Supreme Court asks Centre if 4G Internet can be restored in select areas of J&K

Top court points out former L-G G.C. Murmu had recommended it while in office

The Supreme Court on Friday asked the Centre to explain whether 4G Internet could be restored in select areas in Jammu and Kashmir where there was no trouble, saying even former Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor G.C. Murmu had recommended it while in office.

Mr. Murmu recently resigned from office.

“The L-G has said that there is no difficulty in restoring 4G. You have to give an explanation for that,” Justice R. Subhash Reddy, one of the three judges on the Bench headed by Justice N.V. Ramana, addressed the government side.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta apprised the court of Mr. Murmu’s departure from office and said a detailed response would be filed on the issue.

“In your response, do not go strictly by whether or not contempt is there. You should also say whether 4G can be restored in areas [which posed no security challenge],” Justice Reddy remarked.

The court posted the case for August 11.

The court is hearing a contempt petition filed by NGO Foundation for Media Professionals that a high-powered special committee was not formed in compliance with a judgment of the top court on May 11 to review the need to continue with the “blanket restrictions” on 4G Internet access in Jammu & Kashmir, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

On July 28, in the last hearing, the Centre told the Supreme Court that it would “verify” reports in the media quoting Mr. Murmu saying 4G Internet speed should be restored in the Valley. Mr. Murmu’s reported recommendation caused a stir as the Centre had been maintaining, and even filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, that the situation was not ripe to restore high-speed Internet owing to heightened terror activities in J&K. It had agreed to review the situation again after two months.

The Centre has already informed the Supreme Court that a special committee chaired by Union Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla met twice on the need to review the restrictions placed on high-speed 4G Internet connection in Jammu and Kashmir but deferred its decision on the issue, considering the “startling situation” of continued terror attacks in the Valley.

On May 11, the Supreme Court, acting on a writ petition filed by the Foundation for Media Professionals, directed the Centre and J&K to constitute a special committee with the Secretary, Union Ministry of Home Affairs as Chairperson followed by the Secretary, Department of Communications, Union Ministry of Communications and the Chief Secretary, Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

In its contempt petition and a separate application filed in June, the foundation said that nearly a month had passed since the Supreme Court judgment. There was no record in the public domain about the formation of a special committee “to consider the necessity and proportionality of the ongoing blanket mobile Internet speed restrictions in the entire Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir” as the court had directed.

‘No action’

In fact, the foundation said, J&K authorities had issued a new order on the very evening of the May 11 judgment, directing Internet service providers to continue a blanket restriction on mobile Internet speed to 2G for the whole of J&K. A representation to explain the order and seeking information about whether the special committee was formed or consulted prior to this order had got no reply.

The petition said the authorities had extended the blanket restrictions on mobile Internet speeds on May 27. This time, the government order had cited terror incidents in the Valley – proving that Internet cuts really did not achieve government’s desired aim. A second representation from the foundation to the authorities on the existence and role of the special committee was again met with stony silence.

“Twenty-nine days have elapsed since this Court expressly directed the special committee to ‘immediately’ determine the ‘necessity’ of the continuation of restrictions on Internet access in Jammu & Kashmir. However, to the best of the petitioner’s [foundation] knowledge, no action has been taken by the special committee, either to comply with this direction or review the J&K government’s orders [dated] 11.05.2020 and 27.05.2020,” the petition said.

The foundation said there was no sign of whether the government had complied with the court direction.

“There is no information available in the public domain about whether the constitution of the special committee has been notified; whether it has conducted any meetings; or passed any orders since it was directed to be established through this Court’s judgement on May 11… Such a lax attitude, especially during a health pandemic and humanitarian crisis, violates both the letter and the spirit of this Court’s judgments which took judicial notice of the concerns relating to the ongoing pandemic and the hardships that may be faced by the people of Jammu & Kashmir,” the petition said.

The petition said the J&K order cited reasons like the “onslaught of summer” and “the melting of snow” as grounds for restricting the Internet speed.

“Such perennial reasons render Internet restrictions permanent and are not based on any emergency or urgency and go against the spirit of the Telecom Suspension Rules,” the petition said.

The petition highlighted that the Supreme Court had itself said in its judgment in the Anuradha Bhasin case that “restrictions cannot be permanent”. If the special committee has been formed, it is supposed to review the ground situation every seven days.

‘Incorrect’ stand

The government stand that Internet speed restrictions did not pose any hindrance to COVID-19 control measures, including use of mobile apps, accessing online educational content or carrying out business activities was “patently incorrect”, the foundation had submitted.

It said the court should revisit the case to enquire from the government about the setting up of the special committee, which should in turn review the Internet restrictions in J&K after considering the material placed on record by the foundation about its unsuitability as a counter-terrorism strategy.

The court should direct the special committee, if notified, to consider the harm suffered by healthcare professionals, students, businesspersons and ordinary people of J&K because of prolonged Internet restrictions.

With inputs from The Hindu