Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 18 October 2023


India uses widespread internet blackouts to mask domestic turmoil

(Illustration by Shubhadeep Mukherjee; AFP/Getty Images; Biplov Bhuyan/SOPA/Sipa/AP)
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CHURACHANDPUR, India — During times of civil unrest and political turmoil, authorities around the world frequently cut access to the internet to control their populations and throttle the flow of information. The militaries in Sudan and Myanmar pulled the plug when they carried out armed coups in 2021. Iran flipped the switch when protesters flooded the streets following the death a year ago of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody.

But the country that most frequently deploys the tactic is not an authoritarian state such as Russia or China, digital rights groups say.

It is India.

Between 2016 and this May, India accounted for more than half of all the shutdowns recorded worldwide by an international coalition of more than 300 digital rights groups led by Access Now, a nonprofit. On more than 680 occasions during that period, state and local officials in India issued legal orders requiring the country’s handful of telecommunication companies to suspend mobile data transmission from cell towers and freeze wired broadband connections.

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Indian officials argue that the measure is necessary to prevent the spread of online rumors and contain unrest. But by enforcing a digital blackout, critics say, the government can stifle dissent, cover up abuses and stymie independent reporting that challenges official accounts during times of conflict. The tactic can also exact a drastic, far-reaching economic toll, disrupting commerce, work and education.

On a recent evening, O.K. Luna searches for an internet signal on a hill in the village of Singngat during an internet shutdown being enforced by the Indian state of Manipur. (Arko Datto for The Washington Post)

In a report last year about the global use of blackouts, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that the practice infringes on basic rights of expression and may do more harm than good during times of upheaval. “The inability to access tools to document and rapidly report abuses seems to contribute to further violence, including atrocities,” the U.N. agency said. “Some shutdowns may even be implemented with the deliberate intent of covering up human rights violations.”

Since May, when ethnic bloodshed erupted in Manipur state, in northeast India, the state government controlled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has enforced a draconian internet ban affecting the state’s 3 million people — one of the longest recorded shutdowns in the world — as violence between two ethnic groups spread from village to village, leaving more than 200 dead.

In three visits to the remote, lushly forested state bordering Myanmar, Washington Post journalists saw how severing the internet — considered a modern necessity, almost a basic right by many — upended daily lives and livelihoods practically overnight. Countless workers found themselves out on the street, and hospitals, with online payment systems suspended, struggled to keep operating.

Moreover, the internet shutdown shaped the Manipur conflict in profound ways. It allowed the BJP state government — and the state’s ethnic Meitei majority who control it — to dominate the public narrative about the turmoil. It impeded efforts by dissenters among the Kuki ethnic minority to spread their message and disseminate photo and video evidence of human rights abuses. And it effectively kept the roiling conflict, a stark challenge to the BJP’s leadership, behind a veil of invisibility.

Ethnic-minority Kukis return from the Wall of Remembrance in Churachandpur, where they revere as martyrs the loved ones who have died during ongoing ethnic violence in India's Manipur state. (Arko Datto for The Washington Post)

While local governments ruled by opposition parties in India also frequently block the internet, the Manipur example highlights a wider pattern in an India governed over the past decade by Modi’s BJP. To maintain their grip on political power and advance their Hindu nationalist agenda, Modi and his ideological allies have often used their control of technology and social media to stifle dissent, promote divisive propaganda — or, in the case of Manipur, pull the digital plug altogether.

After a viral video emerged online in July of Kuki women being groped and paraded naked in a Meitei village, drawing international attention and concern about sexual violence in the Manipur conflict, several BJP leaders, including the state’s chief minister, N. Biren Singh, voiced frustration that the video had surfaced and alleged in media interviews that it had been intentionally “leaked” from Manipur to hurt them politically. The chief minister’s office and spokespeople for the Manipur state government declined multiple interview requests for this article.

To pierce the information veil, Kuki activists this year mounted a digital resistance.

Some secretly connected internet cables from an adjacent state to a college campus, where they huddled to spread word of their people’s plight. Others pursued old-school, shoe-leather journalism, forming teams to visit refugee camps and document allegations of war crimes, and collected evidence by transferring videos via Bluetooth or USB drives. Still others drove hours to the border, where they tapped into the faint cellphone signal to download independent commentary about the conflict.

