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Friday, July 12, 2024

An Internet Shutdown Means Manipur Is Burning in the Dark

Joshua Hangshing’s 7-year-old son died less than an hour after being shot in the head. But it wasn’t the bullet that killed him.

On June 4, Hangshing set off from a relief camp in the Kangpokpi district of the northeastern Indian state of Manipur. He and his family had moved there for safety after fighting broke out the month before between the state’s majority Meitei community and the minority Kuki-Zo. Clashes had erupted that day just a mile away from the camp, so Hangshing ventured out to fetch water in case they needed to take shelter for a prolonged period.

As he returned to the camp, he saw Tonsing, his youngest child, waving gleefully at him from a first-floor window. Then Tonsing fell, shot in the head. “It couldn’t have been a stray bullet,” Hangshing says. “I suspect it was a sniper.”

Tonsing was still breathing when Hanshing reached him, but he had lost a lot of blood. When an ambulance arrived, Hanshing stayed behind while his wife went with their son to the nearest hospital, 10 miles away in the capital city of Imphal. They were halfway there when they were ambushed by militants, who set fire to the ambulance. Tonsing and his mother, Meena, were burnt alive.

The brutal murder of two innocent people is the kind of horror that should have made the news across India, even across the world. But Hanshing’s story is only coming out now, months on, because of an internet blackout covering the whole of Manipur. At least 180 people have died, and more than 60,000 people have been made homeless. Villages have been set alight and neighbors have lynched neighbors as the authorities fail to control the escalating violence. For three months, hidden from the eyes of the world, Manipur has burned in the dark.

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The relationship between the predominantly Hindu Meitiei community, which makes up 53 percent of Manipur’s population, and the Kuki community, which accounts for 28 percent and is largely Christian, has long been frosty.

But the situation has deteriorated rapidly this year. A military coup and civil war in neighboring Myanmar has led to thousands of refugees moving into Manipur. Many of the new arrivals are of Kuki-Chin-Zo ethnicity, who are culturally and ethnically close to the local Kuki population. Some in the Meitei community have seen this as a threat to their political dominance. In late March, a court in Manipur awarded the Meitei “tribal status”—a protected status that gives them access to economic benefits and quotas for government jobs, and allows them to purchase land in the hillside areas where Kuki tribes are concentrated.

Kuki groups say giving the majority community access to minority protections will strengthen the Meitei’s stronghold over the state. Meitei groups accuse Kukis of importing weapons from Myanmar to fight a civil war. On May 3, some from the Kuki community staged a rally in Churachandpur district to protest the court ruling. After the protest, an Anglo-Kuki War memorial gate—marking a war between Kukis and the British in 1917—in Churachandpur was set on fire by Meiteis, which triggered riots that killed 60 in the first four days.

It was just the start of a wildfire of violence that would spread across the state, with barbaric murders, beheadings, gang rapes, and other crimes. Outnumbered, the minority Kukis have suffered most.

But as the fighting began, on May 4, the Indian government did what it has done time and time again when faced with internal conflict. It shut off the internet.

The national government has the power to order telecom providers to stop providing fixed-line and mobile internet, using an emergency law. It did it 84 times in 2022 and 106 times in 2021, according to Access Now, a nongovernmental organization that tracks internet disruptions.

Most of the shutdowns were in the disputed territory of Kashmir, but they have been applied across the country. In December 2019, internet shutdowns were imposed in parts of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Assam, and Meghalaya after protests over a proposed citizenship law that would have rendered hundreds of thousands of Muslims stateless. In January and February 2021, the internet was disrupted around Delhi, where farmers were protesting agricultural reforms.

The justification for these shutdowns is that it stops disinformation from spreading on social media and helps keep a lid on unrest. In May, in Manipur, the government said the blackout was “to thwart the design and activities of anti-national and anti-social elements and to maintain peace and communal harmony … by stopping the spread of misinformation and false rumors through various social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. … ” It didn’t work.

On the first day of the shutdown, a Meitei mob went on a rampage in Imphal, seeking out Kukis to attack. As the violence spread, two young Kuki women in their early twenties huddled in their room above a carwash, where they worked part time. But the mob found them. Witnesses told the women’s families that seven Meitei men barged into their room and locked the door from inside. For two hours, the door remained shut. People outside could hear the screams of the women, which became muffled with time. When the door opened, the two women were dead. The families are certain their daughters were raped before being murdered.

