Updated: Aug 10, 2020
New Delhi: One of the longest Internet bans in the world is not linked to terrorism and has done the 'exact opposite' of restoring normalcy in J&K, as the government claims, says a journalist representing the organisation battling the ban in the Supreme Court.
“The residents of the Kashmir valley are facing greater hostility by the state administration, the civil services, the para-military, the military and the police,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who on in April filed a plea in the Supreme Court on behalf of the Foundation for Media Professionals (FMP).
After Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a nationwide lockdown to combat the pandemic, the residents of the country finally understood what the people in the Kashmir valley were going through, Thakurta said in an interview.
“However, there is a stark difference in the lockdown in the Kashmir Valley and the rest of the country,” said Thakurta, a former president of the FMP and a journalist for over 43 years.
The Centre has justified the ban on high-speed Internet by citing radicalisation over social media, mobilisation of agitators and terrorist attacks. But Thakurta, referring to state denial of the home arrest of former minister Saifuddin Soz, accused the government of misrepresenting the facts in the Supreme Court and the court looking the other way.
The FMP challenged the high-speed Internet ban as violative of fundamental rights, especially during a pandemic. It argued that restriction of internet speed crippled “normal life”, speeding the spread of the Coronavirus, preventing work-from-home options as recommended by the government, shutting local tech companies or forcing them to relocate, preventing virtual classes, telemedicine and court proceedings via teleconference, as is now the norm nationwide.
In that verdict, the Supreme Court refused to restore high-speed Internet, but directed the formation of a Special Committee that would periodically review administration orders curtailing internet speed. The contempt plea has been filed in connection to the lack of periodic review by this Special Committee, which, as Thakurta said, was composed “of the very same people who are responsible (for imposing the restrictions) and who have justified the denial of 4G services”.
“We don’t know what the committee is talking about during its meeting,” said Thakurta. “We don’t have their minutes of the meeting, what do they discuss, what is their view? All we know is they are saying you continue (with the restrictions). What is their justification? We don’t know. We only know the administration’s recommendations.”
At the Supreme Court hearing on 28 July over video conferencing, the Centre denied the FMP’s accusations of contempt, arguing that the Special Committee had met twice and agreed with the administration’s restrictions. During the hearing, senior advocate Huzefa Ahmadi, who represents the FMP, said that G C Murmu, the then Lieutenant Governor of J&K, and Ram Madhav, National General Secretary of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were in favour (their statements are here and here) of restoring 4G services in the valley.
However, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the state, sought time to examine the rejoinder filed by the FMP, and Attorney General K K Venugopal, representing the Centre, said these statements would need to be verified. During a hearing on 7 August, the Supreme Court asked the state administration to “explore the possibility” of restoring high-speed internet in certain areas of Kashmir. Mehta sought another adjournment, saying he “needed to take instructions” since a new Lieutenant Governor had taken charge after Murmu resigned. The next hearing is on 11 August.
"The ongoing state ordered shutdown of 3G/4G services in Jammu and Kashmir is currently the longest state-directed slowdown of Internet services in the world,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific Policy Director of Access Now—an international advocacy that tracks internet suspensions.
A report titled ‘Jammu and Kashmir: The Impact of Lockdowns on Human Rights’ by The Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, noted that “only authoritarian regimes such as China and Myanmar have cut off the Internet for as long or longer periods”.
Since August 2019, the Supreme Court has delivered two verdicts on pleas seeking revocation of the internet ban and the restoration of 4G services, both by a bench led by Justice N V Ramana.
In a case filed on 10 January by Kashmir Times editor Anuradha Bhasin, seeking restoration of the Internet, the Supreme Court court ruled that access to the Internet was “constitutionally protected” and indefinite suspension of high-speed was “impermissible”. The other is the May verdict in the FMP matter.
Thakurta spoke to us on the government’s penchant for lying, collective punishment meted out to Kashmiris and keeping faith in the judiciary.
What has been the impact of several lockdowns since August 2019 in J&K? Are there distinctions between pre-Covid and current Covid conditions?
