Twice recently, Internet shutdowns were imposed in Rajasthan to prevent cheating in exams. So, we filed Right to Information applications to determine the extent of the Rajasthan government’s compliance with directions in Anuradha Bhasin. We previously analysed the response received from the office of the Udaipur Divisional Commissioner, which had issued 26 internet shutdown orders, most of which were similar. We have also received a response from the Jaipur Divisional Commissioner, who issued 30 Internet shutdown orders, which also follow the identical copy, cut, paste format!
It is not illegal to suspend the internet in India. But internet suspensions must follow legal procedures. The orders must be issued under Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act, 1885, read with Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 (Telecom Suspension Rules), which permits the Union or the State Government to suspend internet services ‘on the occurrence of any public emergency’ or ‘in the interest of public safety’. This provision also requires that the competent authority records reasons for suspending internet services. In Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, the Supreme Court interpreted this provision and the Telecom Suspension Rules to hold that orders suspending internet services must be published because they affect people’s lives, liberty and property, and publication will enable aggrieved persons to challenge the orders. The court also reiterated that the Internet should only be suspended when necessary and unavoidable to do so, and in the absence of a less intrusive remedy.
To investigate the level of compliance with Anuradha Bhasin in Rajasthan, we filed RTIs with several divisional commissioners of Rajasthan, who issued suspension orders despite a Department of Telecommunication letter discouraging them from doing so. We received a response from the Udaipur Divisional Commissioner, which has been analysed here. Now, we have also received a response from the Jaipur Divisional Commissioner, according to which 30 internet shutdown orders were issued by the Divisional Commissioner. Both these responses are exactly similar to each other and - surprise, surprise - they follow the same format.
So, do these orders comply with the Supreme Court’s orders in Anuradha Bhasin? Let’s see -
What the responses reveal
- Cut, Copy, Paste, again! : All the internet shutdown orders issued by the Jaipur Divisional Commissioner were identical, and all of them followed the same template. As mentioned before, the template is as follows- i) a bureaucrat recommends suspension of internet services citing ‘law and order’ concerns; (ii) the Divisional Commissioner expresses their satisfaction with the recommendation without providing any reasons; and (iii) the Divisional Commissioner suspends internet services. This stark similarity between the orders of the Divisional Commissioners of Udaipur and Jaipur strongly points towards a non-application of mind.
The law requires them to explain why the internet shutdown is necessary, unavoidable and the least intrusive remedy. And yet, in the above cases, the orders simply rely on a subjective apprehension of disruption of public safety and fail to explain why shutting down the internet in the entire district is the least intrusive method to achieve the desired aim.
- Protest = Internet Shutdown, again! : Out of the 30 Internet shutdown orders, 25 were issued between 30.10.2020 and 09.11.2020, during protests by the Gujjar community demanding reservations in the ongoing recruitments and backlog vacancies and inclusion of a State reservation law in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution. All these orders are similar and are issued to supposedly maintain law and order, and public safety keeping in mind communal tensions and the spread of rumours by anti-social elements on Facebook and WhatsApp. You will recall that in the case of Udaipur, the Internet was shut down due to protests by the Adivasi community, and in this case, it was shut down due to protests by the Gujjar Community.
- Exam = Internet Shutdown. Again! : The remaining 5 orders were all issued on 25.09.2021 to shut down the internet on 26.09.2020, i.e. the day on which Rajasthan Eligibility Examination for Teachers (REET) was conducted. The internet was shut down ostensibly due to an “apprehension of fake news and false rumours on the internet of the paper being leaked disrupting public safety”.
- Colourable exercise of power: The Telecom suspension rules require that an order suspending telecom services shall be issued either by the Secretary to the State government 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. The rules also provide for the constitution of a Review Committee which shall meet within five days of issuance of an order suspending telecom services and record its findings. The Court in Anuradha Bhasin also opined that indefinite suspension is impermissible and since the Suspension Rules were silent on the length of a permissible shutdown, the Court found that it was up to the Review Committee to determine its duration and to ensure that it would not extend beyond a period which was necessary.
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 Division Commissioner appears to be colourably exercising their power to avoid the oversight of (a) the Competent Authority, and (b) the Review Committee. 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 much more detailed overview of the 30 internet shutdown orders issued by the office of Divisional Commissioner Jaipur is available here
Cumulatively, the Internet was shut down for a total of 645 hours in Jaipur. It is clear from the responses of the Jaipur Divisional Commissioner that Internet shutdowns are frequent, follow a similar template, are used to quell protests, and are issued without adequate justification even when other less intrusive measures are available. This was the case in Udaipur as well. We have also filed RTIs with the Divisional Commissioner of Kota and the Collectorate at Ajmer, and are awaiting their responses.
If you live in Rajasthan, is your division facing frequent internet suspensions as well? Let us know - find us in our forums and strike up a conversation!