Manipur is once again reeling under an internet shutdown. After 142 days, the State Government in Manipur finally lifted a total internet shutdown that had been imposed since May 3rd, 2023. However, this relief lasted for a period of only 3 days, with the State suspending mobile internet services once again for a period of 5 days, eerily reminiscent of the last 3 months. This article will map out what has been one of the longest ever internet shutdowns ever imposed in India and present an analysis of the recurring extensions to what was meant to be a 5-day long internet shutdown. First imposed state-wide on 3rd May, the shutdown was finally lifted in totality on 23rd September, before mobile internet was suspended once again on 26th September and has continued to be so till 16th, October. Here, the timeline of the internet shutdown will be traced, including the extensions, legal challenges raised, partial unblocking, and eventual total lifting of the shutdown orders.
The 142 day internet shutdown in Manipur shows the extent to which the internet has become a part of our life, becoming inextricably linked with the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19, and the Right to Life under Article 21.
Our economy, livelihood, education system, and communication are affected by the lack of access to the internet. This lack of access plays out in the inability to pay rent, the inability to access online education resources, the inability to register for exams, and the inability to even conduct ones job.
Since May 3rd, Manipur has been reeling under an unprecedented internet shutdown which has affected citizens every facet of their lives. The districts of Churachandpur and Pherzawl were shut down even longer, with the first internet shutdown in the current spate of violence being imposed on 28th April, 2023. This is the longest shutdown imposed in the North-East, the longest shutdown in 2023, and the longest shutdown outside of the State of Kashmir in India. The last time an entire State was shutdown in India was earlier in 2023, when the State of Punjab was subjected to a total internet shutdown for a period of 5 days.
A stringent measure adopted by the Government, internet shutdowns have turned into an escape mechanism of sorts, adopted by the government to control situations of public emergency. However, the irony about Internet shutdowns is that public safety and public emergency the grounds on which internet shutdowns are ordered to justify the suspension of telecom and internet services in an area, are not defined under Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act. This gives unlimited power to the government to issue orders of blanket bans on the Internet services even for routine policing and administrative purposes, thereby causing inconvenience to the general public.
Internet shutdowns were declared a violation of the freedom of expression in Anuradha Basin vs Union of India by the Supreme Court of India. However, we have seen repeated violations of this judgment, with Orders not being published, Review Committees not being set up, and Orders for shutdowns being disproportionate to the situations for which they have been imposed. Courts so far have been silent on the continuous violation of this judgement.
This case study will map out the legal challenges that were raised against the imposition of the internet shutdown, the partial lifting of the curbs by the State, and the interim reliefs provided to the populace.
Manipur High Court- Challenge against the internet shutdown
The fact that an internet shutdown was able to stop even the wheel of justice for two entire months is a point of particular concern in the case of Manipur. After a spate of hearings, the High Court of Manipur, in its Order on the 7th of July directed the Government of Manipur to restore the internet in a limited fashion. However, the Home Ministry of Manipur disagreed with the direction of complete restoration of fibre internet and requested time to do pilot tests.
At the outset, it is important to note that internet shutdowns disproportionately impact people, and are a tool that must be used sparingly. It has been reiterated by SFLC.in and other experts that the suspension of Internet services across States is bound to impact livelihood, education and health care for lakhs of people, as around 96 percent of the population in India depends on mobile internet services for a variety of uses. Apart from this, businesses rely on broadband services to provide their services, manage logistics, and access their bank accounts.
The expansion of the society and its structures into the digital realm has warranted a protection of rights in this new dimension as well. This has been judicially recognized in Faheema Shirin R.K. vs The State of Kerala and Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India, by the Honourable High Court of Kerala, and the Supreme Court of India has recognised that the exercise of certain fundamental rights is contingent on access to internet. More specifically, in Faheema Shirin, it was held that restricting access to internet violated students’ rights to access information under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, and their rights to education and privacy under Article 19(1)(g). Arbitrary and disproportionate internet shutdowns violate these, and several other rights.
Further, in Anuradha Bhasin, the Court observed that
“we think it necessary to reiterate that complete broad suspension of telecom services, be it the Internet or otherwise, being a drastic measure, must be considered by the State only if ‘necessary’ and ‘unavoidable’.”
