Recently, an Internet shutdown has twice been imposed in Rajasthan to prevent cheating in exams. So, we filed Right to Information applications to determine the extent of compliance with directions in Anuradha Bhasin. We found that the office of the Udaipur Divisional Commissioner has issued 26 internet shutdown orders, most of which are similar! The orders followed a template format - (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 reasoning; and (iii) the Divisional Commissioner suspends internet services under Telecom Suspension Rules.
Internet suspension orders are 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). This provision 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. The Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India 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.
To investigate the compliance of 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 have received a response from the Udaipur Divisional Commissioner. According to the reply, their office has issued 26 different internet shutdown orders since the decision of the Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin. These 26 orders are only from the Udaipur Division, one of the 7 Divisions in Rajasthan.
What the RTI responses reveal
Our analysis of the internet shutdown orders issued in Udaipur reveals the following:
- Cut, copy, paste: Most internet shutdown orders passed between 10.01.2020 and 25.09.2021 by the Office of Divisional Commissioner of Udaipur follow an identical copy-paste template - 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. The similarity between the orders indicates a non-application of mind on the part of the officers responsible. The law requires them to elucidate why internet suspension is necessary, unavoidable and the least intrusive remedy. Merely claiming that ‘law and order’ will be affected because of ‘rumours’ by anti-social elements is insufficient when there is an impact on people’s lives, liberty, and property. Moreover, as we have pointed out before, internet shutdowns also prevent individuals from seeking help, verifying news and contacting their friends and family - demonstrating the importance of providing an explanation for each instance of internet shutdown.
- Non-compliance with Anuradha Bhasin direction: Cumulatively, the internet was suspended for a total of 506 hours in the Udaipur Division since the pronouncement of the judgment in Anuradha Bhasin. This is despite the observation of Ramana J that “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.” (Paragraph 99, Indian Kanoon)
- Protest = Internet Shutdown: 18 out of the 26 orders were issued between 24.09.2020 and 28.09.2020 when protestors from the Adivasi community decided to hold an indefinite protest and block National Highway - 8. According to reports, the internet suspension was accompanied by a violent clampdown of the demonstrations by the Rajasthan police, which attacked protestors and nearby villages. The protesters were agitating for the recruitment of Adivasis for teacher posts in government schools in Tribal Sub Plan areas (TSP) where their community comprises a majority. The protests started in July 2018, after the government announced 5,431 vacancies in schools in TSP areas. The government conducted the Rajasthan Education Eligibility for Teachers (REET) to fill the posts. After the process was completed, 1,167 general category posts were left vacant, which were not allowed to be filled by Scheduled Tribe applicants from the TSP areas.
- Exam = Internet Shutdown: The last 6 orders were issued on 25.09.2021 to suspend internet services on 26.09.2021 in various districts to conduct REET. These orders note that the REET will lead to the movement of candidates throughout Rajasthan, and there is an apprehension of disruption of public safety due to fake news and false rumours that can be spread through social media. Interestingly, some of these orders also refer to “anti-social elements” spreading misinformation on the internet.
- Scheduled Tribes are the most affected: All the districts where the internet was suspended are Scheduled Areas under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution of India. The Fifth Schedule of the Constitution deals with the administration of scheduled areas where tribal communities are in the majority. The object of the Fifth Schedule is to preserve tribal autonomy, their culture and economic empowerment to ensure social, economic and political justice for the preservation of peace and good government in the Scheduled Areas.
A table providing a brief overview of the 26 internet shutdown orders issued by the office of Divisional Commissioner Udaipur is available here.
As is clear from the reply, internet shutdowns orders in Udaipur are frequent, follow a copy-paste template, affect the most vulnerable and are imposed even when less restrictive measures may be available. The harm caused by these internet shutdowns outweigh any speculative benefit. To suspend internet services on a vague, tenuous and unsubstantiated apprehension that the protest or an exam “may adversely affect the public safety and law & order situation” is to violate the constitutional rights of the residents of the affected districts. A vague apprehension of a law and order problem does not satisfy the legal threshold of a public emergency or a threat to public safety.
Moreover, a competent authority must pass orders suspending the internet and must be a reasoned order. In this case, the orders were neither issued by a competent authority - as a Department of Telecommunication letter discourages divisional commissioners from issuing internet suspension orders - nor were they well reasoned as all of them follow a similar template of relying on a vague apprehension of a threat to public safety due to misinformation on the internet.
As a next step, we are awaiting responses from other Divisional Commissioners. The replies will reveal the frequency of internet shutdowns in Rajasthan. Once we have the information, we will raise the issues mentioned above with appropriate authorities as we did in the past.
- IFF’s representation to the officers of Rajasthan Government dated 26.09.2021. (Link)
- RTI dated 01.10.2021 filed with Divisional Commissioner, Udaipur (link)
- Reply dated 20.10.2021 received from the office of Divisional Commissioner, Udaipur (link)
- Table summarising the 26 orders issued by the office of Divisional Commissioner, Udaipur since the judgment in Anuradha Bhasin (link)
The post was drafted by Simrandeep Singh, a fourth-year law student from Tamil Nadu National Law University