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Summary: Petition in Supreme Court against prolonged internet shutdown in Manipur

The petition highlights that the shutdown orders were extended across the State even after the tensions between the Meitei and tribal groups were “substantially quelled”

“There has been a complete blockade of internet access across the state for more than 24 days, causing significant harm to the rights of the petitioners and other residents. Not only have they experienced feelings of fear, anxiety, helplessness, and frustration as a result of the shutdown, but they have also been unable to communicate with their loved ones or office colleagues, straining personal, professional, and social relationships,” state Manipur residents advocate Chongtham Victor and proprietor of MK Enterprise James Mayengbam in their petition against the prolonged internet shutdown imposed by the State authorities in Manipur since early May.

The petition filed at the Supreme Court of India seeks an “interim direction” for the restoration of internet services in the state, among other pleas. Here’s a detailed summary of the petition reviewed by MediaNama.

Why was the internet shutdown in Manipur?

Internet services in different parts of Manipur were first cut off on April 27 (in a couple of districts) and then on May 3, in response to the unrest that engulfed the state after rallies and protests were carried out against the inclusion of the Meitei/Meetei community in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category. In both the orders, reviewed by MediaNama, the State government stated that “some anti-social elements” are using social media to spread hate speech and incite the public, which “might have serious repercussions for the law and order”.

Impact on people’s lives and livelihood:

Along with the detailed explanation of grounds that seek to explain why the orders may prove to be “unconstitutional”, what stands out in the petition is the impact of the internet blackout on the daily lives of the citizens. Additionally, the petition states that residents have not been able to send their children to school, access banks, receive or send payments, obtain essential supplies like medicines, and access communication services like WhatsApp; all in all, the shutdown has brought their “lives and livelihoods to a standstill”.

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“The need of the hour is to have consensus between the communities. For that we need to have the internet. It’s a dialogue period. This is causing more troubled situation since the media and the internet is put into the dark. It is derailing the process of development that could have been between the two communities,” Victor Chongtham told MediaNama.

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The petitioners have challenged the shutdown on the following grounds:

A. On the constitutionality of the orders:

  1. Access to internet is a fundamental right protected right under article 19(1)a, which can be restricted only under conditions laid out under article 19(2). The order does not explicitly state that it has been passed to protect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, or for public order etc under article 19(2). In the orders, emphasis is on the phrase ‘law and order’ as a ground for internet shutdown and also states that the events may likely have an impact on maintenance of public order.
  2. The petition explains that the phrase ‘law and order’ is different from ‘public order’ as explained in Ram Manohar Lohia v. State of Bihar & Anr, (1966), which also states that maintenance of public order refers to prevention of disorder of a grave nature, whereas maintenance of law and order means prevention of disorder of a comparatively lesser gravity. The petition notes that the suspension orders fail to demonstrate how a state-wide shutdown of internet services would effectively address the existing law and order threats, which are currently limited to specific districts or local levels.
  3. The petitioner, thus, maintains that the suspension orders “do not explicate reasons that fall within the contours of Article 19(2) of the Constitution”. This is against Rule 2(2) of the Telecom Suspension Rules, which requires reasons for the suspension to be mentioned in the shutdown orders. Thus, the petitioners demand that the orders must be declared unconstitutional and illegal.

B. On the extension of shutdown orders: The petition highlights that the shutdown orders were extended across the State even after the tensions between the Meitei and tribal groups were “substantially quelled,” barring “sporadic incidents of violence, which can be tackled at the district level”. Further, there was no threat to the public when the situation calmed down. “This is an unreasonable restriction on the right to freedom of speech and expression. Therefore, all orders passed after the de-escalation of the clashes must be declared unconstitutional, and internet must be restored to all districts in the state (barring those in which violence persists) immediately,” the petition adds.