The Manipur internet shutdowns must be analysed in the light of the same. It is important to note that in order to offset the economic losses caused by shutdowns, and to enable a path for communication, and to ensure an uninterrupted flow of information and news to the public, internet services had been made available to state and national media houses through SWAN under the Dept. of Information Technology. Network connections were also provided to Manipur Press Club through the DIT. Further, certain facilitation centres were opened by the Government at different locations to allow candidates of competitive examinations to download their admit cards or print them. Temporary centres were also opened during working hours for use by the public. However, these Centres were present only in certain areas of Imphal, and not the entire State of Manipur. Indeed, as was noted by one Journalist-
“The primary concern that I faced as a journalist was the inability to do my job at all due to lack of access to the internet. As someone who doesn’t have access to Wi-Fi, I lost access to the internet on the 3rd of May. During my job, while we could record videos and contact sources, the only way we could communicate this to our head office was through SMS. Since SMS has a short word limit, I had to sit and type multiple messages to send one single story. It was only once we left the State that we regained access to the internet. While in Manipur, there were certain government offices that still had internet connectivity. However, because multiple people were connected to the same singular network, it took a long time to even download a simple press release. The lack of access to internet has therefore made it very difficult for me to do my job effectively.”
Access to the internet was fettered by geographical as well as technical issues.
There exist some prevalent issues with the shutdown in and of itself. While shutdowns are meant to ostensibly ensure public order and public safety, the Manipur shutdown is a textbook case as to how shutdowns only exacerbate harms. Violence and conflict in the State continued repeatedly through the last 140 days, despite the total internet shutdown. This raises a serious question on the efficacy of shutting down the internet, especially when the action in question restricts an entire catena of citizen rights.
When the Manipur HC heard the matter of the internet shutdown, it passed an Order with the following directions-
- Limited Internet Service: All service providers operating in Manipur may be allowed to provide internet service to a restricted number of specially identified and whitelisted mobile numbers. These numbers will be provided by the Home Department of the Government of Manipur and the internet service will be exclusive to the identified mobile numbers, with no possibility of leakage or unauthorized access.
- Safeguards for Broadband Connections: Internet service through broadband connections, including Internet Lease Line (ILL) and Fibre To The Home (FTTH), can be provided with certain safeguards in place. These safeguards include dedicated lease lines or FTTH lines with static IP, banning of Wi-Fi/hotspots, MAC binding at the system level or router, blocking of social media websites and VPNs, removal of existing VPN software, and prohibiting installation of new software without authorization. Physical monitoring by the concerned authorities is also enforced.
- In respect of whitelisting mobile phone numbers, the State Government was directed to carry out a physical trial to find out the feasibility of providing internet service to the whitelisted mobile phones without jeopardizing the security of the State and the life and property of citizens, and after such verification, a detailed report was asked to be submitted before the Court on the next date of hearing.
This Order, while welcome, raises a new host of questions to be answered. For limited internet services to be provided, the Court asks for a whitelist of numbers to be created. There is no direction on how these numbers will be identified, what the metrics for whitelisting are, and whether there is a process to apply for whitelisting in case ones mobile number is not added to the initial whitelist. Further, there has been no intelligible differentia provided in the selection process, which could be a violation of Article 14.
Secondly, while internet services through broadband connections are allowed with safeguards, the Court fails to make the distinction that only around 4% of the population has access to broadband services. A whopping 96% of Indians are served only through mobile internet, and the whitelisting approach for the same therefore impacts a far larger chunk of the population. It is only businesses and the rich who can afford a broadband connection in the first place. Further, the safeguards which have been imposed are problematic too. These include banning of Wi-Fi/hotspots, MAC binding at the system level or router, blocking of social media websites and VPNs, removal of existing VPN software, and prohibiting installation of new software without authorization. Essentially, these mean that it would be only large businesses that would be utilizing broadband services for their needs, rather than common citizens using it for their daily affairs. Blocking of VPN’s and social media is highly problematic as well. The very fact that the Court mentions physical monitoring of these broadband connections highlights the fact that they are numerically small enough to make physical checks possible in the first place.
The issue of access to the internet is not one that can be taken lightly. There needs to be extensive deliberation before a decision to whitelist a number, or block a particular platform is taken. Ring-fencing the internet is not the solution to a law and order issue, and the concerns of the State ring hollow when situations of violence occur even in the presence of an internet shutdown.
Partial Lifting of the Internet Shutdown
In Manipur, both mobile internet, as well as broadband internet services have been cut off for the general population of the State, leading to a position of acute hardship and suffering. After 83 days of incessant internet shutdowns, the Manipur Home Department in an Order finally allowed for some (conditional) relief to the public.
Citing the suffering of common folk, the order lifted the shutdown of broadband services on the fulfillment of certain conditions, while continuing to enforce the mobile internet shutdown. The Order detailed that ‘the internet ban had affected important offices/ institutions, cohort of people on work from home basis, chartered Accountant firms, Lawyers, Health facilities, refueling centers, recharging of electricity/ mobile, booking for LPG, educational institutions, Taxation related offices, other online based citizen centric services etc. Apart from this, students, gig workers, and small businesses faced tremendous difficulties.
