On February 26, 2023, the Home Department of the Haryana Government ordered an internet suspension for three days in the district of Nuh. The Review Committee is legally responsible for reviewing all internet suspension orders and recording its findings on whether the suspension order was issued in compliance with applicable law. We have written to the Chief Secretary asking five questions that must be put to the legality of the Suspension Order.
The 5 Questions
To ensure that the February 26 Order complies with applicable law in India, we request that the Review Committee ask the following the questions of the Order:
- Has any incident actually taken place which rises to the level of a threat to public safety or public emergency?
- Have any complaints been received through the 100 Helpline or any other portal that indicate such threats?
- Does the February 26 Order provide alternatives to communication modes to ensure that livelihoods are not affected in the district of Nuh?
- Does the February 26 Order consider the economic impact of internet suspensions in Nuh, including with respect to commerce in economic centres of Haryana, such as Gurgaon and Chandigarh?
- Does the law and order situation that existed on February 26 Order still persist on February 28, which may justify the continuation of the February 26 Order for all three days?
The Suspension Order did not contain clear reasons
The Government of Haryana, through its Additional Chief Secretary, Home, issued an internet suspension order on February 26, 2023, which was to begin the same day, for three days (“Suspension Order”). The Suspension Order was valid in the district of Nuh.
The Suspension Order stated that “a potential cause for communal tension, obstruction or injury to persons, danger to human life and property, disturbance of public peace and tranquility in district Nuh”, and that this may occur “by way of spread of inflammatory material and false rumours, which are being/could be transmitted/circulated to the public through social media/messaging services”. On these grounds, the Suspension Order invoked the Telecom Suspension Rules and the Telegraph Act to completely suspend all mobile internet services, SMS services and even dongle services.
The Suspension Order only refers vaguely to apprehensions of “potential cause” for communal tension, and “potential of disruption” of public utilities, and attributes them without providing any particulars or underlying basis to “spread of inflammatory material and false rumours” online. The Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India (2020) 3 SCC 637 has directed that internet suspension orders must record its reasons, to enable affected persons to challenge them.
IFF decided to write to the Chief Secretary, Haryana
The Telecom Suspension Rules require the Review Committee to meet within five days and record their findings on whether the Suspension Order was issued in accordance with law. However, since the Suspension Order is for 3 days, if the Review Committee meets after such time, the Suspension Order would have lapsed and the finding recorded by the Review Committee would be completely infructuous. IFF decided to write to the Chief Secretary of Haryana, who is the Chairperson of the Review Committee to urge them to convene a meeting of the Review Committee of Haryana urgently and consider whether the internet suspension may be lifted earlier than 3 days.
In the letter, we noted that in 2021, the governments in India, Central and State, have suspended internet services for over 1108 hours. The figure for 2020 was 8927 hours reportedly costing the country US$ 2.8 Billion (Rs. 20,937 crore). Apart from the legal concerns, the economic, psychological, social, and journalistic harm caused by such suspensions outweighs any speculative benefits as, amongst other things, residents of the affected areas are unable to communicate, carry on with their businesses, trades or professions, continue their education or verify news that they receive. Sectors such as tourism, IT, e-commerce, freelancers, and press and news media suffer the hardest hit. Suspending mobile-internet, while allowing fixed-line internet to function, disproportionately affects those underprivileged by the digital divide.
We further highlighted that the Supreme Court of India held in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India (2020) 3 SCC 637, that the right to freedom of speech and expression, and to carry on one’s profession, guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution of India extends to the medium of the internet. The Telecom Suspension Rules require that internet suspension orders must include reasons for such suspension. The Suspension Order merely refers to a vague and unsubstantiated reference of a ‘disturbance of peace and public order’.
We urged the Review Committee to meet urgently
Accordingly, we requested the Chief Secretary of Haryana that the Haryana Review Committee must immediately convene a meeting, in order for it to record its findings on the legality of the Suspension Order.
In the interest of transparency and the spirit of the law, as well as the Supreme Court’s judgment in Anuradha Bhasin, we have also requested that the Review Committee ensure that the minutes of this meeting be published in public domain.
We hope that the Government of Haryana will exercise restraint in issuing suspension orders, without transparently and openly disclosing the reasons for them. We also hope that the Government of Meghalaya will provide due consideration to our requests. We will keep you updated on any responses by the Haryana government.
- Copy of IFF’s Representation dated February 26, 2023 to the Chief Secretary of Haryana (link)