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. The protest turned violent, resulting in 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.