On a Sunday morning in early July, one of these activists stood in a crowd and she listened intently to dozens of exhausted Kuki villagers recounting a terrifying tale.

Before sunrise that day, the displaced Kukis said, an armed mob of Meiteis had appeared, setting fire to their homes in the nearby foothills. Then the villagers made a stunning allegation: A 30-year-old Kuki named David Thiek was decapitated, his limbs sawed off and his head placed on a bamboo spike.

The activist — a former call center manager with a bubbly laugh and quiet intensity named Jhmar — belonged to the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF), a pro-Kuki organization, as a volunteer in its “media cell.” Her job, she said, was to find and confirm reports about atrocities, then spread the word to the outside world, a challenge given the internet ban. But here, a nugget of firsthand information had found its way to her. (Jhmar recounted the episode on the condition that she be identified only by her tribal name, fearing government retribution.)

She immediately hopped on a motorbike and rode off into the hills.

A world leader in blackouts

Since 2020, India has been the leader in ordering internet shutdowns, far outpacing Iran and Myanmar, in second and third spots, respectively, according to Access Now. Indian government officials can issue blocking orders that cover relatively small districts or encompass vast states with millions of people. The blackouts tend to last for a few days, though they’re often renewed, and some stretch on for months.

Two months ago, a shutdown was imposed in Haryana state, ostensibly to control riots, and a blackout in March, affecting 27 million people, was enforced in Punjab state during efforts to catch fugitives. In February, the internet was blocked in 11 cities in Rajasthan state to prevent cheating during exams.

The longest recorded instance came in August 2019, when the Modi government revoked the semiautonomous status of the northern Jammu and Kashmir region and brought this restive Muslim-majority area directly under New Delhi’s control, sparking protests and an Indian army crackdown that included waves of detentions. The government cut phone lines and shut down high-speed internet for 18 months to curb what officials called the spread of disinformation from Pakistan.

But with the flow of information severed and journalists unable to work, it took weeks for allegations to surface that the Indian army had tortured detainees, among them minors, said Anuradha Bhasin, the executive editor of the Kashmir Times who is now a fellow at Stanford University.

“Seven million people in Kashmir and Muslim-majority areas of Jammu were completely pushed behind an iron curtain,” said Bhasin. “Shutting down critical reporting was one of the intended consequences.”

After Bhasin challenged the internet shutdown in court, the Indian Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that the tactic should be used only for a limited time and only if absolutely essential, adding that the justification must be publicized. But authorities often ignore the court’s recommendations, say Indian civil rights lawyers.

The clampdown begins

The unrest in Manipur began on April 27. Kuki activists called for a general strike against the land policies of the state’s chief minister that day, and the demonstration turned violent.

Tensions had been brewing for months between the Kukis, a Christian hill tribe, and Meiteis, the politically and economically dominant valley dwellers who mostly practice Hinduism. Kukis have long accused Meiteis of coveting land in the hills reserved under the Indian constitution for tribal peoples, and those fears sharpened this spring when the state’s top court backed a Meitei demand that it also be granted official tribal status.

At first, the state government ordered an internet blackout around Churachandpur, a city that forms the heart of Manipur’s Kuki population. But mayhem erupted anyway. On May 3, mob violence spread statewide, leading to two days of killing, rape and arson. While both sides were targeted, most victims were Kuki, according to the U.N. human rights office. Roaming death squads killed anyone they could find of the other ethnicity. Up to 60,000 people were displaced.

The state ordered telecom providers to kill the internet, and a digital darkness fell over Manipur. The resistance began.

Getting the word out

For Ginza Vualzong, a gregarious leader in the pro-Kuki ITLF who heads its “media cell,” the first task was tracking down a local technician who quietly dealt in special phone lines — an internet bootlegger. After weeks of negotiations, an eye-watering payment exceeding $1,000 and a flick of a router switch one day in late May, Vualzong turned the media cell office in Churachandpur into an oasis of WiFi, with slow, finicky, but unfettered internet piped in from a neighboring state.

To counter stories in newspapers and carried by television stations under the BJP government’s sway, one volunteer assembled a news bulletin every day and distributed hard copies to curious readers who queued up for them. Another team visited hospitals and camps for displaced people to document war crime allegations and uploaded oral histories to YouTube.