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The father of one of the women, whom WIRED is not identifying in order to protect the identity of his daughter, says he was told by a nurse at a hospital in Imphal that his child had been killed. Nearly three months after her death, her body is still in Imphal, along with dozens of unclaimed bodies rotting in the city hospitals because the Kuki families in the hills can’t go to Imphal Valley to claim them.

“It was her dream to become a beautician and start her own parlor. She always wanted to be financially independent,” the father says. She had finished her course in Imphal and was tantalizingly close to living her dream. About two months before the incident, she had rented a place in the city where she could open her beauty parlor. “She took up a part-time job to support her dream,” her father says. “She was excited about her future.”

The violence between the two communities has spiraled. Nearly 4,000 weapons have reportedly been stolen from the police, according to local media. Some Kukis have accused the police—many of whom are from Meitei communities—of standing by while Kukis are being attacked, and even of supporting Meitei extremist groups. Hangshing’s wife and son were killed despite a police escort. “How did the mob burn down the ambulance in police presence?” he says. “What did the police do to protect my wife and son?”

The police in Imphal declined to comment.

Today there is almost complete separation between the two communities, both of whom have their private militias protecting their territories. Kuki areas in Imphal are completely deserted. Meiteis in Kuki-dominated districts have been driven out of the hills.

At a relief camp opened in a trade center in Imphal, Budhachandra Kshetrimayum, a Meitei private school teacher, says his village, Serou in the Kakching district, was attacked by Kuki militants on the night of May 28. “The firing started out of nowhere,” he says. “They barged into the village and began torching the Meitei houses.”

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Kshetrimayum had two options: either stay inside and be burned with his house, or run to the house of a local lawmaker for safety and risk being shot dead on the way. He chose the latter. “Luckily, I survived the firing and reached his house, where several other Meiteis were hiding,” he says. “His bodyguards were on the roof, firing back at the Kukis so they couldn’t come and get us.”

The next morning, Kshetrimayum found his house reduced to rubble.

Not too far from his home lived the widow of a leading fighter for India’s independence against Great Britain. “When I went closer, I realized that they had burnt the house with his 80-year-old wife inside it,” he says. “I could see her skull amid the debris. Since that night, I have been living in relief camps. I wear other people’s clothes. I eat other people’s food. I am a refugee in my own state.”

These aren’t isolated stories. Across the state, I heard eyewitness accounts of lynchings and murders, rapes, riots, and the burning of homes. After largely ignoring the crisis in Manipur for weeks, over the past couple of weeks, journalists from across India have descended on the state, thanks to a single video that leaked out from under the shroud of the blackout.

It’s not clear how the footage got out. But the 26-second video was posted on Twitter on July 20. It shows two Kuki women in Kangokpi being stripped and paraded naked by a mob. The women’s families say they were later gang-raped.

The video shook the conscience of India and shed light on the gravity of the situation in the state. It compelled Prime Minister Narendra Modi to speak about Manipur for the first time, 77 days after the violence broke out. “Any civil society should be ashamed of it,” he said.

After the police arrested one person accused of participating in the attack, N. Biren Singh, the chief minister of Manipur, tweeted that strict action would be taken against all the perpetrators. But the incident had happened months before, on May 4, the first day of the blackout. The husband of one of the women in the video claims that the police were on the spot when it happened, but did nothing to stop it. In other words, the police were compelled to take action after the video went viral. And this is just one sexual assault—one of many crimes—that’s happened in Manipur since May. The perpetrators in other cases are roaming free because there is no video to shame the authorities into pursuing them.

"The video that went viral is just the tip of the iceberg,” says TS Haokip, president of the Kuki-Zo Intellectual Council, an NGO formed by Kuki writers and teachers. “It is one case in which the state has acted because it went viral and caused a great deal of embarrassment to the state. But what about other victims who have suffered in obscurity?"

Indian authorities say that internet shutdowns like Manipur are done to preserve the peace, to stop misinformation spreading online and reassert control. Experts say they have the opposite effect. They allow impunity for crimes and for those who fail to pursue them. Had locals in Manipur been able to draw attention to the situation as it got out of control, the anarchy that followed might have been avoided. But the silence over the state meant the national government could feign ignorance. Human rights groups said they couldn’t collect evidence of violations or distribute them to colleagues overseas.

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The blackouts cause further disruption to an economy made fragile by the violence, and hinder aid groups as they try to collect funds for relief work.

