Words precede violence. There were torrents of heated arguments, vilification and spewing of hatred against each other over social media and the baleful effects are violence, tragic loss of life, of trust, viewing with mutual suspicion and hatred, severing community relationship. Those who exchanged words end up exchanging blows and bullets.
On May 3, 2023 All Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) organised a Tribal Solidarity March in the hill districts of Manipur to protest against the Meitei’s demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) Status. When all hell broke loose, information as well as misinformation were circulated about the violence. The government of Manipur imposed a ban on the internet justifying that “…it has become necessary to take adequate measures to maintain law and order in public interest, by stopping the spread of disinformation and false rumours, through various social media platform such as Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc… ” The banning of the internet is still in effect to this day in the border areas where conflicts still persist.
Government has the tendency to overreach its long hand and meddle with our lives wherever and whenever possible without us inviting or asking to do so. It is shown in this ongoing conflict between the Kuki and the Meiteis in Manipur.
However, does the internet ban fulfill its purpose? Or does it have unintended negative consequences? Though the Manipur government may have good intentions, there are unintended consequences in various aspects of life. The banning of the internet done in the interest of public good cripples us. It backfires on the government itself. It has delayed much of the work not only of the citizens but also of the government officials. Not to mention about the hampering of communication.
Somehow, one way or the other, people try to find means to get access to the internet. Some by installing Broadband WIFI at home and offices. While those who use the Airtel service go to Mao Gate to obtain internet. By turning off their location and depending on how luck favours the people, the internet could last for a month, for a week, or for a day. Some of the villages in Manipur bordering Nagaland are able to connect to the internet.
The truth is, even when internet ban was imposed, most of the people in the Imphal Valley could get access through broadband WIFI. Of course, not everyone but those in the upper rung of the bureaucracy, who have ties with the top government officials could get access to the internet.
The government and top bureaucrats exempt themselves from the rules they impose on the citizens. How resoundingly true is George Orwell’s phrase that ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ Also, Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, seems to have great relevance both then and now, wherein the state acts as the BIG BROTHER monitoring every aspect of the citizens’ lives, including their thoughts.
The current BJP government in Manipur is strongly opposed to the imposition of economic blockade by the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), be it by the Meiteis, the Nagas or the Kukis. The bandh imposed by various civil societies paralyse the state as much as the ban on the internet imposed by the government.
Digital India and the banning of the internet is an oxymoron. The banning of the internet does not fulfill its intention. Crisis is an opportunity for some business to flourish as well as a possibility for exploitation. In some places where WIFI is offered to the public, an amount of Rs. 10 is charged for 10 minutes, Rs. 50 for an hour. When many people try to get access to the internet at once the internet gets slower, so you prolong your stay and usage of the internet.
How do people cope? During the initial days, people say that they can’t stay without the internet. Unintended consequences do not necessarily have to be negative, it makes people less hooked to smartphones. The price of installing wireless WIFI broadband varies, ranging from Rs. 10,000, while for some it costs Rs. 6000.
The witticism of Soviet dissidents that ‘there is no truth in the news and there is no news on truth’ still rings true to this day. What is sad is that it will take years to heal, to reconcile, to restore trust and build up relationships.
The freedom of expression, which we take for granted, can be snapped away easily. We could see the nibbling away of freedom, not whole of it at once but part by part. We give the government an inch and they will go for a mile. It calls us to think, how can we as citizens use social media responsibly. If not the government will continually intrude and meddle in our lives and nibble away the freedom, including the freedom of expression.
Is the banning of the internet a means to curb the disinformation and prevent hate speech or a smoke screen for censorship, to prevent the truth about the violence from being told outside the state, to the nation and to the world? Only when the video of the two Kuki ladies who were stripped naked and paraded naked on the street was released, there was a great uproar in the nation. Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi broke his silence. His silence speaks a lot – his utter indifference to the suffering of the people of Manipur.
Could it be worse if the internet was not banned– more violence, destruction, loss of life and misinformation? The fact is, the government of Manipur does not take effective measures to prevent violence, destruction and death. What is the point of continual banning of the internet, when a lot of people have and can access the Broadband WiFi? The students, teachers, businessmen, have experienced enough difficulties. It is as if to prove that pointlessness is the point.
We have experienced enough, in what it entails and what are the consequences that follow with the ban of internet. The irony of life is that sometimes we get what we don’t ask and don’t get what we ask.
Prime Minister’s Silence – Examining global incidents akin to Manipur’s situation, one is reminded of international episodes where internet bans fueled debates on government accountability and individual rights. The video depicting the two Kuki ladies prompted a national uproar, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s delayed response revealed a concerning indifference.
Delving deeper, we question whether the internet ban truly serves its purpose or acts as a smoke screen for censorship. The ban’s ongoing nature raises skepticism about its effectiveness in curbing violence, destruction, and misinformation.
The unintended consequences of Manipur’s internet ban reveal a complex interplay of government overreach, technological disparity, economic exploitation, and the quest for connectivity. The fragility of freedom in the digital age calls for a nuanced understanding of security measures and individual rights, especially in conflict-ridden regions.
Authored by Isaac Varay, PhD Scholar, (Tezpur University), Co-author Thekuvolu Theluo