Srinagar: The authorities on Thursday extended the suspension of high-speed 3G and 4G internet in Jammu and Kashmir for another fortnight, except the two districts of Ganderbal and Udhampur.
While the gag is in place since August 5 last year, the authorities have today cited supposed attempts to disrupt upcoming polls as a fresh reason. They said the subversive elements “heavily rely” upon the high-speed internet and are required to be thwarted.
The order issued by Shaleen Kabra, Principal Secretary to the Government, said the recently announced elections to 280 District Development Council Constituencies and bye-elections to more than 13400 vacancies in PRIs/ULB, spread cross J&K are witnessing “high level of interest” amongst the people.
“It is apprehended that the terrorist and separatist elements shall make every possible attempt to disrupt the democratic process. During the last fortnight, there have also been targeted killing of the civilians/political activists, that manifest the nefarious designs of the (militants) to dissuade general public from participating in the election process,” reads the order.
“Such unlawful acts heavily rely upon high speed mobile internet connectivity and are required to be thwarted by taking appropriate pre-emptive measures to create an environment of safety and security for the contesting candidates and the general public.”
The order said that taking note of the observations regarding the regulation of internet services made in the report or the Special Committee constituted by the Supreme Court and the reports of the law enforcement agencies regarding the prevailing security environment, directions for allowing access to the high-speed internet services were issued while ensuring that the same do not impede the efforts of the Government towards COVID Control measures, enabling access to educational programmes and ensuring conduct of business activities in an effective manner.
“These directions have had a salutary effect on misuse of data services for rumor mongering, circulation of fake news, inducement of local youth to join the (militant) ranks and coordination of (militant) activities and the situation requires continued close monitoring considering the attempts of infiltration from across the border, presence of foreign (militants) affiliated lo Pak based (militant) outfits and a number of (militant) acts in recent past necessitating even complete suspension of the internet/telecom services, albeit for a limited period of time,” the order reads.
Subsequently, the government has extended the suspension of high-speed mobile data services except in the districts of Ganderbal and Udhampur till November 26.
Interestingly, this is for the first the time the authorities have extended the ban for just 15 days to be in line with the new amendment made in the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017, on Tuesday which says the suspension order issued by the competent authority shall not be in operation for more than 15 days.
The amendment was announced in a gazette notification by the Ministry of Communication on November 10 and shall come into force from the same date.
“The suspension order issued by the competent authority under sub-rule (1) shall not be in operation for more than fifteen days,” the notification reads.
Earlier, in the Anuradha Bhasin judgment, the Supreme Court had said that suspending internet services indefinitely is not permitted under the above-mentioned rules and that suspensions can only be ordered for temporary durations. The court had also ruled that internet shutdown orders could not be made for indefinite periods and must adhere to the principles of proportionality and necessity.
Now, with the new order in place, any State or Central Home Department — the only ones legally authorised to order internet suspensions — can only suspend the internet for 15 days. This is in addition to the due process they must follow, such as forming a review committee after a suspension, and only letting the home secretary issue suspension orders.
While the amendment is presumably supposed to prevent prolonged blackouts, such as the long internet shutdown in Jammu & Kashmir last year, authorities can still restrict internet access by simply reissuing orders every 15 days. Like they already do in J&K by renewing orders that restrict internet to 2G speeds every few weeks, except the twin districts of Ganderbal in Kashmir and Udhampur in Jammu which have access to high-speed 4G services on a trial basis.
Last year, authorities placed the Union Territory under a communications blackout, with internet services, mobile network and even landline services shut, on the intervening night of August 4–5, when the erstwhile State’s special status under Article 370 was abrogated. The gag continued for months together.