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The Jammu and Kashmir (hereinafter J&K) administration has yet again announced an extension of internet restrictions in the region. The restrictions will be in force till 29th July, 2020. The instant order was passed by the J&K Home Secretary on 8th July, 2020 citing security reasons and stating that internet could be used for “uploading / downloading /circulation of provocative content on the social media.” Internet restrictions started in the newly formed Union Territory after abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, and have been continually in force, ever since. The Supreme Court had raised its concerns over the issue and had also ordered, in the month of May 2020, to constitute a Review Committee in the matter. However, the J&K administration proceeded without complying with the orders of the Court and has announced the instant extension without constituting the said Committee.
Facts of the Issue
In August 2019, the internet services in J&K were completely suspended to prevent the anticipated terrorist activities which, according to the J&K administration and the Centre, could have aggravated due to the abrogation of Article 370. After a complete internet shutdown for about 5 months, the Supreme Court on January 10th 2020, ordered that there should be a review of all the restrictive orders that were in place in the Union Territory for the past 5 months. After the said order by the Court, internet restrictions were partially lifted and access was given to around 1674 white-listed websites. While only select few institutions were given this access, social media continued to remain blocked. The blockade was finally lifted on 4th March 2020, but the internet speed for mobile users was mandated to be 2G. In the judgement of Foundation for Media Professionals v. Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir the Supreme Court ordered, on 11th May, 2020, the constitution of a ‘Special Committee’ to scrutinize the orders of internet restrictions passed by the J&K administration over the last few months. However, the internet restrictions were extended by the authorities without the constitution of the said ‘Special Committee’ that was ordered by the Court. The latest of such extensions was announced on 8th of July by the J&K Secretary (Home) that stated extension of the internet restrictions till 29th July with only 2G speed of data accessible to mobile users. A Contempt Petition was filed by the Foundation of Media Professionals against the orders passed by the administration in blatant non-compliance of the Supreme Court’s order. However, the petition is still to be listed for hearing.
Legal Provisions Involved
The suspension of internet services raises pertinent questions about the constitutional rights of the people in the valley. While imposing restrictions for a limited period of time for security of the region seems reasonable but continual extensions over a considerable period of time affects the fundamental rights of the people in Jammu and Kashmir. Freedom of Speech and Expression is guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) to the Citizens of India. Though this right cannot be taken away from the citizens, the right is also not absolute in nature. Article 19(2) provides that reasonable restrictions can be imposed on the rights guaranteed under clause (1), in the interests of security of the State, however to what extent these restrictions may be imposed, is what us being debated in the instant case. The Supreme Court in its decision in January had observed that indefinite restrictions do not conform with the principles of proportionality laid down under Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
All the three organs of the State must work in a way that they protect and promote the rights of the people guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution. The concept of balanced constitutionalism works on the exact principle that all the three organs of the State should be equally responsible for upholding the rights of the people. Therefore, imposing internet restrictions too must be done only to the extent that it does not unreasonably restrict the rights of the people.
The ‘Special Committee’ to be formed, as directed by the Supreme Court for reviewing the orders passed by the Government indeed seems to be a viable option to review the current status and necessity of the restrictions imposed in the valley. The bench headed by Justice N. V. Ramanna had observed that since the issue pertains to the security of the entire nation and affects both, J&K and the rest of the country it would be beneficial to include officers from the State as well as National level. This observation of the Court seems to be significant, since the Review Committee will be able to assess the restrictions in an objective manner and will be able to decide whether the situation in the valley demands extension of such restrictions. While suspension of internet services seems to be unreasonable exercise of power to many, it cannot be denied that internet and the use of social media had a key role in spreading terrorism in the valley. A lot of misinformation and provocative content was spread through the internet in order to disrupt peace in J&K. An overwhelming majority of today’s youth uses social media and it can be used to misguide them or provoke them to indulge in unlawful activities. It is therefore important to keep a vigilant eye on what is being circulated through the internet in an area such as Jammu and Kashmir, where the situation has always been fragile.
Liberty and authority should always be exercised in a balanced manner. While protection and maintaining security of the State and its people is of utmost importance, but all the actions taken to achieve this end should be proportionate, and should be assessed from time to time. The situation in J&K has always been special and complex and therefore it has seen imposition of rules which other parts of the country may not have experienced. It is debatable whether the successive internet restrictions imposed in Jammu and Kashmir are valid or not. However, the orders of the Hon’ble Supreme Court should not be ignored either. All the steps that are taken up by the Legislature, Executive or the Judiciary should always be weighed against the fundamental rights of the people.
Author: Avani Jain from National Law Institute University, Bhopal.
Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, Lexlife India