In a development that will be of interest to the people of Jammu & Kashmir, the Kerala High Court upheld on September 19 that access to internet is a basic right. In fact, pronouncing its verdict on a petition filed by a Kozhikode college student, the court noted that the right to access internet is a part of the Right to Education under the Constitution.
Unfortunately, Kerala is a good 2,500 kms from J&K which is currently under a rather extended lockdown for over two months. The internet and communication blackout have not only hit students hard but also impacted all aspects of life since August 4, a day before the central government unilaterally stripped the state of its semi-autonomous status and bifurcated it into two Union Territories.
But how can internet services and smartphones be a key enabler of fundamental rights? From freedom of speech and expression to e-governance, e-commerce and facilitation of emergency services, the internet is vital. Come to J&K and this will become abundantly clear.
Pharmacists in Kashmir can’t restock medicines. The e-curfew has directly hit even the Centre’s flagship health programme, Ayushman Bharat, in the Valley. In the absence of internet facility, the Golden Card holders can’t upload the relevant documents online to avail benefit under the health scheme.
Voices from within the state say it all. “Dear customer,” reads the home page of a website run by Kashmir Box, a start-up that buys traditional handicrafts like pashmina shawls and pottery from local artisans and sells them online, “As you must be aware by now, Jammu & Kashmir is going through a difficult period. All communication such as mobile, telephone, the internet has been barred since the 5th of August 2019 and public movement is limited.”
“We sincerely apologise for the inconvenience this has caused you. We are helpless in this situation. However, we would like to assure you that the orders received will be processed as soon as the situation gets better. Currently, we will not be able to reply to any query or give you any sort of information as our systems are inoperable. All issues would be dealt with as soon as internet is restored in the Valley,” it adds before pleading, “Keep us in your prayers.”
A similar notice put up by the Kashmir Online Store on its website reads: “we can’t process any old or new order…we want you to understand our situation.”
Besides online businesses, internet stoppage has badly hit cash circulation in the Valley as ATMs and e-commerce payment services—which rely on internet for each transaction—remain shut. Those associated with the IT-related firms are at their wits’ end.
The internet blackout has completely paralysed the Kashmiri press. The digital media in the Valley looks dead or seems to be in hibernation.
And yet to project 'normalcy', the government has lifted the advisory for tourists. Questioning the move, many residents and tourist operators are wondering as to who would like to visit Kashmir amid a communication blockade.
True, Jammu and Kashmir is not unfamiliar with the present situation. Authorities frequently shut down internet access for ensuring “peace and tranquillity.” According to the Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) — a legal services organisation, which tracks incidents of internet shutdowns in the country — the internet has been blocked in at least parts of J&K as many as 54 times this year.
The Kashmir Valley witnessed the longest internet blackout in the country in 2016 following angry protests over the killing of Hizbul militant Burhan Wani on July 8 of that year. At that time, while mobile internet services on post-paid cell numbers were restored on November 19, mobile internet services for prepaid users were resumed only in January 2017.
“While selective bans on internet access — which means access to popular communication and social networking platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — have been imposed during law and order situations in the past, blanket internet shutdowns are heavily favoured by the State as selective bans are relatively easy to circumvent using workarounds like Virtual Private Networks and proxy servers,” according to ‘Living in Digital Darkness—a handbook on Internet Shutdowns in India’ published by SFLC.
“At present, as per the Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency and Public Safety) Rules, 2017 – the current enabling legislation for Internet shutdowns – there is no obligation in India on Telecom Service Providers or the government to inform users about internet shutdowns,” the report claims.
Commenting on the ongoing internet blackout in Kashmir, the executive director of SFLC, Sundar Krishnan, said, “We have seen such a clampdown for the first time. It’s unprecedented. It has plunged people into uncertainty and a panic situation. It’s bound to take a massive social and economic toll.”
It needs to be ascertained as to what were the objectives of communications blackout and whether those objectives were fulfilled or not, he stressed.
Asserting that “internet is part and parcel of day to day life,” Krishnan noted, “On the one hand we talk about Digital India and connecting people and on the other, we shut down internet access. Even under the worst scenarios, if at all internet shutdown has to be resorted to, due process of law must be followed besides proportionality and necessity. Otherwise, internet shutdown should not be resorted to at all.”
Ironically, the Jammu and Kashmir government rolled-out an e-procurement policy amid the ongoing internet shutdown on September 24, directing all the departments to prepare annual procurement plan and upload it on their respective websites before January next year.
Seeking immediate relaxation of restrictions on the internet and telecommunication services and on the movement of media persons, Anuradha Bhasin, the Jammu-based executive editor of Kashmir Times, had approached the Supreme Court on August 10.
The top court on October 1 granted the government 28 days’ time to reply to all petitions challenging the government’s Article 370 move and one week to the petitioners to file their responses after the government’s reply. The petitions will again be heard on November 14.
Incidentally, India leads the world in the number of internet shutdowns, with over 100 reported incidents in 2018 alone, according to a report titled ‘Freedom on the Net’ by a US think tank. However, SFLC puts the number at 121 as of October 10, 2018.