John Brittas on Manipur Video: When Internet Shutdowns Backfire

NewsOpinionColumnsJohn Brittas on Manipur Video: When Internet Shutdowns Backfire The internet shutdown has certainly taken an enormous toll on the lives and livelihoods of even those not affected by the violence. More accountability, especially from those in power who like to impose bans, is warranted. Protesters hold up a banner during a rally in solidarity with the people of northeastern Manipur state in Ahmedabad, India, Sunday, July 23, 2023. (AP Photo)Listen to this article Your browser does not support the audio element.

Historically, punishment has proven to be the greatest deterrent to crime. Evidence of a criminal offense is crucial to the imposition of a penalty. Therefore, the fear of being caught on camera can deter even the most feared criminal from committing the most heinous acts. Internet shutdowns need to be seen in this context, particularly in a region stricken by violence: a blanket ban gives a perpetrator a sense of impunity, that his targets are fair game with no surveillance mechanisms whatsoever.

Manipur teaches us more, as previous cases of bloody violence in India and elsewhere have taught us. The state’s wanton killings and the use of gang rape as a weapon to spread a reign of terror came to light only very late. It took a May 4 video of two Kuki women being stripped and taken away by a large group of male members of the rival Meitei community for the government to wake up and scream national disgrace. It proves the power of technology and its prudent use. This author and several others who had visited the state had warned the government about the brutality in the northeastern state, but were not taken seriously. The central government remained silent in the face of mounting evidence of atrocities and omissions by the government and deployed armed forces in the state.

But the power of the internet and cameras is so irresistible that our leaders are now forced to condemn the horrific incident after the horrific video went viral. Still, the overall government response at the center is the Twitter equivalent of a #hushup campaign. They are ashamed of their inactivity and indifference and want to sweep things under the rug. Despite pleas from the fact-finding teams who took the risk of visiting the state, the government appeared to be in top form, as if everything was under control. The outrage sparked by the video captured 79 days ago provided the true picture of what was happening in the state. Although what has been publicly available so far is just the tip of the iceberg, more and more people have realized that the Internet enables transparency and therefore accountability. Both central and state governments assumed that shutting down the internet was the antidote to curbing the spread of violence. They have been proven terribly wrong. Had this video, which is now widely circulated, had surfaced on the day it happened, it might have prompted the government to act quickly rather than sit by and let the wounds fester. Regrettably, even now, statements from the Center’s highest levels of power do not indicate an admission of guilt and gross administrative incompetence. They are busy calling it a shame for the nation to shirk responsibility.

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We all know that technology has its limitations and dangers, but relying on the futility of shutting down the internet to curb violence exposes the one-dimensional approach of this government, which has often been warned against such a move.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology, of which this author is a member, deliberated extensively several years ago on the issue of frequent Internet disconnections. On 1 December 2021, the Standing Committee submitted its report on the “Suspension of telecom services/internet and its impact” to Parliament, recommending a wide range of measures to be taken by the Department for Telecom and the Home Office, including a revision of the regulations, oversight mechanisms, transparency and the need for consultation with stakeholders. But the ministries have shown a cavalier attitude in implementing these recommendations.

The parliamentary standing committee was appalled to find that none of the ministries had reports of internet shutdowns in various locations across the country. It also found that despite a new temporary suspension of telecommunications services (Public Emergency and Public Safety Rules, 2017), Section 144 CrPC shutdowns have also been put into effect, requiring the approval of an official as low-ranking as a tahsildar. The Telecoms Rules issued in 2017 did not contain a reference to Section 144 of the CrPC.

The Standing Communications Committee expressed its displeasure with the negative attitude of the ministries in implementing its earlier recommendations and submitted its action report to Parliament on 9 February 2023. Recommendations included the establishment of a due process for requesting internet shutdowns, the establishment of a review committee with eminent figures including judges as members, the development of a unified set of standard operating procedures and guidelines, and most importantly, the maintenance of a central database for such shutdowns. These recommendations stressed that government and public authorities should be held accountable for internet shutdowns.

In addition to the Standing Committee, the Supreme Court and various higher courts have also emphasized the importance of the Internet and issued directives and directives in a number of judgments. Landmark rulings, including the notable Supreme Court ruling in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India (2020), have profoundly underscored the paramount importance of the internet. In the Anuradha Bhasin judgment, the Supreme Court issued detailed guidelines and categorically proclaimed that freedom of speech and expression, as well as the freedom to practice any profession, trade, business or profession via the internet enjoy constitutional protections under Article 19(1)(a) and Article 19(1)(g). But every single one of them has been disregarded by different governments.

Several people, including this author, had warned of the impact of shutting down the internet on economies that now rely much more heavily on it for services and business purposes. The cost of such a shutdown is enormous and a crime against humanity.

Industry sources are cautiously suggesting that there has been a staggering loss of almost Rs 40,000 billion over the past three years due to more than 16,000 hours of internet suspensions across the country. Equally important is to note that the impacts go far beyond economic spheres and have the potential to affect even everyday activities. The loss on the business front is palpable, but the devastating impact on education, information, health, entertainment and other aspects of life is not mentioned at all in official reports.

While in the case of Manipur it is unwise to assume that constant acts of violence would have put the government into action mode, the shutdown of the internet has certainly taken an enormous toll on the lives and livelihoods of even those not affected by the violence. More accountability is warranted, especially from those in power who like to impose bans on Internet services. All the evidence suggests that such whimsical measures are counterproductive and that there is no substitute for government transparency.

The author is a CPM Rajya Sabha MP. He was recently in Manipur to visit people affected by violence.

First published on: 07/24/2023 at 11:51 AM IST