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‘Why are decisions of Special Committee on internet restrictions in Kashmir not public?’ SC asks govt

wifi symbol overlaid on map of Kashmir
Credit: Aditi Agrawal

The Supreme Court, on Thursday, directed the Union Ministry of Home Affairs and the Government of Jammu and Kashmir to file a counter affidavit within one week in response to the contempt petition filed by the Foundation for Media Professionals (FMP) in the Jammu and Kashmir 4G restoration case. The government maintained that it was not in contempt of the apex court’s directions. As per the official record of proceedings, the matter will now be listed on July 23.

A bench of Justices N.V. Ramana, R. Subhash Reddy and B.R. Gavai heard the case but refused to issue notice, LiveLaw reported.

‘Govt has not complied with SC orders,’ argues petitioner

Senior Advocate Huzefa Ahmadi, on behalf of FMP, argued that the government had defied the Supreme Court’s order, and that the petitioners had received no response from the government about the status of the Special Committee despite FMP sending them two letters — on May 16 and May 28.

Ahmadi also highlighted the plight of people in Jammu and Kashmir who have not had access to education and telemedicine services because of throttled speeds, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Special Committee has met twice,’ says govt

Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, on behalf of the Indian government, said that the Special Committee had already been constituted and had met twice — May 15 and June 10 —, the Internet Freedom Foundation said in its blog. He reportedly said that although the Committee had been analysing the impact of internet restrictions on health, education, business and freedom of speech, rise in terrorism in the region made the Committee defer the issue for two months after its last meeting on June 10.

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It is understood that Venugopal has offered to submit the minutes of the two meetings in a sealed cover to the bench along with the counter affidavit in the next week. This means that the affidavit would be public but the minutes of the meeting will not be, not even to the petitioners.

As per the LiveLaw report, Justice Ramana asked why the Special Committee’s decision was not placed in the public domain. Ahmadi cited the Anuradha Bhasin judgement that held that such orders should be published so that an affected person can challenge them in court. Venugopal argued that since the Special Committee has already met twice, it is not a case of contempt.

What had the Supreme Court said in the past?

In the last hearing on the matter on May 11, the Supreme Court had directed the central government to “immediately” constitute a Special Committee to determine whether it was necessary to continue restrictions on mobile internet speed in Jammu and Kashmir. The Union Home Secretary was to constitute this committee and was meant to be the chairperson as well. Department of Communications’ Secretary and the Chief Secretary of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir were supposed to be the members.

FMP had filed the contempt petition on June 9 against Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla, who was supposed to head to the Special Committee, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Secretary B.V.R. Subhrahmanyam, Home Ministry and the Government of Jammu and Kashmir, since “there was no information available in the public domain about the Special Committee”.

Ahmadi was accompanied by Shadan Farasat and Bharat Gupta, and lawyers from the Internet Freedom Foundation — Vrinda Bhandari, Apar Gupta and Devdutta Mukhopadhyay. The government of India was represented by the Attorney General of India K.K. Venugopal and Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta.

Govt continues to deprive Kashmiris of 4G internet

Communication services were suspended in Jammu and Kashmir on August 4, 2019, a day before the Indian Parliament abrogated Article 370 that gave special status to the state. Through the abrogation of Article 370, the Indian government has formed two new union territories — Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh — in the region. Since then, certain services have been resumed, but the Jammu and Kashmir government has repeatedly passed orders to extend restrictions on internet speed in the region.

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The absolute internet shutdown was lifted in January 2020 as the government whitelisted a couple of hundred websites on 2G speeds. All websites were unblocked on March 4, but speed remains throttled to 2G. As per the latest order dated July 8, 2G internet speeds are supposed to continue at least until July 27.

The region also saw multiple internet shutdowns in June 2020.

Written By

Send me tips at aditi@medianama.com. Email for Signal/WhatsApp.

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