Manipur Residents approach Supreme Court challenging state-wide internet shutdown imposed on account of recent violence

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The shutdown has been termed to be a grossly disproportionate interference with the Petitioners' constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) and the right to carry on any trade or business under Article 19(1)(g) through the constitutionally protected medium of the internet.

A plea has been filed before the Supreme Court challenging the state-wide internet shutdown imposed on May 3, 2023, in Manipur as a response to reported incidents of violence in the state.

Notably, rallies were organized by volunteers and youth of the state protesting against the demand for inclusion of the Meitei/Meetei community within the Scheduled Tribe category. These clashes escalated into widespread arson, violence, and killings across the state, which justified a temporary and time-bound shutdown of the internet.

It is the petitioner's case that a few days after the initial shutdown, tensions were diffused, and aside from sporadic incidents of violence that could be addressed at the district level, there was a clear and admitted de-escalation of the situation, but despite this return to normalcy, the state-wide internet shutdown was mechanically extended and remains in force at present.

Filed by lawyer Chongtham Victor Singh and businessman Mayengbam James, the petition submits that the shutdown has had a significant economic, humanitarian, social, and psychological impact on them and their families.

They have been unable to send their children to school, access funds from banks, receive payments from clients, distribute salaries, or communicate via email or WhatsApp, the plea submits.

"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. Additionally, they have been unable to send their children to school, access their bank accounts, receive or send payments, obtain essential supplies and medicines, and more, bringing their lives and livelihoods to a standstill", the petition adds. 

The petition further argues that the impugned suspension orders do not explicate reasons that fall within the contours of Article 19(2) of the Constitution; and therefore, they violate Rule 2(2) of the Telecom Suspension Rules 2017, and do not pass constitutional muster.

"In order to restrict the public’s right to access the internet, the Respondent-authority must pass an order under Rule 2(1) of the Telecom Suspension Rules 2017. As per Rule 2(2) of the Telecom Suspension Rules 2017, this order must contain reasons for the issuance of such a direction. Since the right to access the internet is constitutionally protected under Article 19(1)(a), it can only be restricted by conditions laid down in Article 19(2), i.e., in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement of an offence...", the Supreme Court has been told.

Amidst tensions escalating in the State of Manipur, two Special Leave Petitions (SLPs) were filed before the Supreme Court last month against the High Court's order directing the Centre and the State governments to include the Meetei/Meitei community of the State in the Scheduled Tribe list of the Indian Constitution as a "tribe" of Manipur.

The Supreme Court had then asked the State of Manipur to make due arrangements in the relief camps organised by the government and all necessary precautions must be taken for rehabilitation of displaced persons.

Also, a plea was filed by Manipur Tribal Forum seeking directions to the Centre and the State to evacuate the Manipuri Tribals who fled to CRPF Lamphel Camp (3500 people), CRPF Camp near the DC office (700 people approximately), Koirengei Camp (300 people) as well as small pockets of tribals held up in Imphal (both east and west) as well as the villages surrounding Imphal Valley and take them to their respective Hill District under central forces escort to their respective areas of residence in the hill districts.