August 2023 | Controversial data protection and press bills passed
In August, the Indian legislature passed two highly anticipated and contentious bills related to press freedom, freedom of expression, and the right to information. The Digital Personal Data Protection Act, approved on 11 August, aims to oversee the management of digital personal data, protect citizen rights, foster innovation, and enable government access for “legitimate uses” i.e., for national security and emergencies. Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar hailed it as a "significant milestone" that was written following extensive consultations, although critics argue that meaningful public consultation only occurred with the 2022 version, leaving previous years' concerns unaddressed. The revised version allegedly differs from the 2022 version and fails to address long-standing concerns regarding the bill's broad exemptions, which grant extensive powers to the executive branch. Chandrasekhar has responded to the criticism noting that “There will be checks and balances within the government to ensure that this power is not misused.”
Simultaneously, the Press and Registration of Periodicals Bill 2023, passed on 3 August, seeks to streamline media business operations and decriminalize colonial-era prohibitions. However, media advocates warn that some provisions could expose media outlets to government interference, especially if labelled 'non-compliant, terroristic, or seditious.’ The International Federation of Journalists, Indian Journalists Union, and Editors Guild of India have called for a comprehensive review of both bills, expressing fears of increased government surveillance and journalist censorship, potentially undermining the Right to Information Act.
July 2023 | Ethnic violence in Manipur ongoing
Ethnic violence that broke out on 3 May in India's northeastern state of Manipur remains unquelled, having claimed over 150 lives and having displaced tens of thousands, as of 31 July. The conflict arises from tensions between the Meitei (majority) and Kuki (minority) state populations, exacerbated by a recent court recommendation to potentially grant Scheduled Tribe status to the Meitei community, which could give them access to broader social benefits and land acquisition rights in areas inhabited by minority groups. Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly commented on the violence, prompted by a viral video depicting sexual assault, noting that "the incident of Manipur which has come to the fore is shameful for any civilisation. The country is shamed. I appeal to all chief ministers to strengthen laws to take stringent action against crime, especially against women." Modi's remarks come amid heated debates in parliament amongst opposition lawmakers pressing for a stronger response to the ethnic clashes. In an attempt to reinstate order, the government has dispatched numerous paramilitary forces and police to the region. An 83-day-long Internet shutdown was enforced, finally being eased on 25 July. However, mobile internet and social media access remain suspended. Human rights groups have criticized the length of state-wide internet bans, noting that they infringe on free speech and are not helping to stop the violence.
June 2023 | Frequent Internet shutdowns continue into 2023
In June, a joint report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) highlighted India's continued use of “arbitrary internet shutdowns,” which disproportionately affect impoverished communities. The report highlights that "Since 2018, India has shut down the internet more than any other country in the world,” a finding further corroborated by Access Now's 2022 report. The majority of shutdowns have occurred in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, with the latest example of a months-long internet blackout occurring in the state of Manipur amid an outbreak of ethnic violence. According to HRW and IFF, many of the "procedural safeguards" established by the Supreme Court in 2020 to regulate internet shutdowns continue to be ignored by authorities. The government is yet to comment on the report findings, although Indian authorities have issued statements on the internet shutdown in Manipur, citing that the bans are required to prevent the spread of disinformation, mobilization of mobs, as well as quell the violence.
May 2023 | Ethnic violence breaks out in the northeast
Ethnic clashes broke out on 3 May in India’s northeast state Manipur between Meitei and Kuki communities, leaving numerous dead and tens of thousands displaced. Thousands of troops and paramilitary forces were deployed to restore order, with curfews issued and internet services suspended – the latter of which has been criticized by rights experts. The conflict stems from long-standing ethnic divisions, most recently triggered by a court decision which recommended that the State government consider granting the Meitei community Scheduled Tribe status. If granted, such status would give the community, which is a majority in the state, access to wider social benefits and the ability to buy land in areas occupied by minority communities. Local Kuki activists accuse predominantly Hindu-majority Meitei groups affiliated with the ruling party government, of targeting Kuki properties, while police are accused of siding with the Meitei community to quell the unrest. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged the Indian government to address the “root causes of the violence”, while rights experts have emphasized the need for an impartial response and the protection of human rights in Manipur. President Narendra Modi is yet to publicly comment on the violence, while Union Home Minister Amit Shah in his 4-day visit to Manipur stated that the Modi government "stands shoulder to shoulder with the people of Manipur," promising relief measures and a judicial probe into the violence.