The Supreme Court of India this week rendered a judgment in a case challenging the restriction on high-speed mobile connectivity in Jammu and Kashmir. In a limited order, the Court left the issue of restoring 4G internet speed to a new high-level committee comprising officials from the Union Territory Administration of Jammu and Kashmir and the Union Government. This unfortunately means that the rights of the people living in these areas, who are suffering in the midst of COVID-19 and related lockdowns, have been left in the hands of the same government officials who allowed the previous internet shutdowns and restrictions to occur in the first place.
People in Jammu and Kashmir have been restricted to only slow 2G mobile internet access since authorities lifted a blanket internet shutdown in January 2020 following a ruling by the Supreme Court in the Anuradha Bhasin case. The government had imposed the blanket shutdown in August 2019 amid political developments regarding the reorganization of the political structure and constitutional autonomy of the region.
The Court’s judgment, rather than providing immediate relief to the people of Jammu and Kashmir, ordered the constitution of a special committee, comprising the Chief Secretary of the Union Territory Administration, the Union Government’s Home Secretary, and Telecommunications Secretary, which will assess the necessity of maintaining the current internet restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir. This ruling puts faith on the structures that denied the people of this territory access to the internet in the first place, and grants agency to those who argued in court for continued restrictions.
Justice delayed is justice denied — especially in times of pandemic. By kicking the can down the road and refusing to exercise its full authority, this bench of the Supreme Court failed to prevent an information blackout from continuing throughout an historically dire period for public health in India and around the world. In fact, on the very day of the Supreme Court’s order this week, the Home Department for Jammu and Kashmir issued a new order mandating the continuation of its restrictions on internet connectivity over the vast majority of the union territory.
This lawsuit filed by the Foundation for Media Professionals (FMP) before the Supreme Court is the second case specifically challenging internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir and comes at a time where COVID-19 continues to spread and claim lives globally. The petitioners argued that amid the pandemic, and in consideration of its impact on India and specifically in Jammu and Kashmir, choking internet speed contravenes people’s rights to health, education, access to information, and freedom of speech and expression, among other fundamental rights.
Maintaining its stance that these restrictions should continue, the government argued that internet shutdowns in this region are an issue of national security and that the Court should not adjudicate on matters of national security. In addition, the government contended that it had taken appropriate measures such as establishing call centers to respond to people’s queries about COVID-19; that people can get access to information about COVID-19 through a fixed-line internet connection; that information is downloadable via the slow 2G mobile internet currently available; and that to “ensure effective access to right to health,” information is being transmitted via radio channels, TV, and local cable networks.
However, the reality on the ground is starkly different from what the government evidently imagines. Since access to the internet is cheaper via mobile phones, many people in India and in Jammu and Kashmir have internet access only via their mobile phones, so the argument that information about the pandemic is effectively transmitted via fixed-line internet does not hold water. Numerous media reports have documented the plight of health care professionals in Jammu and Kashmir struggling to access the latest information about COVID-19, and waiting hours to download intensive care guides. Students are being denied opportunities to study online, and while many people in India are able to work from home during lockdowns, the residents of Jammu and Kashmir are effectively prevented from doing so unless they have a fixed internet connection.
We are yet to see if the special committee that has been appointed will modify the shutdown orders or provide the relief that is desperately needed in Jammu and Kashmir. The Supreme Court indicated that the union territory administration and review committee should consider whether restrictions can be limited to only the areas directly impacted by violence and security incidents, and whether other alternative means can be followed.
This must not be allowed to be a dead letter, by a Supreme Court that has previously been described as one of the most powerful in the world. As more cases of COVID-19 are reported in Jammu and Kashmir, continuing to throttle and choke the internet, and deliberately restrict access to information, is to gamble with the lives of people in the territory and beyond. A pandemic knows no territory, and more people getting ill means the disease will continue to spread further. Numerous civil society groups, doctors, and journalist associations have pleaded with the government to lift the restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir and continue to beg the government and the special committee to lift the sanctions. It remains incumbent on the Union Government and the Union Territory administrations respect and implement the stipulations in the Supreme Court of India’s judgment in January; they must make all deliberations by review committees for telecom network suspension orders across the Indian Union publicly available — as they must not intrude on people’s fundamental rights using secret orders. In addition, the Telecom Network Suspension Rules of 2017, which have been used by government authorities to the extent that India shamefully and repeatedly leads the world in the number of internet shutdowns, must be reviewed.