Restrictions on 4G mobile internet will be relaxed in one district each of Jammu and Kashmir divisions of India’s youngest Union Territory (UT) after August 15 on a trial basis, the central government told the Supreme Court on Tuesday, stopping short of a blanket removal of restrictions across the region because of security concerns.
The decision was arrived at on the recommendations made by a special committee constituted on the top court’s May 11 directive to the Centre to review restrictions on high-speed mobile internet in J&K, the government’s senior-most law officer, attorney general KK Venugopal, informed a three-judge bench headed by justice NV Ramana.
“Access to high speed internet could be provided on a trial basis in a calibrated manner in specified limited areas to assess the impact on the security scenario; the area should have low intensity of terrorist activities. The relaxation from 2G to 4G should be limited for the present to one district each in the Jammu division and Kashmir division,” Venugopal said, reading out the committee’s recommendations.
The relaxation will be reviewed by state authorities every seven days and by central authorities after two months, Venugopal added, maintaining that total relaxation of such restrictions in the entire UT will not be possible due to continuing security concerns.
“Any opening on a trial basis should not be in any area adjoining the International Border/Line of Control. Keeping in view the heightened threat perception, these relaxations would come into effect after August 15, 2020.”
The Supreme Court was hearing a petition filed in June by the Foundation for Media Professionals, a non-government organisation, seeking initiation of contempt proceedings against the Centre and J&K administration for failure to comply with the top court’s May 11 directions to review restrictions on mobile internet speeds in the Union Territory, where people are only able to access 2G services.
The top court appreciated the stand taken by the Centre and closed the contempt case on Tuesday based on Venugopal’s submission.
“This is a good stand by the respondent,” justice R Subhash Reddy, who was on the bench, remarked.
“This is a step forward,” the petitioner’s counsel, Huzefa Ahmadi, acknowledged.
However, the court asked the Centre to respond to an interim application by the petitioner which pointed out that the government was not publishing in the public domain copies of the orders reviewing internet restrictions. Under a Supreme Court ruling on January 10, orders by government authorities imposing restrictions on the internet have to be put out in the public domain.
The Centre has to file its response within two weeks after which the court will pronounce its order.
“While it is a welcome step that the restrictions are sought to be eased soon, the continuing lack of clarity on the material before the review committee constituted under Telecom Services Suspension Rules and the special review committee set up by the Supreme Court on May 11, particularly on whether such material is fresh or stale, is troubling. Subjecting fundamental rights of the people of an entire region to a process of trial and error is, for want of a better expression – interesting,” said Supreme Court advocate Prasanna S.
When the contempt case was last heard on August 7, the apex court asked the Centre to explore the possibility of restoring 4G mobile internet services in the Valley in view of statements made by former lieutenant governor (L-G) of J&K GC Murmu advocating such a move.
“L-G Murmu has said that there is no difficulty in restoring 4G. You have to give an explanation to that,” justice R Subhash Reddy told solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the Jammu & Kashmir administration, last Friday.
Murmu, who was succeeded by Manoj Sinha as the lieutenant governor on August 7, said on July 24 that the restoration of 4G services would not be a problem and Pakistan will continue with its propaganda even if the mobile internet speed is restricted to 2G.
The centre submitted, on Tuesday, that the special committee took inputs from security forces and local agencies before concluding on August 10 that threat perception due to terrorist activities in the Union Territory continues to be high.
“The committee was of the considered view that given the current security scenario, both in Jammu and Kashmir and in surrounding areas, the overall situation is still not conducive to lifting the limited restrictions on high speed internet through mobile devices whilst allowing broadband and 2G across the board,” Venugopal said.
The committee, comprising the secretary of ministry of home affairs, secretary of ministry of communications and the chief secretary of J&K, was constituted based on Supreme Court’s May 11 order. That order was passed in an earlier plea filed in April by the same NGO, pointing out that lack of 4G services in the UT was causing difficulties to medical and health professionals and the general population in accessing the latest government advisories and other information during the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic.
Restrictions on internet services were first introduced in August 2019 when J&K was placed under lockdown after the scrapping of the contentious Article 370 that conferred special status on it, and its bifurcation into two Union territories, J&K and Ladakh.