In Manipur, even as the ethnic violence continues unabated, information has been a major casualty. Journalist Ninglun Hanghal, told Free Speech Collective that the scale of violence was unimaginable and the Internet shutdown has contributed to peoples’ misery as it crippled communication and disrupted lives.
The fragile inter-community dynamics were violently disrupted on May 3, following a ‘Solidarity March’ called by the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur (ATSUM) in all hill-districts of the state, which saw wide participation. The march was a protest against the direction by the Manipur High Court to the state government to submit a recommendation to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs on the question of including Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list.
The High Court order triggered long-standing conflicts between the predominantly Valley-residing Meiteis and the Kuki-Chin hill tribes regarding land, economic alienation and lack of political representation. What seems to have been added to the potent mix is another dangerous element: communal polarization, with the vandalization and torching places of worship.
Hanghal, who managed to get internet connectivity after nearly a month and travelled from Lamka to Aizawl after a 14-hour journey, said, “I couldn’t imagine such a level of violence and its magnitude.” Barely a few days ago, journalists covering the violence were beaten up by security forces. Several journalists were not allowed access to travel to Churachandpur from Imphal. Even the Eastmojo team had to escape via Aizawl in Mizoram, she said. With flight tickets prohibitive, people had to try every available means of transport, often putting their lives at risk as the violence raged on.
On April 30, the Imphal based Niglun Hanghal travelled to Lamka in Churachandpur for her sister’s
wedding. She was stranded there when the trouble broke out on May 3. A residence neighbouring her house was burnt. It was impossible to move out. Her husband, stranded in Imphal, managed to reach Kohima on May 8.
As she says, there were no newspapers in the district from May 4 and the mobile phone, which would ordinarily be a source of information, was just a dud! Even recharging the phone needs to be done from outside the state! Stranded people were evacuated around May 7-9 and the citizens had to depend on security forces and camps for their safety and survival.
All India Radio, another source of information, even if from government authorities, was sketchy. The AIR tribal program went off air because the staff were not available. They have to vacate Imphal.
Little things that one would ordinarily take for granted became a major logistical nightmare. She said, “It was so irritating when our BSNL bill message came! as if we can pay !!! We kept getting reminders and reminders on messages and people had to ask their friends or relatives outside Manipur to pay their bills or recharge their phones.”
On May 3, 2023, when the rest of the world was celebrating World Press Freedom Day, the Manipur government imposed a total shutdown on all mobile internet service for five days. A day later, on May 4, broadband services were also blocked for five days. The suspension of internet services continues till date.
The shutdown of internet services, the government notification said, was a “preventive” measure, so as to ensure that the law and order situation doesn’t worsen in the State. However, the violence has continued unabated. Over the last 24 hours, ten people have been killed. According to reports, the government’s own figures updated only till May 14, gives the figures of those killed at 73!
According to the internet shutdown tracker of the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC.In), Internet services in the state were first shut down on April 27,2023, in response to a bandh call by the Indigenous People’s Front (IPF) on April 28, 2023, to protest the government’s proposed land and forest survey.
On May 18, the All Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) and Editors Guild Manipur (EGM) had submitted a letter to the Chief Minister N Biren Singh to demand that the ban on internet services be lifted. The letter said that print media houses could not procure newsprint due to the blockade of the National Highways of Manipur. The organisations pointed out that Internet service was available at the Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) and the Manipur Press Club. If the situation continued, they feared they would have to stop work altogether.
This would affect the free flow of information, journalists said.
On May 22, three journalists were assaulted by security forces while covering conflict in Imphal,
the capital of the state. The journalists, Soram Inaoba and Nongthombam Johnson of Mami TV and Brahmacharimayum Dayananda of news agency ANI, were standing near a building New
Checkon area of the capital Imphal that was on fire, when security forces reportedly hit them with
According to a press statement by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), security for
alleged the three had pelted stones at one of their Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). The
journalists, however, claimed they were waving the drone away, as it had come too close to them.
Local media reported that all three had clearly displayed identity cards and press jackets, but they
The Internet shutdown has hit students too, disrupting year or semester-end exams, filling
admission forms online or processing job or course applications. As this report in Eastmojo says, even payment of fees for courses and hostel accommodation is a problem for students.
As in Kashmir, when the unprecedented communication post the abrogation of Art 370 in August
2019, the Internet shutdown has only worsened the situation, In Manipur, law and order continues
to spiral out of control. While there are several reports of the deleterious effect of prolonged
shutdown of the Internet on the economy, there is little evidence that a shutdown helps curb
violence or curb misinformation. Manipur’s tragic situation is a classic example.