“What we’re fighting is a narrative war,” said Vualzong, who described most of his day-to-day work as “firefighting” against government propaganda.

As the conflict raged, the Indian government prohibited foreign journalists from visiting Manipur. In the Indian media, it was mostly English-language newspapers with relatively few readers and small, online-only news outlets that closely covered both sides of the conflict.

But with its secret internet line, the media cell managed to score small victories. In July, Jhmar and her team facilitated an interview with a Kuki woman who was beaten nearly to death by a mob with a writer for the popular Instagram page Humans of Bombay — an Indian account inspired by Humans of New York with 3 million followers.

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The post got 21,000 likes. It was nothing like making the front page of a national newspaper. But their people were starved of any outside attention, Jhmar said: “Every channel, be it small or big, is important for us right now.”

Return to a dark age

As the media cell huddled daily near its office hotspot, life outside changed dramatically for millions of people plunged into an earlier technological era.

At the Raj Medicity in Imphal, Manipur’s capital, hospital director Vijayraj Haobijam, 29, ticked off his mounting difficulties. Without internet access, he couldn’t receive timely reimbursements from the national health insurance program or digital payments from patients. His employees were working on half-salary.

“Even the covid lockdowns were not so difficult because that was not a war,” he said. “We had internet.”

Part 1: Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its Hindu nationalist allies have built a massive propaganda machine, with tens of thousands of activists spreading disinformation and religiously divisive posts via WhatsApp. Parent company Meta says WhatsApp cannot monitor content, no matter how inflammatory.
Part 2: Social media giants have been reluctant to police Indian content that violates their terms of service. After Facebook discovered a vast influence operation using fake accounts secretly operated by the Indian army, some company employees moved to shut it down, but executives in the New Delhi office stalled the action.
Part 3: A new generation of Hindu vigilantes frequently stream their armed attacks against Muslims on platforms like YouTube and Facebook, amassing large followings and winning BJP protection. While rights activists have repeatedly flagged hateful influencers to social media companies, the accounts are rarely removed.
Part 4: India orders internet shutdowns more than any other country, blacking out entire states for weeks and even months at a time. By pulling the plug, the government is able to stifle dissent, drown out negative news and obstruct journalists from doing independent reporting — often at a high economic cost.
The Indian government has become increasingly aggressive in restricting online criticism and opposing views, and technology companies have become more skittish about content that could run afoul of Modi’s Hindu nationalist allies. More stories to come.
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On the boulevards of Imphal, the stately former seat of the Meitei monarchy, long lines snaked out from ATMs, because the demand for cash skyrocketed after India’s digital payments system suddenly became unavailable. The back streets were devoid of the food and package delivery boys ubiquitous even in small Indian towns, because the e-commerce companies paused local services. The offices that provide the white-collar jobs so many Indians aspire to were shuttered overnight.

Grunting and sweating outside a water packaging plant in Churachandpur, Janet Lalthiengzo, 27, wrapped a dozen bottles and heaved the package onto a truck — a job she never imagined she’d be doing after graduating from college and working for a company doing search engine optimization. But with the internet severed, Lalthiengzo found herself packing water bottles for $3 a day, a third of what she once made.

“Even if I get paid less, I have to work,” said Lalthiengzo.

On a recent evening, three Kukis gathered on a grassy hilltop bathed in moonlight. Locals knew it was possible to pick up a faint cellphone signal, but no one knew if it came from the neighboring state of Mizoram or Myanmar.

Siamkhanlal, 51, yelped with delight as 46 messages came flooding into his WhatsApp at once. He needed to download pay slips for his church group. People came to the hill for all kinds of reasons, he explained: to do homework, make payments or download the latest information about the fighting.

Another villager, O.K. Luna, wasn’t so lucky. He wanted a glimpse of his daughter Margaret, who had flown that morning to Italy to resume her job on a cruise liner. He clutched a phone in each hand, cajoling them to connect. He gave up after more than 90 minutes.

The veil briefly lifts

On May 4 — the second and, by most accounts, worst day of fighting — came a defining moment of the Manipur conflict.

