Burning in the Dark

As the riot began, on May 4, the Centre did what it has done time and time again when faced with internal conflict. It shut off the internet in Manipur.

The union government has the power to order telecom providers to stop providing fixed-line and mobile internet, using an emergency law. It did it 84 times in 2022 and 106 times in 2021, according to Access Now, a non-governmental organisa-tion that tracks internet disruptions.

Most of the shutdowns were in Jammu & Kashmir, but they have been applied across the country. In December 2019, internet shutdowns were imposed in parts of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Assam, and Meghalaya after protests over a proposed citizenship law that would have rendered hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Assam stateless. In January and February 2021, the internet was disrupted around Delhi, where farmers were protesting agricultural reforms. It was done with a view to create fissures in the historic peasant struggle.

The justification for these shutdowns is that it stops disinformation from spreading on social media and helps keep a lid on unrest. In May, in Manipur, the government said the blackout was “to thwart the design and activities of anti-national and anti-social elements and to maintain peace and communal harmony … by stopping the spread of misinformation and false rumours through various social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc…” But it didn’t work. Violence spread like wildfire while the security forces who are supposed to maintain law and order remained passive. Their calculated inaction had definitely tacit approval of the local government dominated by the Meiteis.

On the first day of the shutdown, a Meitei mob went on a rampage in Imphal, seeking out Kukis to attack. As the violence spread, two young Kuki women in their early twenties huddled in their room above a carwash, where they worked part time. But the mob found them. Witnesses told the women’s families that seven Meitei men barged into their room and locked the door from inside. For two hours, the door remained shut. People outside could hear the screams of the women, which became muffled with time. When the door opened, the two women were dead. The families are certain their daughters were raped before being murdered.

The violence between the two communities has spiraled. Nearly 4,000 weapons have reportedly been stolen from the police, according to local media. “How did the mob burn down the ambulance in police presence?” “What did the police do to protect people?” In truth police behaved in partisan way, allowing the Meiteis to do whatever they would like to do.

Today there is almost complete separation between the two communities, both of whom have their private militias protecting their territories. Kuki areas in Imphal are completely deserted. Meiteis in Kuki-dominated districts have been driven out of the hills---they are in relief camps.

 People have suffered economically as well. They don’t have money to donate. Had the internet been operational in Manipur, NGOs could have tapped donors from outside the state through social media, and raised money for medicines and other essentials.

In such a volatile atmosphere, shutting down communications doesn't stop misinformation. Rumours always spread fast in conflicts; blacking out the internet often just means that there’s no way to verify whether the accounts are genuine.

The violence in Manipur has ruptured communities and left families with no way back to their old lives.

On July 25, the government partially lifted the blackout, allowing some fixed-line connections back online—with restrictions. However, most people in the state rely on mobile internet. Manipur is still mostly in the dark. And while the violence has subsided as both sides stay within their territory, it hasn’t died out completely. In the border zones, shots still ring out. It’s still smouldering, and could burst back into flames at any time.


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Vol 56, No. 9, Aug 27 - Sep 2, 2023