Image courtesy: The Indian Express
Jammu and Kashmir Home Department issued a government order (GO) lifting speed restrictions on the internet in the union territory (UT) which have been in operation since August 2019. It is expected that gradually in the next few days, 4G will be restored in the entire UT.
In this long period of 18 months, many deliberations, pleas to the Supreme Court were made for restoration of 4G internet but the same was only restored on trial basis in Ganderbal and Udhampur district (in August 2020), per the recommendations of the Supreme Court appointed committee, headed by Union Home Ministry.
The February 5 order of Jammu Kashmir Home Department states that in view of the advice of the Special Committee, which held its 6th meeting on February 4, and upon careful review of the overall security scenario, the restrictions on mobile data services and fixed line internet stand revoked. The exception is pre-paid SIM card holders who shall be given internet access only after verification as per applicable norms.
The story since August 2019
On August 4, a day before the abrogation of section 370 of the Constitution, mobile phone networks, internet services, landline connectivity were all shutdown in J&K. A Washington Post article of December 2019 had called the internet shutdown in Kashmir as the longest ever in any democracy.
Anuradha Bhasin, the editor of the Kashmir Times Srinagar Edition filed a plea before the apex court for restoration of internet. She argued the internet is essential for the modern press and that by shutting it down, the authorities forced the print media to come to “a grinding halt.” The court, in this judgment, reiterated that freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 19 of India’s Constitution extended to the internet but did not go as far as to declare the right to access the internet as a fundamental right because none of the parties to the case made that argument. The court opined that indefinite suspension was not permissible and left it up to the Review Committee to determine its duration and to ensure that it would not extend beyond a period which was necessary.
In January 2020, 2G internet services were restored to access only whitelisted sites. In the beginning of March, the Jammu and Kashmir administration decided to lift the ban put on access to social media sites but on 2G speed internet.
In April 2020, a plea was filed by the Foundation for Media Professionals seeking restoration of 4G mobile internet services in Jammu and Kashmir. The petition had laid out the difficulties faced by public health practitioners, medical professionals during the pandemic who were unable to access latest information, advisories, and guidelines on the low speed internet and how it affected access to health as people in the UT were unable to get virtual consults like in the rest of the country. Further, lack of 4G internet also caused impediment in the educational sector as teachers were unable to take virtual classes, further access to justice was also hindered as litigants were unable to approach court through virtual mode.
In May 2020, the Supreme Court passed its judgement in this petition and while not passing any orders for restoration of 4G in Jammu and Kashmir, instead set up a Committee to review the situation and consider the alternatives suggested by the petitioners.
In June 2020, the petitioners filed a contempt petition before the apex court, stating that MHA secretary, Secretary of Central Department of Communications and Chief Secretary of the Union Territory (UT) of Jammu and Kashmir had failed to constitute the court mandated committee. The committee was directed to examine the
This committee was to be different from the Review Committee already set up under Rule 2(2) of the Telecom Suspension Rules, as clarified by the Supreme Court.
The committee was then formed and in August 2020, Attorney General (AG) KK Venugopal submitted to the court that the Special Committee opined that the situation is not yet conducive for complete restoration but 4G could be restored on trial basis in one district each, in Jammu and Kashmir regions.
After this, repeatedly, restrictions on internet speed in Jammu and Kashmir continued, as the Home Department passed orders every 15 days extending the restriction on internet. Even now, the latest order extends until February 6, unless modified earlier.
Social media was rife with reactions on this long overdue decision of the government. Some cited this to be an impact of international celebrities speaking up about shutting down the internet at farmers’ protest sites. Former Chief Minister of the erstwhile state, Omar Abdullah posted on twitter, “4G Mubarak!”
4G Mubarak! For the first time since Aug 2019 all of J&K will have 4G mobile data. Better late than never.
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) February 5, 2021
The order may be read here