Statement and a Call to Action to the Standing Committee on IT on the One Year Anniversary of Internet Restrictions in J&K #KeepUsOnline

Today marks the one year anniversary of the communication shutdown which was imposed in Jammu & Kashmir on 05 August 2019. We immediately sensed the scale of the deprivation and issued a statement on 06 August 2019 committing to take all steps necessary to protect fundamental rights. What began then as a complete blackout of all communication services including phone calls, SMS and landline services has now morphed into an internet slowdown, with people in Jammu & Kashmir being denied access to 4G mobile internet services during a public health crisis.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet has emerged as a lifeline as the functioning of hospitals, schools, offices, shops and courts has been disrupted to ensure social distancing. With most physical establishments closed, we are all heavily dependent on the internet to access telemedicine, online education, work from home, e-commerce, and virtual court hearings. However, for the vast majority of people in Jammu & Kashmir, these facilities are out of reach due to slow internet speed.

In the past one year, there have been multiple rounds of litigation before the Supreme Court of India regarding the constitutionality of the restrictions on internet access in Jammu & Kashmir. While the Supreme Court has endorsed progressive principles of necessity and proportionality in its judgements (Anuradha Bhasin v. UoI and Foundation for Media Professionals v. U.T. of J&K), this has unfortunately not been accompanied by grant of any effective relief. As a consequence, despite the highest court of the land categorically holding that internet restrictions cannot become a permanent state of affairs, the people of Jammu & Kashmir have been denied access to the internet on a free and equal basis with citizens from other parts of India for over one year.

We, at IFF,  have tried our best to support court-centered advocacy against internet restrictions in Jammu & Kashmir. This has been specifically done through IFF counsels working with diverse team of lawyers and led by brilliant senior advocates to represent the Foundation for Media Professionals and Indian Journalists Union. We remain fully committed to this cause despite the slow and incremental nature of change. At present, a contempt petition is pending and awaits adjudication.

Such court centered advocacy has been accompanied with broader policy engagement and encouragement for systemic fixes to the underlying legal provisions that flow from the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. We have specifically tried to engage with parliamentarians on this issue, and we even wrote to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology yesterday night seeking review of the Temporary Telecom Suspension Rules 2017. IFF has also made representations to various ministries of the Central Government and the Special Committee and urged for immediate restoration. We recognise the outcomes have been slow and sense a level of frustration, but we are committed to preserve in our defence of fundamental rights for all people in India.

The government has sought to justify the restrictions on internet access in Jammu & Kashmir by citing national security concerns. However, we respectfully disagree with the government’s rationale because internet shutdowns are counterproductive - both in the short term and the long term -  if the goal is to create a peaceful and stable society. In the short term, empirical studies suggest that internet shutdowns actually lead to an increase in violence because they incentivise those forms of violent collective action which require less communication and coordination than peaceful demonstrations. In the long term, internet shutdowns can lead to resentment and alienation among the local population because people feel they are being deprived of their fundamental rights.

According to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the economy of Jammu & Kashmir has suffered over Rs. 40,000 crores of losses since the communication shutdown was first imposed on 05 August 2019. The losses may be even larger as per more recent estimates. As devastatingly high as this figures may be, the true human cost of the prolonged internet restrictions is much higher and impossible to quantify. During this difficult period, the people of Jammu & Kashmir have demonstrated remarkable resilience but no citizen of a 21st century democracy should have to experience such hardships in the first place.

We, the people of India, deserve better. And this is why we must not give in to despair and persevere against all odds to ensure that 4G internet access is restored in Jammu & Kashmir and demand reform of the underlying legal framework which empowers the government to use an inherently disproportionate tool like internet shutdowns. Yesterday, it is with this hope that we wrote to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology to urgently examine this issue, as much as we separately prepare to put forward arguments before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India.

We will not fail, for failing to try. We will give our best. We will perserve.

  • Representation to the Standing Committee on IT dated August 04, 2020 (link)
  • Statement on August 06, 2019 (link)
  • Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India (link)
  • Foundation for Media Professionls v. U.T. of Jammu & Kashmir (link)
  • Representation to the Department of Telecommunications and the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs to ensure reform of India’s internet shutdown laws (link)