A 26-second video showing dozens of Meitei men that day molesting two naked Kuki women, grabbing their genitals as they were paraded down a narrow concrete road and into dry paddy fields. There, relatives of the Kuki women alleged, they were raped off-camera.

For two and a half months, the video never surfaced. No arrests were made, no headlines created. But finally, the video made its way to social media. Instantly, it had an impact.

A body of U.N. human rights experts expressed alarm about what was happening on the ground. Modi, who had stayed away from Manipur and remained quiet about the conflict since it erupted, broke his silence after 78 days, telling the Indian people that “what has happened to these daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven.” The wheels of justice finally began to churn. Seven men were detained within days and handed to the federal investigative agency.

In a country where national politics is often driven by spectacle and social media outrage, capturing and sharing visuals is “the only time you are getting a response from those in power,” said Sevanti Ninan, a longtime media critic. “Manipur has long been invisible partly because of the mainland attitude to that state. The internet shutdown makes it further invisible.”

Hoaxes and rumors

But on the Meitei side, the emergence of the video fueled bewilderment and frustration.

Along the rain-soaked rice paddies of Pechi village, near where the video was shot, Meiteis wondered why they were denied internet when they too were regularly assaulted.

Two fuming Meitei women, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address an incident that they said unfairly tarnished their village name, stopped sowing rice to vent. The attack on the Kuki women, they said, was in revenge for a rumored attack on Meitei girls.

Yet “the narrative is one-sided against us,” said one of the women. “Without internet, we cannot get photos and videos of what happened to our people.”

Khuraijam Athouba, the spokesperson of the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity, the top civilian group representing Meitei interests in the conflict, said the internet shutdown was making the conflict worse by fueling hoaxes and rumors. Even Meiteis detested it, he said.

“People make more assumptions,” Athouba said, “because they are not getting the right information, at the right time.”

Compiling the evidence

As soon as she heard news of David Thiek’s July 2 death, Jhmar rushed on a motorbike to Saikot village, where Thiek’s family were seeking refuge after fleeing their home in Langza, 20 miles away.

Details were still trickling in about the pre-dawn attack on Langza. As waves of refugees arrived throughout the day, they brought more photos and videos that created, piece by piece, a fuller, terrifying account of destruction and savagery.

Videos showed Kuki volunteers rummaging through rubble, searching for Thiek’s remains. They gathered his charred bones and placed them on a traditional stole spread on the ground. One photo showed the blood-streaked bamboo fence where his head had been mounted.

Jhmar used Nearby Share, a Bluetooth file-sharing app, to gather every photo and video she could from Thiek’s friends, family and witnesses. For a week, she worked with her media cell colleagues to put together a memorial video. The group released it on their YouTube channel on July 13.

The only consolation

On July 24, Jhmar scored another small win. A team from CNN-News 18, a national TV network, caught wind of Thiek’s killing, and Jhmar brought the crew to interview his family. But after that, outside attention fizzled out again.

On Sept. 2, the Editors Guild of India, a professional group of journalists that had visited Manipur on a fact-finding mission, released a report saying the internet ban had impeded the work of journalists, who were forced to rely “almost entirely on the narrative of the state government” and produced shoddy, one-sided reporting.

Two days later, the Manipur government filed a criminal case against the editors association for “promoting enmity between different groups.”

Mobile internet was briefly restored on Sept. 23, and disturbing photos immediately surfaced on social media, this time showing the corpses of two young Meiteis allegedly killed by Kukis. Authorities arrested the suspected killers before severing the internet again on Sept. 26.

In Churachandpur, Jhmar fell into a gloom. She felt she hadn’t done enough to spread word about the violence. How could she, given Manipur’s internet outage that began in early May?

Jhmar said her only consolation was that Thiek’s slaying had been documented, saved for a day of reckoning when the digital darkness lifts.

“The only thing we can do,” she said, “is keep bringing out the stories as much as we can so that the world knows.”

Shih reported from New Delhi. Anu Narayanswamy in Washington contributed to this report.

About this story

Design by Anna Lefkowitz. Visual editing by Chloe Meister, Joe Moore and Jennifer Samuel. Copy editing by Christopher Rickett. Story editing by Alan Sipress. Project editing by Jay Wang.

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