Manipur Internet Shutdown: Developments before the Manipur High Court

Note: This post will be updated as and when new developments occur in the petitions before the Manipur HC

30 June, 2023
5 min read

Tl;dr

Today marks 60 days of Manipur’s ongoing state-wide internet shutdown. The Manipur High Court is hearing a series of petitions challenging the ongoing internet suspension. On June 6, 2023, the HC issued notice in the petitions, and on June 16, it directed internet service providers (ISPs)  to submit an affidavit on the possibility of provision of limited internet services by blocking social media websites. The HC noted that while blocking social media websites could be a solution, virtual private networks (VPN) could still be used to access them. ISPs were directed to assess the feasibility of blocking VPNs. By Order dated  June 27, 2023, the HC formed a 12-member Committee with the mandate to investigate the feasibility of limited internet services by blocking social media websites and VPNs before the next date of hearing. The HC also directed the Petitioners to provide a list of centres hosting computer-based exams like NEET, CUET, etc. in order for the State Govt. to arrange internet services at these locations. The next date of hearing is July 6, 2023.

Background

By Order dated May 3, 2023 (“May 3 Order”), the Commissioner (Home) of Manipur suspended mobile data services throughout Manipur for a period of 5 days. The reason cited in the May 3 Order was that it intended to “thwart the design and activities of anti-national and anti-social elements… by stopping the spread of disinformation and false rumours, through various social media platform such as Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. on mobile phone”. On May 4, 2023 (“May 4 Order”), this suspension was extended to a blanket ban on all internet services, including broadband and VSAT. The ongoing internet shutdown is now being enforced through templatised orders that are being issued every 5 days, with the latest one being issued on June 25, 2023.

With this Order, the internet shutdown in Manipur has effectively continued for 60 days and has assumed the colour of an indefinite nature. This is contrary to the Supreme Court of India's (SC) ruling in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, which prohibits indefinite suspension of internet services, and restricts such suspensions both geographically and temporally.

Impact of the Internet Shutdown on the Residents of Manipur

The suspension of internet services in Manipur, that too indefinitely, has severely impacted access to government services, education, business, communication, access to medical services and the dissemination of crucial information.

There has been a substantial disruption of  “normal life” for Manipur’s residents – parents and children are unable to contact each other; eviction of students unable to pay rent due to parents’ inability to send money online; inability to apply for examinations due to no access to websites; working professionals unable to perform work-related tasks; and a general economic loss for most citizens. Reports suggest that the overall economic loss to the State consists of thousands of jobs and many millions of dollars.

Proceedings before the Manipur High Court

In the wake of the continuing suspension of the internet, a series of petitions challenging the blanket internet suspension came to be filed before the Manipur High Court. These were listed for the first time on May 20, 2023, and the HC issued notice in the petitions on May 31, 2023.

Subsequently, on June 16, 2023, the HC directed ISPs, Vodafone, Idea, Jio, BSNL and Airtel to file affidavits elaborating if it would be feasible to provide limited internet services by “blocking social media websites” so as to safeguard the concerns of the State Government to “maintain law and order” (paragraph 5). In light of the challenges faced by the public, particularly the ongoing student admission process within the State, and to enable the public to carry out “surgent and essential services”, the HC also directed the State Government to resume partial internet services for the public at certain designated places under the control of State authorities (paragraph 7).

By Order dated June 23, 2023, the HC recorded that a meeting was held on June 7, 2023, chaired by the Chief Secretary of the Government of Manipur. It included officials from ISPs and the State Government. It is stated during the meeting, the ISPs made the following submissions:

  1. Limited internet service could be provided to the public by blocking social media websites for broadband internet services. However, there would be technical difficulty as there was a possibility of consumers accessing social media websites using readily available VPNs.
  2. Internet services could be provided to a specific set of consumers/public by whitelisting particular mobile numbers or broadband connections.

In light of the above, the HC issued the following directions (paragraph 4):

  1. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), National Informatics Centre (NIC), Manipur, Department of Information Technology (DIT), Manipur and all mobile service providers were impleaded as Respondents.
  2. MeitY and NIC, Manipur, were directed to verify “whether there is any known list of Virtual Private Network servers presently available/ operating and to submit a list of such VPN servers”. NIC, Manipur and DIT, Manipur, were further directed to “submit a team of technical experts” to identify the presently operating/ available VPNs. Mobile service providers were directed to submit a report on the feasibility of blocking VPNs.

By way of the latest order dated June 27, 2023, the HC has constituted a 12-member committee to explore the possibility of providing “limited internet services”, endowing it with the following mandate (paragraph 6):


The HC has sought answers from the 12-member Committee for the following three questions before the next date of hearing (paragraph 7):

  1. Whether it would be feasible to provide “limited internet services…by blocking the social media websites/platforms” in order to mitigate the hardship faced by the public on account of the total ban on internet services;
  2. Whether third-party VPN services can be blocked in the State so that internet access is truly “limited”; and
  3. Whether there is “[a]ny other way…for providing limited internet service…by blocking the Social Media Websites/platforms”.

The HC has also directed the Petitioners to submit a representation to the Secretary (Home), Government of Manipur, with the names of institutions/centres where computer-based exams like NEET, CUET, etc., are being held in order for the State Government to arrange internet services at those centres so that the ongoing admission processes are not hindered.

UPDATE:

On July 6th, 2023, the Manipur HC noted that furthre hearing and discussion was required with the Counsel for the parties and the members of Committee. Accordingly, they have listed the matter for today, i.e. July 7th, 2023 in Judges Chambers. All the members of the Committee have been requested to be present personally before the Court, along with Commissioner/Secretary (Home), Government of Manipur and Commissioner/Secretary (IT), Government of Manipur.

Additionally, the Commissioner/Secretary (Home), Government of Manipur, has been directed to find out the total number of mobile numbers and broadband connections which have been whitelisted by the State Government so far.
The matter will now be heard on July 7th, 2023, in Judges Chambers.

  1. IFF statement on the ongoing digital rights violations as Manipur's indefinite internet shutdown crosses 50 days (link)
  2. Order of the Manipur High Court dated June 16, 2023 (link)
  3. Order of the Manipur High Court dated June 23, 2023 (link)
  4. Order of the Manipur High Court dated June 27, 2023 (link)
  5. Order of the Manipur High Court dated July 6, 2023 (link)
  6. Joint Report by IFF and HRW titled “No Internet Means No Work, No Pay, No Food - Internet Shutdowns Deny Access to Basic Rights in “Digital India (link)
  7. IFF wrote a letter dated June 23, 2023, addressed to the Chief Secretary, Government of Manipur and other authorities amidst the internet shutdown (link)

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