The measure to provide relief for the citizenry is a welcome measure. However, it must be noted that only around 4% of all internet users access it through broadband internet services. 96% of Indian internet users use mobile internet, for which no relief has been granted yet.
Interestingly, the Order also has no end date, a clear violation of the principle established in Anuradha Bhasin vs UoI, which stated that an order suspending internet services indefinitely is impermissible under the Suspension Rules. All the orders previously issued in Manipur had a fixed time limit of 5 days, or 120 hours.
The conditions listed in the Order briefly state that physical monitoring will take place, TSPS and ISPs will be liable for certain compliance, and subscribers themselves will be punished if the terms are not complied with.
The Conditions are as follows:
- Connection will be only through static IP and that the subscriber concerned shall not accept any other connection other than allowed for the time being [TSP/ISP shall be held responsible for non-compliance of this condition];
- No Wi-Fi/ Hotspots shall be allowed from any of the routers and systems using the connection at any cost by the subscriber concerned;
- Media Access Control Address (MAC) binding at the system level or router shall be ensured with the help of ISP/TSP concerned;
- Blocking of social media websites and VPNS at the local level will be ensured by the subscriber concerned;
- Shall have to ensure removal of any existing VPN softwares from the system and not to install any new softwares/ VPN App by the subscriber concerned;
- Enforcing Physical Monitoring by subscriber concerned/the concerned authority/officials of checking violation of the terms and conditions specified;
- Changing of log in ID and Password for respective system on daily basis; and
- Will obey all orders/ Regulations regarding any change in the condition under which service is being allowed issued by the State Government from time to time by the subscriber concerned.
- Further, in the event of any violation, subscriber concerned will be liable to be punished as per provisions of relevant laws of the land in force and that I also agree to be fixed personally responsible for any leakage/ activities done by any Secondary user of internet, in case Wi-Fi Hotspot had been activated without approval of Home Department from my system/router.
- ISP shall ensure to obtain undertaking to the extent as explained above before giving any internet connection in the prescribed format without fail.
The fact that Static IP’s are the only ones permitted mean that very few subscribers will be able to access the internet. Static IP is usually only used by corporates, banks and their like, rather than individual consumers who rely on dynamic IPs assigned by ISPs. Further, the condition that no Wi-Fi or hotspots will be allowed translated to the fact that only those with laptops or computers in their offices will be able to access the internet. Phones will be unable to access the internet, making it impossible for people to utilize services if they are not in the vicinity of the router.
Second MAC binding at the system level could ensure that only recognized devices would be able to access the internet. The obligation here is placed on TSPs/ISPs to ensure compliance. This would mean that these service providers would have to keep a list of all permissible devices per router.
The order also details that the subscriber should ensure that social media websites are blocked, along with VPN’s. Further, subscribers will have to ensure the removal of any existing VPN software from the system and not to install any new software/ VPN App. This measure is not only hard to implement, but also overly restrictive. It places unreasonable burdens on consumers, and especially in the case of people who depend on social media for their livelihood, puts them in a situation where doing their job will land them in trouble. Apart from this, the order also states that users will have to change their login and passwords on a daily basis. This is overly prescriptive, and also an inconvenience to consumers.
The requirement of physical monitoring by authorities is equally improbable to implement. The presence of a condition like this points to the fact that there are numerically insignificant broadband connections which would fall under the ambit of the order. If not, it would be impossible for physical monitoring to take place.
The order suffers from many shortcomings. It is essentially granting relief to only 4% of the population which can afford to use broadband connections. The multiple conditions mentioned in the order are not easy to understand by the common public. Additionally, they are heavy on the user and telecom service providers. The order provides very minimal relief to minuscule part of the population. We would like to urge the State Government to revisit the order, lift the shutdown and ensure that internet is available to all the citizens of the state in a fair and transparent manner.
The State also partially lifted the mobile internet ban on 1st September, but only for a very small segment of the population. This was limited to only whitelisting certain mobile numbers including only Governmental Officers and Members of Parliament. This is an exceedingly small number, which provides no relief to the general populace that has been suffering since May. The onus is now on the Government to roll out this whitelisting scheme in a broader fashion, in order to enable access to the internet, and to eventually end the prolonged internet shutdown. This was finally actualized by the State Government on 23rd September, 2023, when the internet shutdown was finally totally lifted in the State.
