Pleas for restoring Internet to be heard in chambers: Manipur High Court

Expert panel members tell court VPN block is not feasible; full report to be submitted next week; SC refuses to intervene in separate petition challenging constitutionality of repeated internet bans

July 06, 2023 11:43 pm | Updated July 07, 2023 08:14 am IST - NEW DELHI

Security personnel lob teargas shells to disperse rioters after a mob allegedly attempted to loot weapons from an India Reserve Battalion located in Khangabok in Thoubal district of Manipur on July 4, 2023.

Security personnel lob teargas shells to disperse rioters after a mob allegedly attempted to loot weapons from an India Reserve Battalion located in Khangabok in Thoubal district of Manipur on July 4, 2023. | Photo Credit: PTI

The Manipur High Court on Thursday directed that it will hear a batch of petitions seeking the restoration of Internet access in Manipur in chambers, just hours after the Supreme Court refrained from intervening in a separate plea challenging the Internet restrictions in the State. The High Court scheduled the in-chamber hearing for July 7, which will not be open to the public.

While an expert panel constituted by the court asked for one more week to submit its report, representatives of Internet service providers on the panel told the court it was not feasible to block virtual private networks (VPNs) in a bid to restore limited internet in the State.

A Bench of the Acting Chief Justice M.V. Muralidharan and Justice Ahanthem Bimol Singh was hearing the batch of petitions seeking Internet access on Thursday, though the case was originally listed before a Bench of Justice A. Bimol Singh and A. Guneshwar Sharma.

Acting Chief Justice Muralidharan is the same judge who authored the March 27 order on ST status for Meiteis, which is said to be the immediate trigger for the ethnic conflict underway for two months in Manipur.

A three-judge Bench headed by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud, while refraining from hearing the separate petition, said that the Supreme Court Collegium has recommended a new Chief Justice for the Manipur High Court, and that the judge would be in the saddle very soon.

Delhi High Court judge, Justice Siddharth Mridul, was proposed by the Supreme Court Collegium for appointment as Manipur Chief Justice on July 5.

The separate petition before the top court was challenging the “mechanical and repeated shutdown” of Internet services in Manipur.

Chief Justice Chandrachud said that it would not be proper for the Supreme Court to intervene when the Division Bench is actively examining the issue of the Internet ban and has even formed a committee in the process.

‘VPN block not feasible’

At the last hearing before the High Court, the Division Bench had notified the formation of a 12-member expert committee to explore the possibilities of restoring internet access with a block on social media websites and a block on virtual private network (VPN) services as well. The committee had been directed to submit its report on Thursday, but submitted that one more week was needed to compile a detailed report.

However, representatives of the Internet service providers in the committee told the court that blocking VPN services was not practical because VPNs keep popping up and cannot be controlled. Committee members, who had appeared in person, submitted that there was no option feasible other than the restrictions that are continuing currently, with the State government supporting this position.

‘White-listed devices impractical’

As for the option of setting up white-listed devices across the State to allow public access to the internet, the State government said that this was impractical as the infrastructure needed for such an exercise would be monumental.

In the course of the hearing, the Deputy Solicitor General of India, appearing for the Union government, passed a document of some sort to the Bench. Lawyers for the petitioners said that they were not served a copy of this document.

In Thursday’s order, the High Court said, “As prayed for by the learned counsel appearing for the parties, list these cases again tomorrow, i.e., on 07.07.2023 as first item for further hearing in the Judges Chamber.”

The court also ordered all members of the expert committee and the Manipur Home Secretary and Information Technology Secretary to be present at the hearing on Friday. The Home Secretary was also asked to file a list of mobile devices and broadband connections that have already been whitelisted for limited internet access by the Manipur government and place it before the court on Friday “without fail”.

‘Grossly disproportionate’

The petitioner in the Supreme Court, advocate Chongtham Victor Singh, represented by advocate Shadan Farasat, had said earlier in the day that the High Court has not looked into the “proportionality” of such repeated and blanket ban orders and has simply left it to the State government or the committee to find a resolution.

He noted that Internet ban orders have been passed like clockwork in the past 65 days in the State, which has been rocked by violent clashes between the dominant Meitei community and the Kuki-Zomi tribes.

Mr. Farasat, however, agreed to withdraw the petition and approach the High Court as suggested by the Supreme Court Bench.

The plea filed by Mr. Singh said that the shutdown infringed the constitutional right to access the internet. “The shutdown order is grossly disproportionate in its interference with the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to carry on any trade or business using the constitutionally protected medium of the internet,” the petition submitted.

Since May 3, when the violence began, the State has been under an Internet shutdown, with only certain public places like government buildings, the High Court premises, and mobile devices having access to limited internet services.

Meanwhile, the High Court on Thursday issued notice to the Union government, the State government and Meitei Tribes Union on a third-party leave application to file a second review petition against the contentious March 27 order, which was filed by the Tribal Youth Volunteers’ Organisation. The matter has now been listed for hearing on July 7.

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