No state suspends internet services more than Rajasthan. These suspensions violate fundamental rights of the residents of Rajasthan and cause irreparable economic damage. Udaipur Chambers of Commerce and Industry (‘UCCI’), and Hotel Association, Udaipur have approached the Rajasthan High Court pointing out that the Government of Rajasthan has been consistently violating applicable law and also the directions of the Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India by -
- not publishing internet suspension orders and
- suspending internet services for reasons not permitted under law.
The Rajasthan High Court has issued notice and tagged the petition with other cases related to internet suspension. Sr. Adv. Mr. Manish Shishodia represented UCCI and the Hotel Association, and IFF provided legal support.
Why should you care?
Internet is a fundamental right, and by definition, an internet suspension is an infringement on your fundamental rights. No state in India does this more frequently than Rajasthan, and almost every time in violation of the law. Industry bodies from Udaipur have picked up the baton and have approached the Rajasthan High Court to protect their interests but also the rights of millions. These proceedings can ensure that the Government of Rajasthan reduces the number of times it suspends internet services.
Proceedings before Rajasthan High Court on 18.05.2022
UCCI, along with the Hotel Association, Udaipur, petitioned the Rajasthan High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution, before the Rajasthan High Court. In the petition, they have placed on record the 26 internet suspension orders issued by Udaipur Divisional Commissioner, asked the Court to declare that these orders are illegal and to direct the Government of Rajasthan to - 1) comply with direction in Anuradha Bhasin; 2) publish internet suspension orders on their handle @RajGovOffical as well as widely circulated newspapers within 24 hours; and 3) ensure Review Committee records its findings and publishes them.
On 18.05.2022, the matter was taken up by the Rajasthan High Court and the Court heard detailed submissions from Senior Advocate Manish Shishoida, who represented the petitioners. Thereafter, the Court issued notice, tagged the matter with other cases related to internet suspension, and listed the case for hearing in July. We will update you on the next date of hearing.
On 10.01.2020, the Supreme Court pronounced the judgment in Anuradha Bhasin directing governments across the country to -
- suspend internet services only upon the occurrence of public emergency or in the interest of public safety;
- publish internet suspension orders;
- issue these orders only as a last resort;
- conduct periodic review of suspension orders; and
- ensure suspension orders are proportionate, necessary, and in accordance with law.
But the State of Rajasthan seems to have missed the memo. We have previously highlighted that they had suspended internet services to prevent cheating in exams, issued orders without any application of mind and permitted the Committee which reviews internet suspension orders to function as a rubber-stamp authority.
These actions and inactions of the Government of Rajasthan have caused great difficulties to the residents of Rajasthan. The industry bodies from Udaipur were particularly aggrieved by the orders issued by the Udaipur Divisional Commissioner (‘Divisional Commissioner’), because every internet shutdown disrupts business and impacts livelihoods.
Since 10.01.2020, Udaipur Divisional Commissioner has issued at least 26 internet suspension orders - most of which were not published and were obtained only through Right to Information applications. These orders restricted internet services for more than 506 hours. The reasons for internet shutdowns in Udaipur range from preventing cheating in examinations to quelling protests. They have caused immense losses to businesses in the state and so, these industry bodies have decided to take action against the frequent arbitrary suspension of internet services.
Challenge to the legality of these orders before the Rajasthan High Court
In their petition, the industry bodies have argued that the 26 orders issued by the Udaipur Divisional Commissioner are illegal because:
- Internet Suspension on account of examinations is not permissible: The Divisional Commissioner issued 7 out of 26 orders to ensure Rajasthan Eligibility Exam for Teachers (‘REET’) and Rajasthan Administrative Service are smoothly conducted. This is not a justifiable ground to suspend internet services as cheating during exams cannot possibly be considered a public emergency. Moreover, in a 2018 case Dhirendra Singh Rajpurohit v. State of Rajasthan, the Government of Rajasthan filed an affidavit stating that it has directed all Divisional Commissioners across the state of Rajasthan to not suspend internet services during examinations. Accordingly, the Rajasthan HC disposed of that petition solely on the basis of this sworn affidavit. Now, the Udaipur Divisional Commissioner’s suspension of internet services for REET examinations could even constitute contempt of the orders of the Rajasthan HC.
- Protest ≠ Internet Shutdown: Udaipur Divisional Commissioner has suspended the internet to manage protests in 18 out of the 26 instances of suspension of internet services between 24.09.2020 and 28.09.2020. These were issued to quell protests by members of the Adivasi community and the orders merely stated that a ‘law and order situation’ has developed and social media may be used to spread rumours. These orders also do not meet the necessary threshold of ‘on the occurrence of public emergency’ or ‘in the interests of public safety’. A law and order situation is not akin to public emergency, which has been interpreted in Anuradha Bhasin as those situations which involve ‘widespread risk of injury to public’. Hence, these orders are illegal and a clear violation of the law laid down in Anuradha Bhasin that requires such orders only to be issued if ‘necessary’ and ‘unavoidable,’ since it is a ‘drastic’ measure.
- Colourable exercise of power: Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017, require that an order suspending telecom services shall be issued either by the Secretary to the State government (‘Competent Authority’) or in unavoidable circumstances, by an officer not below the rank of Joint Secretary who is duly authorized by the State Home Secretary. In the latter case, such an order is subject to confirmation by the Competent Authority (In this case, the State Home Secretary) within 24 hours of issuance. By repeatedly issuing orders for suspension that are, at their longest, only valid for a period of 24 hours - and then issuing a separate but identical order the next day - the Divisional Commissioner appears to be colourably exercising their power to avoid the oversight of the Competent Authority. The individual orders are only issued for a duration of 24 hours at a time, and thus, even if the Competent Authority or the Review Committee were to hold these orders to be illegal, by the time they do so, the internet suspension would have already ended, resulting in a fait accompli.
A table providing a brief overview of the 26 internet shutdown orders issued by the office of Divisional Commissioner Udaipur is available here.
More instances of Internet Shutdowns in the last two months
Even after filing of the public interest litigation, there have been several internet suspension orders issued in Rajasthan in April and May 2022 . In these instances, police personnel have claimed that suspension of internet services was necessary for ‘maintenance of peace and law and order’ in the aftermath of violent incidents in different parts of Rajasthan. Once again, in most of these cases, the orders directing the suspension of services are not publicly accessible except in the case of Jodhpur. The Jodhpur order has also followed the copy-paste template followed by the Division Commissioners of Udaipur and Jaipur as reported earlier.
The PIL filed by the Industry bodies was listed on 18.05.2022 where we had an opportunity to present the unlawful nature of the suspension orders before the HC.
We thank UCCI for allowing us to lend our expertise in this important matter. We are grateful to Sr. Adv. Manish Shishodia who was assisted by the legal team comprising Vrinda Bhandari, Abhinav Sekhri, Tanmay Singh, Jaideep Singh Saluja, Krishnesh Bapat, Anandita Mishra, Amala Dasarathi, Natasha Maheshwari, and Nikhil Dave (intern at IFF).
- Copy of the Petition filed before the Rajasthan High Court dated (link)
- Previous post titled ‘IFF writes to the Chief Secretary of Rajasthan urging greater scrutiny of internet shutdown orders. #KeepItOn’ dated 12.04.2022 (link)
- Previous post titled '[Revealed] Udaipur Internet Shutdown Orders: Cut, Copy, Paste!’ (link)