THE Supreme Court on Monday refused to issue direction on a batch of petitions seeking to restore 4G Internet in the Union Territory (UT) of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The court, however, appointed a special committee comprising the Union Home Secretary as its chairperson and Secretary (Department of Communication) and the Chief Secretary of UT of J&K as its members to determine the necessity of the continuation of the restrictions on 4G Internet in J&K.
A three-judge bench comprising Justices N V Ramana, R. Subhash Reddy and B R Gavai also directed the special committee to examine the contentions of, and the material placed by the petitioners as well as the respondents before the court.
“The aforesaid Committee must also examine the appropriateness of the alternatives suggested by the Petitioners, regarding limiting the restrictions to those areas where it is necessary and the allowing of faster internet (3G or 4G) on a trial basis over certain geographical areas and advise the UT of J&K regarding the same, in terms of our earlier directions”, said the court.
The court also noted that it was also cognizant of the concerns relating to the ongoing pandemic and the hardships that may be faced by the citizens.
Petitioners had submitted that the access to the Internet acquired even more importance under the prevailing circumstances due to Covid-19 pandemic. The fulfilment of the right to health, according to the petitioners, was dependent on the availability of effective and speedy Internet in order to access medical services and information on containment strategies.
“The denial of such critical information not only violates the peoples’ right to receive information but is also a denial of their right to health”, petitioners contended.
Furthermore, they contend that restrictions on Internet speed directly impacted the students of Jammu and Kashmir to exercise their right to education, as they were unable to access to elearning services such as online video classes, and other online educational content. According to the petitioners, this not only impacts their continuing education but also disadvantages the students of Jammu and Kashmir who are preparing for national/competitive exams.
The Attorney General for India (AG) K K Venugopal appearing for the Central Government contended that Courts should not step into issues of national security, which are best left to those in charge of policymaking. He added, in the prevailing circumstances wherein there is a continuing insurgency in the region, the spreading of fake news to incite violence, etc., it would not be possible to provide full internet services to the region.
Solicitor General (SG) Tushar Mehta, on behalf of the J&K, told the court that the information regarding COVID19 was available on various social media platforms, government websites, applications developed by Centre for disseminating information could be easily downloaded over the 2G internet. He added, moreover, no restrictions existed over fixed-line Internet.
According to SG, advisories and documents relating to COVID19 had already been accessed by over one lakh health professionals in J&K through fixed-line Internet.
“To ensure effective access to right to health, the Centre is broadcasting information through various radio channels and through satellite TV and local cable networks. 1.6 lakh pamphlets and 90,000 posters in English, Urdu and Hindi are being disseminated to the public”, said SG Mehta.
Mehta also pointed out that over 108 terrorist incidents had taken place in the recent past, between August 05, 2019, to April 25, 2020, in the valley. The current situation in J&K, according to SG, is very grave and volatile. He also referred to the recent terrorist activity in Kupwara District. SG, therefore, submitted that the authorities had calibrated the restrictions based on the requirement so as to reduce the misuse of the Internet and that the measures adopted by the authorities were reasonable.
The court also noted that “while it might be desirable and convenient to have better internet in the present circumstances, wherein there is a worldwide pandemic and a national lockdown. However, the fact that outside forces are trying to infiltrate the borders and destabilize the integrity of the nation, as well as cause incidents resulting in the death of innocent citizens and security forces every day cannot be ignored”.
Foundation For Media Professionals, advocate Soayib Qureshi and Private Schools Association J&K had filed the petition.