Reversal of Position
On 26th September, 2023, the State reinstated a 5 day mobile internet shutdown up till the 1st of October. Only 3 days of uninterrupted access to the public was provided, before the internet was shut down again.
April 28, 2023
Section 144 was enforced, coupled with a five-day suspension of internet services in Churachandpur. Demonstrators and security personnel clashed, leading to the use of tear gas shells by the police to scatter the crowd.
May 3, 2023
Thousands rallied for the Tribal Solidarity March against Meiteis’ inclusion in the ST category, organized by ATSUM. Over 60,000 attended. Violence erupted in Torbung, Churachandpur. 11 injured, 2 casualties in Saikul, Kangpokpi. Security forces intervened, imposing mobile internet shutdown orders in eight districts.
May 4, 2023
Violence erupts in Imphal. Security forces, including Rapid Action Force, Army, CRPF, Assam Rifles, and state police, deployed to restore order. Shoot-at-sight order issued in extreme cases. Approximately 9,000 people rescued and sheltered; more being relocated to safer areas. Broadband internet suspended.
June 20, 2023
Manipur High Court orders limited internet access in state-controlled areas, potentially easing restrictions. The directive, in response to petitions against the ban imposed by CM Biren Singh, addresses public needs, especially in student admissions and essential services.
July 7, 2023
In the case of Aribam Dhananjoy Sharma @ Paojel Chaoba & ors. vs State of Manipur, the Court issued directives to alleviate public hardships resulting from the complete internet ban in the State. The order also aimed to uphold State security and safeguard the lives and properties of citizens.
July 17, 2023
Manipur Govt. seeks Supreme Court intervention in the Aribam Dhananjoy Sharma case. The Supreme Court, on July 17, denies appeal, directs Manipur to address High Court with implementation difficulties regarding internet order.
July 20, 2023
The Manipur High Court’s internet shutdown order was emphasized by the Supreme Court on July 20. It pointed out that the reporting of events has been severely hampered by the shutdown, rendering any meaningful response from other parts of the country impossible.
July 25, 2023
After 83 days of shutdown, the Government reinstated internet leased line and fiber-to-the-home broadband services, in response to the Manipur High Court’s order. However, mobile data and VPN services remained suspended, still rendering the situation akin to an internet blackout. With 96% of users relying on mobile data in India, only 4% having access to broadband, the blockade persists for the majority, infringing upon the constitutionally-protected rights of residents for over a hundred days.
August 5, 2023
ATSUM (All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur) enforces economic blockade in protest of unannounced amendments instead of a Bill that promised greater autonomy of the hill region, affecting supplies to Imphal valley. Five student leaders arrested for alleged conspiracy. Mobile internet remains suspended, prohibitory orders in place post-protests.
August 9, 2023
Despite the gradual return to normalcy, the State Government’s internet shutdown order, initially issued on May 3 and 4, 2023, has been automatically extended around 20 times, this trend continuing till the latest extension order passed on August 9, 2023.
August 12, 2023
The Manipur High Court, presided over by Justice Ahanthem Bimol Singh and Justice A Guneshwar Sharma, has directed the state government, led by Biren Singh, to explore options for reinstating mobile internet services for the public.
September 1, 2023
In compliance with the Manipur High Court’s directive, the state government has introduced a system for whitelisting mobile numbers to enable internet access. Previously, broadband services had been reinstated. An official order, endorsed by the Governor of Manipur, has authorized the second phase of mobile number whitelisting.
September 23, 2023
The 142 days long internet shutdown was finally lifted in Manipur. Internet fully restored in the State.
September 26, 2023
Mobile internet was suspended in Manipur for a period of 5 days once again, until 1st October. News of the deaths of 2 youngsters spurred the latest rounds of violence, resulting in another shutdown.
October 1, 2023
Mobile internet was suspended in Manipur for another 5 days again, until 6th October. The current order was brought under the apprehension that anti-social elements might use social media extensively for transmission of images, hate speech and videos to incite violence.
October 6, 2023
Mobile internet was suspended in Manipur for another 5 days again, till 11th October. Like the previous order, the new order was brought under the apprehension that anti-social elements might use social media extensively for transmission of images, hate speech and videos to incite violence.
October 11, 2023
Mobile internet was suspended in Manipur for another 5 days, till 16th October. The shutdown order was a result of state’s attempt to curb transmission of images, hate speech and videos to incite violence.
 Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India – 2020 SCC Online SC 25
 Y. Mangi Singh vs Union of India – PIL No. 24 of 2023
 2019 SCC OnLine Ker 2976
 AIR 2020 SC 1308