Internet suspension Credit: File image

Guwahati: Apprehending any untoward incident due to the massive opposition of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, the Manipur government had ordered suspension of internet services starting from February 12. However, the services were resumed following the failure of the Centre to place the contentious Bill on the floor of the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday.

The government gag on Internet services came just after a day after a police offensive against women protesters at the iconic Ima Keithal (Mothers’ Market) in Imphal.

Not just in Manipur, message of disruption of Internet services from Reliance Jio also popped up on the mobile phones of customers in Tripura saying, “As per government instructions, Internet services are being stopped in your area till 16th February, 2019.”

A screenshot of a message from the Reliance Jio network intimating users in Tripura about the suspension of Internet services

Manipur government received widespread criticism for curbing Internet services, with many calling it a dictatorial measure to gag the voices of the protesting citizens.

However, this is not the first time the Centre has suspended Internet services in the region, leave alone Manipur.

Gag orders

Manipur has the dubious distinction of the highest number of Internet shutdowns, five times since 2015. The total instances of Internet services in the Northeast during the corresponding time period was at least 19 when the state government clamped down upon “the freedom of speech and expression”. Of these 19 instances, Meghalaya and Tripura had Internet services suspended four times, while Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam governments disrupted the digital services (except voice and text messages) thrice, twice and once, respectively.

According to Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), a non-profit legal services organisation to protect freedom in the digital world, since 2015 Indian government had internet services suspended at least 269 times. This amounts 80% of all internet shutdowns across South Asia.

According to a UNESCO report published last year, India had lost at least 16,000 hours due to Internet shutdowns and the cost or loss incurred following the loss of hours amounting to a mammoth $3 Billion. That is nearly about a loss of $ 1,80,000 on an average per hour in last five years. Literally, the amount lost due to Internet shutdowns would make up to 40% of India’s National Employment Guarantee Scheme’s budget.

While debate can be deliberated regarding the suspensions of Internet services but there is no denial that the losses incurred hits the public and economy hard.

Debates related to such shutdowns have examples of how a picture delivered much later can impact upon people’s psyche even after government agencies have contained the violent situation and how such crack down actually infringes the right to freedom of speech and expression. But what is striking is the fact that the pattern and the circumstances under which internet services are shut down have to be interrogated critically.

When and why Internet was shut down in NE?

The SFLC defines Internet shutdown as, “a government-imposed disablement of access to the Internet as a whole within one or more localities for any duration of time.”

And, governments from Northeast have issued ‘precautionary’ measures to avoid unwanted situations which included elements resembling the SFLC definition.

The culture of banning internet in Northeast started in 2015, on September 2 to be precise, following the violence in Churachandpur district. The otherwise daily feature of life in conflict-ridden Kashmir, Internet shutdown came as a surprise to the people of Manipur.

This was followed by another Internet suspension after more than a year on December 18, 2016 after economic blockade by United Naga Council (UNC) created law-and-order situation prompting district magistrate to issue order suspending the Internet services in West and East Imphal for 12 days.

After coming to power in 2017, the N Biren Singh government had to issue notifications twice 2018 to suspend Internet accessibility, first on July 20 for five days after protests broke out in Manipur demanding the ouster of Manipur University vice-chancellor. Again, on September 21, Internet services were cut down following massive agitations against the arrest of eight students.

In Meghalaya, the first Internet suspension was made on October 11, 2015 for 24 hours to prevent the spread of inflammatory messages during voting period in Garo Hills Autonomous Districts Councils (GHADC) elections.

The state had to suspend Internet thrice in 2018 only on June 1, 8, and 18, mostly following public protests.

Tripura also followed similar strategy, of what can be called a measure, to curb public protests, and suspended Internet services four times starting in 2017.

Diktat from the Manipur administration was not limited to internet shutdown only. A district magistrate from the state issued a notification prohibiting cable TV operators from transmitting protest of agitation/protest indefinitely from February 11. The then Left Front government in the state, on July 20, 2017, restricted Internet access for 14 hours to prevent “Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT) from spreading propaganda following 11-day blockade demanding separate Tipraland.”

Again on September 21, 2017, the state government shut down Internet after a journalist was killed while he was covering a clash between two groups. Following the lynching of three persons on rumours internet accessibility was suspended on July 28, 2018 for three days. The latest incident of blocking internet in Tripura was on January 8 this year after at least seven protesters sustained bullet injuries for protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. It may be noted that on that day, the BJP-led government got the Bill passed in Lok Sabha.

Nagaland, on the other hand, had suspended internet twice in 2017 i. e on January 19 and 30 (for 11 days), for clashes between groups. Earlier on March 7, 2015 Internet was shut down for 48 hours after a lynching video surfaced on social media.

In Arunachal Pradesh, Internet services were disrupted for two days on August 10, 2016 after the death of former chief minister Kalikho Pul. On July 29, 2018, Internet was shut down between 10 am to 12 noon and 2 pm and 4 pm to conduct free and fair Arunachal Pradesh Public Service Commission (APPSC) preliminary examination.

Internet services in Assam were shut down for two days after the lynching of two men in their 30s in Karbi Anglong.

In most of the cases the government had suspended internet service after law and situation had been deteriorated.

With such losses of hours to Internet services, the monetary losses incurred in the states must have been huge. Apart from that, this loss certainly amounts to curtailment of freedom to speech and expression.

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