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Restriction of internet in J&K and various petitions demanding its restoration

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The Jammu and Kashmir administration had issued government orders restricting the internet connectivity in the State to 2G instead of 4G. This step was taken through various orders dated 18th Jan 2020, 24th Jan 2020, 26th Jan 2020 and 3rd April 2020 that imposed restrictions on the speed of the Internet connectivity.

A petition in public interest was filed before the Supreme Court challenging these orders, and notice was issued to the J&K administration during the hearing on April 9th. However, the Jammu and Kashmir Home Department issued another fresh order extending the existing restrictions on internet speed till April 27, on the grounds that the restriction of internet speed to 2G has not caused any obstruction in COVID-19 control measures, but the incidents of misuse of social media for circulation of fake news, provocative content have however reduced.

Therefore, the following petitions have been filed before the Supreme Court and the High Court seeking restoration of 4G internet in the State

Petition in Supreme Court by Foundation of Media Professionals:

A three-judge Bench of Supreme Court comprising of Justice NV Ramana, Justice R Subhash Reddy and Justice BR Gavai, had heard the plea filed by Adv ShadanFarasat to restore 4G speed mobile internet services on behalf of NGO Foundation for Media Professionals.

Senior Counsel Ahmadi had in arguments stated that in view of the lockdown, it is extremely necessary to enhance technology and connectivity in Jammu and Kashmir. The virtual classes of students can only be done through enhancement of technology.

The Bench had also inquired if anybody on behalf of the Government was appearing before the Court as only Advocates Huzefa Ahmadi and ShadanFarasat appeared on the VC screen.

The petition had been filed in interest of the public by a Ngo, which has challenged the government order restricting internet speed in mobile data services to 2G only, contending that such restriction was in violation of Articles 14, 19, 21 and 21A of the Constitution of India. Another order was passed by the Jammu and Kashmir administration on April 3rd retaining these restrictions on mobile internet till April 15th 2020.

The petitioner in his petition has urged the Court that during this period of health crisis, the government is under an obligation to ensure access to the “digital infrastructure” that is required to make the Right to Health of citizens, an effective reality. The residents of Jammu and Kashmir are unable to take benefit of the initiatives like the Ministry of Health’s COVID19 dashboard and MyGovIndia’s WhatsApp chatbot which responds to queries and counters the Covid myths with text, infographics and videos. They cannot access potentially life saving information from these services , which is violative of their right to equality, right to freedom and right to life.

The restoration of the 4G service, according to the petitioner is also necessary to enable the residents to access the repository of information on internet, and the patients, doctors, and the general public of Jammu and Kashmir to access the latest information, guidelines, advisories, and restrictions about COVID-19 that are being made available and continuously updated online on a daily basis.

Further, the petitioner had also stated that no access to 4G makes it impossible for the residents to follow the government mandated “work from home” policy, especially for businesses in the Information Technology and ITES(IT Enabled Services) sector, and the educational institutions as well. The access to 4G is therefore very crucial to implement the work from home policy being promoted by the government.

Supreme Court’s Order:The Supreme Court had issued notice to the Jammu and Kashmir administration on the plea in the last hearing and had asked them to submit a response in a week. A three-judge bench comprising of Justice NV Ramana, Justice Subhash Reddy and Justice BR Gavaitoday, has asked the Centre to file a response in regard with the issue.

Petition in Supreme Court by Private Schools Association, Jammu and Kashmir :A Public Interest Litigation has been filed in the Supreme Court by the Private Schools Association, Jammu and Kashmir on the ground that order of restriction of 4G data in the is an  infringement of the right to education of people in the State. The Government orders challenged are the orders dated 18th Jan 2020, 24th Jan 2020, 26th Jan 2020 and 3rd April 2020 that imposed restrictions on the speed of the Internet connectivity.

The petition was filed through advocates Soayib Qureshi and Charu Ambwani, and the petitioner is an association of more than 2,200 schools across Jammu and Kashmir.

The petition relates the lack of internet connectivity in the state to the right to education, specially considering the current situation of a pandemic outbreak where people have to depend on virtual classes due to the lockdown. It states that the students of Jammu and Kashmir are facing a serious due to non-availability of high-speed internet connection, and their Right to Education is one of the most important fundamental rights as given by the Indian Constitution. Internet is a medium of gaining, obtaining and dissemination of knowledge thereby empowering the Right to education even more and is extremely crucial during the current times of lockdown where serious restrictions have been placed on the movement of people.

According to the petitioner, data connectivity at the speed of 2G and not 4G, is not sufficient to circulate information, and restrictions on availability of good internet speed is unreasonable, unrequired, totally unjustified, and without any material basis.

The Petition, with reference to the Government’s statement in its orders that restriction has not impacted online classes, has  that such a submission is wrong and has no material basis. The Education sector in the state has therefore, been pushed to the dark ages by such a restriction by the Government, impacting both online education and business activities.

The petitioner has contended that these restrictions infringe the  Comstitutional rights of the people of the State along with the right of the members of the Petitioner Association to carry on its business and professional activities in the present times, as it has  effect on imparting of online education, research activities carried on by professionals, entertainment and communication for the general public.

The petitioner has also made note of the decision of Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India where the Right to internet was held to be part of the fundamental rights,  and the restriction on internet speed in this case  amounts to suspending internet for eternity and violation of the right to internet as 2G is an outdated technology.

The Apex Court in the case of Anuradha Bhasin, while dealing with the question of lockown in the state of Jammu and Kashmir stated that the importance of internet cannot be ignored, and wide range of circulation of information is important. Expression through internet has gained contemporary relevance. The right to freedom of speech and expression was thus held to be a part of Article 19(1) under the Constitution, and any order for suspension of such internet should be subject to judicial review.

Supreme Court’s order in the petition: The Court today has directed the Centre to file a response withreference to all the petitions filed challenging the internet restrictions in the State of Jammu and Kashmir.

Petition before High Court of Jammu and Kashmir: The Jammu and Kashmir High Court on April 10thhad heard a writ petition and also taken suo motu cognizance of issues prevailing due to the current Pandemic and lockdown situation in the Country.

The Court, while considering the issue of Lack of efficient internet facility in the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, had noted that the Amicus Curiae submitted before the Court that on account of non-availability of the 4G services, the students in the Union Territories are unable to access the educational courses being sent by institutions in order to enable the students to cope with the classes which they are missing. The same issue is also under consideration before the Supreme Court in the PIL filed by the ‘Foundation for Media Professionals’ and notice has been issued to the Jammu and Kashmir administration. The High Court had then asked the Home Department of the State to file a status report on this issue.

The Court has given these directions while hearing writ petitions filed for issues prevailing due to the current Pandemic and lockdown situation, in the Country. The Court dealt with the following issues while hearing the writ petitions.

The High Court on April 16th noted that it has not received any status report yet, and has directed the Secretary, Home Department of the UTs of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh to file a status report, before the next date of hearing.

-Srishti Ojha

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