Life of a human rights activist, a photo essay

Armstrong Chanambam | Apr 3, 2018 | 4 min read

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Activist speak: Misinformation in Manipur

In Manipur, a blanket Internet ban shut down any chance of fighting rumours with facts.

 

1: Manipuri women don’t shy away from leading from the front. For close to five centuries they have held sway at Ema Keithel, a market operated and controlled exclusively by women. Every day thousands of people throng the bustling streets leading up to the two market complexes to shop for their daily essentials.

2: In this photo from December 2016, women take out a torch rally in Imphal to protest against the ‘three controversial bills’, so dubbed after the massive protests that their drafting and introduction in the Manipur Legislative Assembly kicked up. The three bills sought to regulate the entry of non-tribals into tribal lands.

3: The ensuing protests turned violent and paralysed the state. Here, a group of women from Churachandpur district sing hymns to pay homage to nine people killed during one such protest.

4: On December 18, the government shut down the Internet. Pictured here tending to his backyard, human rights activist Babloo Loitongbam said, the 12-day long information blackout was a waste of precious time and opportunity to fight the rumours and inflammatory statements with facts and logical arguments. The shutdown only aggravated the situation as all attempts to mitigate the tension created by passing the three controversial bills by uploading their exact contents failed.

5: Loitongbam, a Fulbright scholar and now the founder and executive director of Human Rights Alert (HRA), says the internet shutdown prevented saner voices from explaining that the bills didn’t, in fact, impinge on the rights of the tribal communities who were so vehemently protesting it. The panicked reaction from the government only added into the confusion, he says. Seen here over a road near the base of a two-lane flyover bridge in Imphal, where a woman protester stands guard as a pyre burns in the background.

6: The internet is only a medium of exercising one's freedom of expression and people must have the right to decide the truth for themselves, he says. A long-time associate of Iron Sharmila, here he is seen in 2015 taking part in a sit-in to express solidarity with her as she entered the 15th year of her indefinite hunger strike.

7: And Loitomgbam knows what it is like to live under a perpetual internet shutdown. Despite switching internet service providers, his troubles with poor connectivity at work and home persist; repeated complaints to the regional office of the Shillong-based service providers didn’t seem to solve the issue.

8: The inside joke among his associates at the HRA is that there is a bug installed somewhere in the office that is sabotaging their Internet. It has sinister implications. After all, Loitomgbam, through HRA, has been documenting human rights violations, organising victims and striving to provide them with redressal mechanisms.

9: Whenever the patchy internet disrupts his emails to and from other human rights organisations across the country and rest of the world, he visits Venus Net, one of the most popular cyber cafes in Kwakeithal Bazaar. But that December, there was nothing. All cyber cafes were shut, which gave those spreading misinformation a free rein for more than 10 days and disallowing those trying to diffuse the situation by presenting the ground reality, says Loitomgbam.

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