New Delhi, July 16: The Centre on Thursday 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 a decision on the issue considering the “startling situation” of continued terror attacks in the Valley.
Attorney General K.K. Venugopal informed a three-judge Bench led by Justice N.V. Ramana that the committee had called for “further reports” from J&K while agreeing to meet after two months, The Hindu reported.
Both Mr. Venugopal and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the J&K administration, were responding to a contempt petition filed by Forum for Media Professionals that the 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.
Senior advocate Huzefa Ahmadi and advocate Shadan Farasat, for the forum, questioned the government’s stand in court. They referred to a statement reportedly made by Union Home Minister Amit Shah on May 31 in a media interview that terrorism was down in J&K. Mr. Ahmadi also referred to an opinion piece by Ram Madhav, J&K interlocutor, in favour of doing away with 4G restrictions in the State.
But both Mr. Venugopal and Mr. Mehta said there was “no question” of contempt action against the government as the committee was set up and a decision taken.
“Your Lordships’ direction has been complied with. The committee was constituted. There is no question of contempt here,” Mr. Mehta said.
Mr. Venugopal said he was willing to place the minutes of the meeting of the committee before the court in a sealed cover. The court directed the law officers to file their response in a week.
Senior advocate Huzefa Ahmadi and advocate Shadan Farasat said the top court judgment required the government to review the 4G ban on a weekly basis and publish its orders so that its deliberations were in the public eye.
“The idea was not pass orders and keep it in the drawer,” Mr. Ahmadi submitted.
Mr. Ahmadi said students in J&K were unable to access educational tools online and citizens had no access to medical care. “What people in other parts of the country can access, the people in J&K cannot. This is an infringement on their right under Article 21 of the Constitution,” he added.
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, the foundation said 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.
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 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 J&K government’s orders of 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 such as 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.
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 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 in J&K because of prolonged Internet restrictions.