[This is a guest post by Suhrith Parthasarathy.]
A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court has heard oral arguments and reserved its judgment in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India and Ghulam Nabi Azad v. Union of India, in which the petitioners have impugned, among other things, the ongoing shutdown of the Internet in the Kashmir Valley. The arguments raised in these petitions touch upon questions critical to the functioning of India’s democracy. This post is an effort at expounding some of the issues at stake in the case.
Sometime on August 4, on the eve of the Union government’s decision to issue presidential orders divesting the state of Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy, a complete blockade on information and communication services was placed in the region. Since then, a few of these restrictions have been lifted, but access to the Internet in the Kashmir Valley remains elusive. As the Petitioners have pointed out, while landlines and post-paid mobile phone voice calls are now functioning, only a miniscule proportion of the population in the region have access to these services. Post-paid mobile phone SMSes remain blocked and so too pre-paid mobile phone voice calls and prepaid mobile phone SMSes. Messaging services, as we’re only too aware now, are critical to carrying out various forms of economic transactions. They are, in many ways, an essential service. Even according to the government’s own response, out of a total of nearly 60 lakh mobile phones, only 20 lakh phones are working and even on those phones SMSes remain wholly blocked. What is more, access to the Internet in the Kashmir Valley continues to be prohibited, despite the critical role that the web plays today in various kinds of economic, social and educational activities.
These orders blocking communication services, Ms. Bhasin and Mr. Azad have argued, have had a damaging effect on a number of fundamental rights. In Ms. Bhasin’s case, the newspaper she edits, The Kashmir Times, could not be distributed on 5 August and went entirely unpublished between 6 August and 11 October. Today, owing to the absence of the Internet, and the barriers placed on journalists seeking to do their job, only a pruned version of the newspaper is published. Therefore, in Ms. Bhasin’s argument, the ban on communication services, in particular the restrictions placed on the Internet, have affected both her right to free speech and her newspaper’s right to freedom of the press.
The Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Mr. Azad, on the other hand, who was himself prohibited from visiting the Valley, until the Supreme Court intervened, has underlined various other impacts that the bans have had on people living in Jammu and Kashmir. For example, basic livelihood, he points out, has been deeply affected. Industries such as tourism, handicrafts, manufacture, construction, cultivation, agriculture and information technology have been brought to a state of cessation, with the economy in the region suffering losses running into the thousands of crores. Access to basic healthcare too, he argues, has been impeded, with people in the Valley unable to avail of the government’s Ayushman Bharat scheme. Over and above all this, the ban has meant that people in the Valley have been entirely cut out from the rest of India. Residents outside the state have been unable to speak to their families in Kashmir, leading, Mr. Azad says, to a great deal of mental stress and anxiety.
Issues and legal arguments
It’s simple enough to deduce the issues that arise in the case: (1) Does a denial of access to the Internet violate any fundamental right? And (2) can access to the Internet ever be blocked, and, if so, under what circumstances can such an action be validly enforced?
Access to the Internet
Perhaps the finest exposition of why access to the Internet is a fundamental right is contained in a recent judgment of the Kerala High Court in Faheema Sharin v. State of Kerala. There, the court recognised that access to the Internet is today essential, because it grants people an avenue not only to information but also to a host of other services. Although the web brings with it its own set of challenges there can be little doubt, as the court held, that it enhances individual freedom, in granting to people a liberty of choice, in determining what they want to read, see and hear, in determining what kind of information they wish to access, and, more than anything else, in limiting the government’s ability to control a person’s private self.
As the High Court held, the Internet has become so central today to our lives that it plays an instrumental role in the realisation of a number of constitutional guarantees. The court, in arriving at its conclusions, relied on a United Nations General Assembly Resolution which noted how access to information on the Internet “facilitates vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally, thereby being an important tool to facilitate the promotion of the right to education.” Given the importance of education to the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and given how important the Internet was in fulfilling these promises, access to the web, the court held, ought to be considered in and of itself as a fundamental, inalienable right.
Apart from this the court also recognised, that the Internet constitutes not only a medium for speech but also promotes a gateway to information. A right to access the Internet, therefore, in the court’s opinion, has to be seen as an integral component of a citizen’s right to freedom of speech protected under Article 19(1)(a) and can only be restricted on the grounds enumerated in Article 19(2).
The Kerala High Court’s view that access to the Internet is a fundamental right is not only in keeping with global trend but is also consistent with India’s entrenched free speech jurisprudence. After all, as early as in 1961, the Supreme Court had in Sakal Papers v. Union of India, recognised the instrumental value of speech: that access to the news and the media’s role in facilitating the distribution of information and knowledge played a direct role in the promotion of democracy. That the Internet plays a significant part in ensuring the protection of the right to health, personal liberty and livelihood therefore ought to mean that accessing the web deserves to be considered as fundamental, as flowing out of the guarantees contained in Articles 14, 19 and 21, which, today, after the 9-judge bench’s judgment in Justice (Retd). KS Puttaswamy v. Union of India (Puttaswamy I) (2017) 10 SCC 1, together form a trident against arbitrariness.
Therefore, any blocking of the Internet would ex facie violate fundamental rights. As a result, to enforce a restriction on the Internet an action of the state must be predicated on compelling reasons and must necessarily be made in a constitutionally sustainable manner.
When can restrictions be made
It is today settled law, as is clear from a reading of the judgments of the Supreme Court in Puttaswamy I and Puttaswamy II (the Aadhaar judgment), that fundamental rights can only be limited by state actions that conform to the doctrine of proportionality. The test to determine what state actions are proportionate was laid down by a 5-judge bench of the Supreme Court in Modern Dental College v. State of MP. The court there relied on judgments of the Supreme Court of Israel and the Canadian Supreme Court to hold that the doctrine was inherent in Article 19 itself.
