Mishi Choudhary
Mishi Choudhary 

Manipur people are unable to access basic healthcare in Digital India: Mishi Choudhary on the internet shutdown

Giti Pratap

On July 20, the Supreme Court of India took suo motu cognisance of a horrifying video that emerged online in which two Manipuri women belonging to the Kuki tribe were seen being paraded naked and molested.

Chief Justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud said that the apex court was deeply disturbed by the video and that it will act if the government does not.

"Simply unacceptable. Using women as an instrument in an area of communal strife. Grossest of constitutional abuse. We are deeply disturbed by the videos which have emerged. If the government does not act, we will," the CJI remarked.

Even before the Supreme Court took note of the issue, within hours of the video surfacing, "Manipur is burning" started trending online as netizens were finally able to see undeniable evidence of the strife in the north-eastern state.

However, Manipur has been "burning" for months. It was perhaps a combination of the media's lack of interest or focus on the north-east and the fact that internet services have been shut down in Manipur since May 3, that contributed to the collective complacency and ignorance of the citizenry.

The incident seen in the video took place on the evening of May 4, one day after the internet shutdown was announced.

Although the Manipur High Court recently directed the State government to relax the restrictions on internet services (an order that the Manipur government unsuccessfully appealed before the Supreme Court), the internet shutdown has significantly impacted the people in Manipur.

Bar & Bench spoke to the founder of Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), Mishi Choudhary to find out more about this scenario and internet shutdowns in general.

SFLC has been at the forefront of the developments in digital freedom in the country for over a decade. They also run internetshutdowns.in, a website that tracks internet shutdowns in India.

The website has documented a total of 25 shutdowns across districts in Manipur, as on July 21.

80 days of darkness... and counting

Choudhary discussed the impact of the 80-day shutdown of internet services on the people of Manipur.

While it has always been difficult to get information directly from people in such areas (for obvious reasons), from what SFLC has gathered so far, there seems to have been a severe impact on people's access to healthcare and financial services.

"From Manipur, we heard a lot about difficulties in ordering medication, which obviously has a major impact on the health of the people. One of the things with the success of 'Digital India' is that many people are now in the habit of using online services to do regular things. The two most important things we hear about are inaccessibility to financial institutions and health services. People are unable to get the medication or medical services they need and doctors are unable to access patient information. Withdrawing and transferring money has also become harder."

The right to education and the freedom of the press are also affected in similar situations, Choudhary said. She clarified that SFLC has not been able to gather information in this regard for the recent Manipur shutdown.

"People are not able to access a variety of educational information, whether it is students, teachers, or people trying to apply for admission to university. Journalists are not able to file stories. They use SMS, which has a very small character limit. You can imagine how hard it must be to file a story like that. Typing multiple text messages to get just one story out. It is only once they leave the State that they get access to the internet and they are able to do a majority of their work. That makes their job really difficult."

Curbing access to internet services - a human rights violation

Choudhary argued that since the internet is how most people exercise many of their fundamental rights and access many things that are universally considered to be human rights, it only follows that internet shutdowns are human rights violations.

"My view is that there are so many rights that are enabled because of the internet. In our country, we have viewed the internet as a product that is meant for the privileged, but this is the same government that likes to tell us that there is Jan Dhan Yojana and Digital India. I would like to ask if this is Digital India and how we are going to force everyone to conduct most of our life, economic,  social, cultural, political through the internet if the government has a killswitch that will deprive us of all our rights. How is that not a human rights violation?"

She expressed her complete agreement with a 2019 judgment of the Kerala High Court in which it was held that the right to have access to the internet is part of the right to education as well as the right to privacy, and therefore, a fundamental right under the Constitution. 

"Right to internet access is a fundamental right and by depriving people of it, you are making more problems than you are solving. The benefits you think you are geting are mostly anecdotal or speculative. Never have we seen any evidence to justify shutdowns to control any kind of violence or maintain of law and order. If we are to be a data-based State, we should be able to see that data. SFLC has not seen it."

Democracy and internet bans

Choudhary pointed out the inherent dissonance in the fact that the world's largest democracy is the most brutal when it comes to curbing internet access, even shutting it down during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people's lives were at stake.

"Right now, the world’s largest democracy is far and away the most brutal censor of the internet. India is the only country that had an internet shutdown during the pandemic. We always expect despotic regimes from China or Belarus to misuse their power over telecommunications, to control and spy over their people. With democratic societies, you want something different. Internet shutdown is such a blunt instrument. The language of internet access as a human right captures the magnitude of the concern."

She clarified that protests and political clashes are challenging situations, but that by killing the internet, the government might be incentivising disorder.

The government's justification

The government always points to security or law and order concerns that may be worsened by the spread of misinformation or hateful rhetoric, Choudhary said. While these arguments may sound reasonable, there is no data to show the benefits that have been accrued as a result of past shutdowns, she says.

"If it was so effective, the violence should have abated by now. We are on the 79th day of the violence and nothing has changed till date. What they are not understanding is that if news from conflict-struck places reach people in time, law enforcement can be sent in time, relief work can begin. There is no reason why the government should be allowed to operate in darkness of any kind."

Approach of the courts

Choudhary expressed her disappointment with the 2020 Anuradha Bhasin judgment of the Supreme Court, in which it was held that internet shutdowns can be resorted to only as a drastic measure to be adopted in exceptional circumstances.

The Court in that judgment had laid down various procedural safeguards to be followed by the government before resorting to internet shutdown.

In Choudhary's opinion, the verdict added more bureaucracy to give a little more transparency. Moreover, there has not been enough done to ensure compliance with the directions in that judgment.

"Despite the fact that the Supreme Court did its work, it did not go all the way. We are going to continue seeing this problem."

She highlighted the deference shown by the Court to the State in some cases, and its tendency to rely on the information it provides, often in sealed covers.

"We are not asking the government to provide actual information on what they actually achieved by shutting the internet down. We have enough information on the other side about how much economic loss is caused, how much human loss, societal loss. No one counters this. We are always told about speculative benefits, anecdotal stuff...When the government is being challenged, why aren't actual experts on the subject allowed to be amici curiae?"

On a personal note, Choudhary said that the fact that the apex court had to take suo motu cognisance and ask the State government what’s going on, pained her.

"That shouldn't be the job of the judiciary. This speaks to us as a civilisation and how much we value our own citizens and their lives. My little part in it is only about access and the ability to see these kinds of wrongs. We have been yelling since May that there is an internet shutdown. I don't want to say that this is more important than what is happening on the ground, because there is real violence happening there. But I wish we paid as much attention to what's happening in all our states as we do with Delhi or Mumbai or Bengaluru."

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