Sanjeev Ahluwalia | The sounds of a silent Internet in Manipur

Manipur is a leader in Internet access. 44.8 per cent of Manipuri women and 73.9 per cent of Manipuri men have access to the Internet.

Update: 2023-06-11 18:45 GMT
People at a medical camp organised by Army, in an area of Manipur. (PTI Photo)

It is incongruous for a country which is aiming for global digital primacy to also figure at the top of a list of governments which shut down the Internet at the drop of a hat. According to the data from Accessnow, a website dedicated to preserving access to the Internet, India has shut down the Internet 33 times so far this year, the most globally. Last year was no different, with 84 shutdowns, again the highest globally. The most recent case is from Manipur, where access to the Internet has been withdrawn for over a month now.

Some of this is a consequence of India being the country with the largest population in the world. The second largest, China, had one shutdown this year. But that may not be a fair comparison. In China, the Internet is so fiercely regulated that it is mostly a forum for compliant behaviour, not the free exchange of news and views. There is less need to shut down an “unfree” Internet than one which allows near total freedom for uploading and downloading content, like in India.

The second reason why the number of shutdowns is not a good proxy for lazy authoritarianism is that, of the 33 cases of Internet shutdowns this year, not a single one withdrew access rights for all 1.4 billion people in this country. Shutdowns are local and restricted to areas where violence erupted over unresolved local issues. In short, the data overstates the case for there being a higher propensity to withdraw Internet access in India, once the population and spatial spread are factored in.

In the most recent case of Manipur, the Kuki, a hill dwelling mostly Christian tribe, resent a Manipur high court directive to the Government of Manipur to consider including the plains dwelling, dominant, Hindu Meitei in the Scheduled Tribes list. Doing so would give them access to the tribal land in the hills. Hence the Kuki angst.

Third, shutting down the Internet is often a panicked response by the the local administration, just to press all the right buttons to show that they did everything possible to contain the violence. Often, this can also be as the local police are not capacitated to deal with outbreaks of violence or because the root cause of violence remains unattended and unresolved, giving rise to a frozen conflict.

Also, to be fair, given the size of India, it takes time for the security forces to get enough boots on the ground for the local administration to feel secure about its own ability to keep the peace. In 2008, while Mumbai burned in terrorist attacks, it took more than a day to airlift the elite National Security Guard took to the Taj Mahal Hotel at the Gateway of India from their base near New Delhi. Now the NSG has a regional hub in Mumbai.

There are undersides to cutting off the Internet. It drives subversion underground, making it much harder to be tracked, analysed and then countered. After all, telephone services remain available even though Internet access is banned. Calls or messaging can replace WhatsApp, which is probably what the security forces want to achieve, since tapping into phone services is a local matter while tapping into encrypted messages requires adopting a far more circumspect route.

Snapping Internet access does however disable virulent social media communication aimed at spreading misinformation or targeted to create fear and insecurity amongst a targeted community.

But just as surely, it also cuts off access to sane community voices, bipartisan religious leaders and respected community stalwarts to convey soothing messages of reassurance. It also reduces the reach of government communication aimed at restoring calm.

It is tough to define a litmus test for checking whether use of an internet “kill switch” is indeed the best response in a situation of violent social conflict. The context matters. And this can only be judged by the police officer on the ground given the rapid pace at which social unrest spreads.

Manipur is a leader in Internet access. 44.8 per cent of Manipuri women and 73.9 per cent of Manipuri men have access to the Internet. This makes it the third best access for women in the Northeast after Mizoram (68 per cent) and Nagaland (49 per cent), and the second-best access for men after Mizoram (79.7 per cent). It is also telling of the strides made by the Northeast in recent years that Internet access is generally better than in many larger states in India, including Assam, which remains a laggard at 28.2 per cent for women and 42.3 per cent for men. The average for India is 33.3 per cent for women and 57.1 per cent for men.

Internet access is the passport to many vital social and familial functions for the 625 million active Internet users in the country. Withdrawing access disrupts travel plans, online tutorials, remote work assignments, online medical assistance, online shopping, and the sense of well-being which comes from being instantly in visual contact with friends and loved ones anywhere in the world. Most recently, upmarket sanitaryware companies offer online audio emergency assistance to fix the leak in your bathroom faucet!

The website, which analyses the cost of Internet shutdowns across the globe, estimates that these disruptions cost the world $5.62 billion in 2021, up 40 per cent for the previous year. Myanmar was the worst impacted ($2.8 billion), followed by Nigeria ($1.45 billion) and India ($583 million). Cost-benefit assessments, however, rarely tell the full story. The November 2016 demonetisation and the withdrawal of Rs 2,000 notes this year have shaken the faith of the public in India’s currency. In the context of interruptible Internet services, the dampening spillover and the unintended consequences on

Digital India can only be imagined.

Just consider: Will “Digi Yatra” -- the all-new government-sponsored facial recognition app -- ever gain acceptance if users are not assured of universal Internet access? Many people no longer keep bank passbooks. Their personal accounts are accessed via a banking app on their phones and instantly retrievable 24x7. Imagine trying to get admitted into a hospital for emergency care without the ability to pay the admission fee online via UPI or without the ability to access your “Digilocker” where your insurance policy is “safely” stored.

A few years ago, Internet warriors in India were outraged at Facebook’s attempt to market a limited access free account offering curated Internet access. Decrying the offering as a walled garden, they opposed subverting the principle of unrestricted access to the entire Internet. The garden remains unwalled, but sadly frequently inaccessible now. This too deserves thought.


Similar News