurgent operations. Babloo Loitongbam, a prominent Manipuri activist and Executive Director of Human Rights Alert, suggests that authorities may have been able to covertly block internet access for short periods in the past due to the poor telecommunications infrastructure in the state.

Long-standing problem

“It is not something that has been done officially,” Loitongbam said, “but internet access is always a problem in Manipur. Sometimes it is connectivity, but sometimes it’s done deliberately to block information from going out. It’s done quietly and nobody knows. People think that it’s just a technical glitch but [it seems to be] blocked when the government wants to restrict information.”

Kshetrimayum Onil, a conflict resolution activist based in Imphal, echoed this sentiment. “Unofficially, internet shutdowns happen ... when there is a military operation.” Onil also pointed to the role of social media in conflict zones around the world, and wondered why such strict controls are in place in Manipur: “It’s more like a war zone, but even with the ISIS problem, there’s no internet shutdown in Syria or Iraq. It depends how you’re regulating the political situation, how it’s dealt with by the government. [In Manipur,] the government is keeping silent and then suddenly the internet is shut down. It’s outrageous.”

Local activists are concerned that the current blanket internet blockage may prove counterproductive.

Protests erupted after reports of the passage of a package of three laws intended to restrict residency and land ownership rights of non-Manipuris in the state inflamed simmering tensions between members of the tribal populations who predominate in hilly areas of the state and the predominantly Hindu Meiteis of the valley. Some of these reports suggested that the laws might open the door for tribal landowners to be dispossessed from their land if they or their ancestors arrived in the state after 1951, the year of the first census taken with Manipur as part of India.

The price of opacity 

Activists like Loitongbam, a Meitei, insist that the bills have no such provision, and that by reducing transparency the block may increase tensions in the state: “I have read the text of the bill that was passed in the assembly several times. I could not see any implications by which the people in the valley would be given the right to take over land in the hills. … I was actually trying to put the text of this law up on the internet today morning when I realised that it’s not possible anymore.”

Likewise, local media is concerned about the ways that this blockage is curtailing their freedom to report in a state that has been subject to widespread abuses of government power. Ratan Luwang, Vice President of the Manipur Press Union, said that members of his union are unable to get stories out. “Like a wildfire, [violence] is spreading from all corners. That’s why the government has decided to shut [internet] down. This is not necessary. We’re not able to connect, not able to give our photographs or news stories to our respective offices. At least media houses and correspondents must [have these restrictions] relaxed.”

No legal authority or justification for the blockages has been announced. For now, the government has not shared any information regarding the proposed duration of the block. Loitongbom expressed concern, based on past history of restrictions on civil liberties in Manipur, about how long the block might last. “Restrictions in terms of public meetings ... goes for decades in the greater Imphal area. In Manipur, very often, restrictive measures are put and they forget to lift them. One only hopes it doesn’t go that long.”

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