C. The orders fail the test of proportionality:

  1. Fundamental rights under Article 19, if curtailed, must pass the test of proportionality– (a) the measure must have a legitimate goal; (b) must constitute a suitable means of furthering this goal; (c) there must not be any less restrictive but equally effective alternative; (d) the measure must not have a disproportionate impact on the right holder. Given that the internet shutdown continued even after tensions subsided, the petition notes that the State cannot claim that the measure was imposed to prevent loss of life and damage to property etc.
  2. The petitioners also argue that the orders fail to indicate how internet shutdowns might help in the “achievement of public order” and “how state-wide suspension of the internet services would curb law and order threats which, at present, only exist in certain districts/at the local level”. Thus, they state that the orders fail the second test of proportionality.
  3. Given that a state-wide suspension was imposed even if the violence was restricted to certain districts, the petitioners argue that the State has not resorted to the least restrictive measure for curtailing people’s rights. Further, the petition states that the reasons cited in the orders – prevention of disinformation campaigns, rumour mongering and sporadic, confined threats to public threats – do not justify the “disproportionate economic loss” faced by the citizens of the state during the 24-day internet shutdown. For these reasons, they say that the orders fail the test of proportionality and amount to an “unreasonable restriction” on the right to access the Internet under Article 19(1) (a).

D. On freedoms under Article 19(1)g: The petition notes that, in Anuradha Bhasin, the Supreme Court recognised that the right to access the internet is also protected under Article 19(1)(g) – which guarantees freedom of trade and commerce – and can only be restricted under reasons listed out in article 19(6). Since the orders fail the test of proportionality, they also violate the petitioners’ rights under Article 19(1)(g). Hence, the petitioners seek revocation of the orders.

E. Orders not in sync with the Telecom Suspension Rules 2017:

  1. The petitioners illustrate that reasons like “preventing rumour-mongering and the spread of misinformation” does not pass the threshold prescribed by the Telecom Suspension Rules 2017 for internet shutdowns. Rule 2(6) of the Suspension Rules requires the order to satisfy grounds laid out under section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act 1885, which allows for the suspension of the Internet if there’s a public emergency, in the interest of public safety or if there’s a satisfactory reason to state that there’s a threat to India’s sovereignty, integrity and security or public order, etc.
  2. The petitioners state that reasons cited in the shutdown orders, such as a threat to “law and order” or the use of social media by “anti-social elements” may spread misinformation and incite the public, do not satisfy “the pre-condition of ‘public emergency’ or ‘public safety’” necessary to suspend internet under the Telecom Suspension Rules.
  3. Further, the petition also argues that the State cannot resort to internet suspension, especially a prolonged order, as a pre-emptive or a preventive measure against public emergency. This, it states, goes against the Bombay High Court ruling in Vinit Kumar v. CBI in 2019, which stated that “Unless a public emergency has occurred or the interest of public safety demands, the authorities have no jurisdiction under this section”. The petitioners state that the shutdown was “indefinitely” imposed even after the situation ceased to be a “public emergency” – in violation of the Telegraph Act and the Telecom Suspension Rules.

F. What about the Review Committee? The petitioners allege that the internet suspension orders dated May 3, May 4, May 7, and May 21 have not been confirmed by the Review Committee, which is a mandatory requirement under the Telecom Suspension Rules. In doing so, they state that the authorities have missed an important “constitutional step” required to check if the internet shutdown orders are constitutional and proportional and are not an overbroad interpretation of conditions laid down under Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act.

G. Are the orders public? The Manipur State authorities have not published the internet shutdown orders or confirmation orders by the Review Committee either on their website or their social media channels. This, the petitioners state, violates the Anuradha Bhasin ruling, which mandated that such orders be made available to the public in a direct manner. The petition highlights that the non-publication of orders restricted Manipur residents from making “appropriate alternative arrangements so that their life and livelihood was not disproportionately affected” and also to “challenge the suspension order if it constituted an unreasonable restriction on the exercise of their fundamental rights”. This hinders the citizens’ right under Article 32(1), which empowers a citizen to move the Supreme Court in the event of an infringement on their fundamental rights.

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H. Suspension orders cannot extend beyond 15 days: As per Rule 2A of the Telecom Suspension Rules, suspension orders shall not be in operation for more than 15 days. The petitioners argue that the Manipur government has repeatedly extended the orders in a “mechanical and cyclostyled fashion” for a period exceeding 15 days and has done indirectly what couldn’t have been done directly. They seek the declaration of the shutdown orders, which have been in force for roughly 24 days, as illegal.

This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.


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Curious about privacy, surveillance developments and the intersection of technology with education, caste and welfare rights.

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