Young Vaiphei Association, a nonprofit organization, operates five relief camps in Churachandpur district, housing 5,000 people. Lainzalal Vaiphei, convener of the relief committee, says they’ve had to raise funds door-to-door. “But because the state is in a limbo, people have suffered economically as well. They don’t have money to donate.” Had the internet been operational in Manipur, the organization could have tapped donors from outside the state through social media, and raised money for medicines. “We are barely managing our resources,” Vaiphei says.

In such a volatile atmosphere, shutting down communications doesn't stop misinformation. Rumors always spread fast in conflicts; blacking out the internet often just means that there’s no way to verify whether the accounts that are spreading them are genuine.

“The disinformation still spreads but it is not being countered,” says Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director at Access Now. Most fact-checkers are independent journalists or operate in small newsrooms. Even if they can fact-check a doctored video or a false claim, they have no way to spread their work widely.

This can help fuel violence, creating monopolies on information and allowing more extreme voices to dominate. “Shutdowns like these actually benefit the perpetrators in a conflict situation,” Chima says. “Whoever is more powerful or networked on the ground gets to set the narrative.”

As the two women in the July 4 video were paraded around the village, the inebriated men around them shouted, “We will do to you what your men did to our women.” The men claimed to be “avenging” a Meitei woman who had been allegedly raped and killed in the Kuki-dominated district of Churachandpur. A photograph claiming to be of her dead body wrapped in a plastic bag had made the rounds in Manipur. Except the woman in the photograph was from Delhi. The story was a fabrication.

The violence in Manipur has ruptured communities and left families with no way back to their old lives. For Neng Ja Hoi, a relief camp in K Salbung of Churachandpur district is now her home. On May 3, her husband, Seh Kho Haokipgen, was lynched while guarding their village of K Phaijang. Violence broke out and the police fired teargas. “He fell down during the commotion,” says Neng. “He somehow managed to get up but his vision was blurred because of the teargas. He ran for his life but he ran toward the Meitei mob, which beat him to death.”

Neng hasn’t really come to terms with her husband’s passing. “He was a religious pastor, and he traveled quite a bit for work,” she says, cradling her 11-month old baby, tears rolling down her face. “I tell myself he is still on one of his long religious journeys. He was the sole breadwinner of the house. How will I look after my kids?”

She sleeps in a tent in a small room with her three children. Her few possessions are crammed on a bench nearby. “I grabbed whatever I could from our house and ran with the kids,” she says. “They will grow up here.”

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The warring sides have drawn something akin to battle lines in Manipur. Abandoned homes, charred vehicles, and scorched shops line the borders between communities. Both groups have set up bunkers in deserted villages. The only people here are volunteers from “village defense forces” with guns, guarding the territory from people who used to be their neighbors. The military is deployed in the buffer zone. Venturing into enemy territory is a death sentence.

That is exactly why Joshua Hangshing didn’t get in the ambulance with his son Tonsing. He is a Kuki. If he had accompanied his son to Imphal, there was no chance the two would have survived. But a hospital in a Kuki area was two hours away. With a bullet in his head, Tonsing had to be taken to the nearest possible facility. Hangshing’s wife, Meena, was a Meitei Christian. Even though she belonged to the minority among the majority Hindu Meiteis, the couple thought her presence in the ambulance would keep them safe.

As we talk about the breakdown in trust between communities, Hangshing reminisces about meeting Meena in the mid-2000s. He was working in Imphal, and Meena would pass his office to attend singing classes. “She had a lovely voice,” he says with a wistful smile. For them, it was love at first sight. It didn’t matter that they belonged to different ethnicities. “Her mother was against it initially,” he recalls. “But she came around.”

He has now moved to Kangpokpi Town, away from his village, which is too close to the border with Imphal. He doesn’t think he’ll go back. But he hopes that reconciliation between communities is possible. “If everybody who has suffered starts thinking about revenge, the cycle of violence will never stop,” he says. “The Bible has taught me to forgive.”

On July 25, the state partially lifted the blackout, allowing some fixed-line connections back online—with restrictions. However, most people in the state rely on mobile internet. Apar Gupta, a lawyer and founder of the campaign group the Internet Freedom Foundation, said the changes only benefit a “tiny” number of privileged people. “It is my firm belief the internet shutdown is to serve state interests in avoiding accountability and contouring the media ecology than any evidentiary law and order objective," Gupta tweeted. Manipur is still mostly in the dark. And while the violence has subsided as both sides stay within their territory, it hasn’t died out completely. In the border zones, shots still ring out. It’s still smoldering, and could burst back into flames at any time.

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