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Rajasthan wanted to curb cheating during an exam. Did that require an Internet shutdown?

The order that suspended internet services reportedly complies neither with existing law nor with Supreme Court precedent.

The Rajasthan government has decided to suspend internet and SMS services in 5 districts during the REET 2021 exams, the government announced in a press release on September 25. Mobile internet services were unavailable in Jaipur Rural, Dausa, Jhunjhunu, Alwar, and Sikar districts during the day of September 26.

The order to suspend the internet was issued by Divisional Commissioner Dinesh Kumar Yadav, according to the press release:

Mr. Yadav said that there would be movement of examinees from one district to another in the state, in such a situation, deteriorating law and order could arise due to rumours of fake news, accident rumours, paper leaks.  — Government press release

India is already infamous around the world for the frequency of internet shutdowns in the country. The Rajasthan government’s recent decision lowers the bar even further for causes that warrant an internet suspension. But does preventing cheating in an exam pass the minimum criteria for shutdowns set by Telecom Suspension Rules and the Supreme Court?

Suspending internet to prevent cheating violates the law: SFLC

The Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), an Indian digital rights organisation, wrote to the Rajasthan government on September 26 arguing that the decision to suspend the internet violated the law:

Internet shutdowns are bound to cause economic loss, an impact on education, healthcare and other welfare schemes. […] Shutting down the internet to prevent cheating in exams will be a violation of the Telecom Suspension Rules as well the decision of the honorable Supreme Court of India in Anuradha Bhasin V. Union of India. — SFLC letter

What do the Telecom Suspension Rules say about Internet Shutdowns?

Under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules, 2017, the basis for internet shutdowns (borrowed from the Indian Telegraph Act 1885) only includes cases of a public emergency or for public safety. Such interruption would be justified only in the interest of:

  1. The sovereignty and integrity of India
  2. Security of the state
  3. Friendly relations with foreign states
  4. Public order, or
  5. Preventing incitement to the commission of an offence

Is the Rajasthan government in compliance? In the press release, the Rajasthan government classified the shutdown as an attempt to ensure that “there is no disturbance in public peace during the examination.” SFLC argued in its letter, however, that cheating in exams does not fall under any of the permitted categories under the Telegraph Act, and hence an internet shutdown on that basis violates the law.

When can you suspend internet, according to the Supreme Court?

Kashmiri journalist Anuradha Bhasin filed a petition in the Supreme Court on August 11, 2019, alleging that the communication shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir restricted the constitutional rights of journalists. In its judgement on the case, the Supreme Court observed:

… complete broad suspension of telecom services, be it the Internet or otherwise, being a drastic measure, must be considered by the State only if ‘necessary’ and ‘unavoidable’. In furtherance of the same, the State must assess the existence of an alternate less intrusive remedy. — Supreme Court Judgement, Anuradha Bhasin vs UOI 2020

Citing the judgement, SFLC alleged that the Rajasthan government’s decision was in violation of the Supreme Court judgement.

Internet shutdowns in India: A look at previous instances

India led the world in the number of internet shutdowns in 2020, according to a report from Digital Rights group Access Now. Here is a non-exhaustive list of notable issues for which internet shutdowns have been ordered:

  • Farmers’ Protest: Mobile internet services including 4G were suspended this month in several districts of Haryana in view of the Kisan Mahapanchayat. The Ministry of Home Affairs also shut down internet services in Singhu, Tikri, and Ghazipur in January 2021 during the farmers’ protest.
  • Kashmir: The internet was suspended in Kashmir on August 31 and September 1 following the death of separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Before that, internet services remained shut down in Kashmir for 1.5 years from August 2019 to February 2020 after Article 370 was revoked.
  • Anti-CAA Protests: In December 2020, internet shutdowns were issued in various states including Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal on account of the anti-CAA protests, according to IFF.
  • Gujjar agitation: In November 2020, the Rajasthan government suspended mobile internet services in several parts of Jaipur district amid the Gujjar agitation.

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