A limitation of a constitutional right will be constitutionally permissible if (i) it is designated for a proper purpose; (ii) the measures undertaken to effectuate such a limitation are rationally connected to the fulfilment of that purpose; (iii) the measures undertaken are necessary in that there are no alternative measures that may similarly achieve that same purpose with a lesser degree of limitation; and finally (iv) there needs to be a proper relation (‘proportionality stricto sensu’ or ‘balancing’) between the importance of achieving the proper purpose and the social importance of preventing the limitation on the constitutional right.
In Puttaswamy II, the Supreme Court reiterated this test when it held as follows:
The proportionality test which is stated in the aforesaid judgment, accepting Justice Barak’s conceptualisation, essentially takes the version which is used by the German Federal Constitutional Court and is also accepted by most theorists of proportionality. According to this test, a measure restricting a right must, first, serve a legitimate goal (legitimate goal stage); it must, secondly, be a suitable means of furthering this goal (suitability or rational connection stage); thirdly, there must not be any less restrictive but equally effective alternative (necessity stage); and fourthly, the measure must not have a disproportionate impact on the right-holder (balancing stage).
The question therefore that the Supreme Court must now answer in Anuradha Bhasin and Ghulam Nabi Azad is whether the state actions imposing the communications ban in the Kashmir Valley meets this four-prong test or not. And given that there has been an ex facie violation of a fundamental right, the burden to establish that these conditions are, in fact, met in this case lies on the state. Here, the restrictions placed quite clearly impinge on the doctrine of proportionality for the following reasons:
- The orders imposing the Internet shutdown have no force of law. Presently, orders shutting down the Internet are made under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 (“Telecom Rules”). These Telecom Rules were framed through the power prescribed on the Union executive by Section 7 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. The Telecom Rules require the Executive, among other things, to provide a reasoned order when it directs the withdrawal of the Internet. Here, however, the orders imposing the shutdown were not made public. They were only released to the court during the course of the hearings, and, that too, with tremendous reluctance. A perusal of those orders that were released, however, the petitioners have argued showcase a complete non-application of mind. To take just one example, an order containing the subject: “Shut down of broadband services” was issued to extend an order whose subject read “Shut down of Land Line services.” What is more, while it is the Home Secretary (Govt. of India) or the Home Secretary of the state government concerned who is the competent authority to issue orders of suspension of the Internet under the Telecom Rules, in this case, the petitioner contend, the orders were issued by the Inspector General of Police. But, more than anything else, the orders themselves were bald and devoid of any reasons despite the Telecom Rules’ express mandate that orders suspending the Internet be issued for explicitly spelled out reasons.
- The orders issued suspending the Internet are not in furtherance of any legitimate state aim. The government’s case is that it apprehends that the Internet will be misused by “anti-national” elements and will lead to a deterioration of “law and order.” However, neither phrase invoked confirms to the requirements of Article 19(2) of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held (see: Superintendent Central Prison, Fatehgarh v. Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia and In Re Ram Lila Maidan Incident) that the term “law and order” is not subsumed within “public order” which is the ground that Article 19(2) stipulates. In the latter case, the court held that: “the distinction between `public order’ and `law and order’ is a fine one, but nevertheless clear. A restriction imposed with `law and order’ in mind would be least intruding into the guaranteed freedom while `public order’ may qualify for a greater degree of restriction since public order is a matter of even greater social concern. Out of all expressions used in this regard, as discussed in the earlier part of this judgment, `security of the state’ is the paramount and the State can impose restrictions upon the freedom, which may comparatively be more stringent than those imposed in relation to maintenance of `public order’ and `law and order’. However stringent may these restrictions be, they must stand the test of `reasonability’. The State would have to satisfy the Court that the imposition of such restrictions is not only in the interest of the security of the State but is also within the framework of Articles 19(2) and 19(3) of the Constitution.” In this case, the orders imposing the restrictions on the Internet the orders reference “law and order” without showing us how preservation of “public order” legitimately required the restrictions as imposed. What is more, as the petitioners have contended, the term “anti-national” is simply undefinable and does not fall within any of the carefully delineated grounds stipulated in Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
- The orders imposing the shutdown are not rationally connected to the fulfilment of the supposed purpose, that is the prevention of violence. While the state has repeatedly claimed that the Internet will be misused by miscreants and anti-national elements it has provided no actual evidence of such misuse being a real and genuine threat. Indeed, as the petitioners have shown, studies indicate the opposite, that a shutdown of the Internet leads to anxiety and unease and augment the risk of protests and demonstrations turning violent. Therefore, the state has simply failed to demonstrate the existence of a cogent and sensible nexus between the restrictions imposed and the purported aim behind the orders.
- Finally, the orders also do not conform to the test of necessity, that there was a compelling need for these actions and that the purported objective could not have been achieved through less restrictive and less invasive means. When even according to the state’s own arguments it is only a minuscule minority that are likely to commit violence, and when a whopping majority of the populace represent no threat to public order it is difficult to conceive how a complete shutdown of the Internet can constitute a necessary and proper action. Indeed, as the petitioners have shown, the state has often, in the past, isolated persons prone to terrorising from others, based on their registered mobile phone numbers. What is more, the state could quite easily have also resorted to blocking certain websites alone if the intention was to prevent incitement of violence. That a wholesale blockade of the Internet has been in force for more than four months evinces the fact that the State hasn’t so much as made an effort at ensuring that it adopts the least restrictive means possible to ensure that violence isn’t perpetrated in the region.
Ultimately, therefore, the actions of the state in enforcing a host of communication barriers in the Kashmir Valley, in particular its decision to entirely restrict access to the Internet, constitute a collective punishment on the people of the region and violate, among other things, the fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Constitution.