When you look at what is happening in the Kashmir valley, and here I’m making a special… (distinction), I’m calling it the Kashmir valley because that is the area where all the problems are, it has been in a state of lockdown now for a very very long time, even before August 2019. Things have worsened thereafter. The people there have been facing this kind of situation for a very long period of time. The situation was exacerbated and worsened after August 2019 when section 370 was written down and you have a situation where the state was bifurcated into two union territories.
Post Covid, large sections of the country have realised what it was like to be in the Kashmir valley. Because the rest of India, when they were in a lockdown and confined to their homes, realised to some extent what the people in the Kashmir valley had been experiencing for a very long time.
But, in my opinion, the difference between the rest of India and the Kashmir valley is that the people of the Kashmir valley are facing and continue to face greater degree of hostility from the state administration. Not just the civil administration, but also the police and on top of all that the military and the paramilitary forces. That is the crucial difference. After 25 March (when lockdown was imposed) people actually saw what it was like to be in a situation where you are in a state of perpetual curfew for days and days and days. And you kind of realise what the people of Kashmir valley are going through.
The Centre repealed Article 370 arguing that this would bring J&K on an equal footing with the rest of the country. How has the suspension of 4G internet worked on that score?
I would say the Centre’s move has done the exact opposite (bringing J&K on an equal footing). If one of the stated reasons of the Modi government for writing down Article 370 and dividing the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories and integrate the people of Jammu and Kashmir in general, and particularly the people of the Kashmir valley with the rest of the country, then by suspending internet services and disallowing 4G services, the reverse has happened. This has further alienated large sections of the population.
The point here to note is how much should we trust the government. The government has not been telling the truth. I mean look at what is happening to Saifuddin Soz. Now the local administration says there is no problem, he is not under house arrest. Soz is also saying that this is what the administration is claiming…but he is behind his own home door, which is locked down, barricaded with barbed wire. So the question is, should we believe the government? If what Mr. Saifuddin Soz says is true, then the government is lying.
Now in the case of this petition (contempt plea), the courts have been told something by the government, and the courts are going along with the government. I mean it was a situation where the Supreme Court’s own judgment was not being implemented.
The Supreme Court here, at the behest of the FMP, asked the J&K administration, asked the government of India, what are you doing about this. And finally they set up this Special Committee of the very same people who are responsible (for imposing the restrictions) and who have justified the denial of 4G services. But we don’t know what the committee is talking about during its meeting. We don’t have their minutes of the meeting, what do they discuss, what is their view? All we know is they are saying you continue (with the restrictions). What is their justification? We don’t know. We only know the administration’s recommendations.
Another point that needs to be highlighted is that different sections of the government (state administration) and the ruling dispensation (Centre) are speaking in different voices. We see Ram Madhav who is the National General Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party, is a senior leader and has been a spokesperson, saying we should allow 4G. Then in an interview with The Indian Express, the Lieutenant Governor of J&K GC Murmu he says more or less the same thing. So we are in a bizarre kind of situation where different people are speaking different things and then we don’t know what the government wants to do.
The Govt has argued that modern terrorism relies heavily on the internet, yet data suggests that even though the number of wireless telecom subscribers has grown 524%, terrorism-related violence dropped 1% and deaths in such violence has fallen 23%. The data undermine the Centre’s argument in the Supreme Court that the Kashmir insurgency is the reason for slow-speed internet. Why then do you think the government pushes the line that 4G was suspended to check terrorism?
This is precisely the point of what we are saying, so what’s new? Various sections of the government, including the External Affairs Minister Mr S Jaishankar, are saying terrorists can use the internet. Terrorists have been using the internet–2G or 4G, what is happening? Is suspending 2G or 4G in the Kashmir valley going to check terrorism?
Very honestly, I doubt it. I’ll give you an example. This whole point of who funds terrorists.
If you recall in November 2016, Mr Modi announced demonetization. Overnight, 86% of the currency in circulation was demonetised. At that particular point of time, various reasons were given, and one of the reasons given is that demonetisation will help in the removal of fake currency notes of high denomination. And they (the Centre) said this will stop the funding of terrorists. This was said by the government, the spokesperson and also by the then governor of Reserve Bank of India Mr. Urijit Patel.
Today, we know that demonetisation has not stopped terrorist organisations and terrorists from using fake notes one bit. Rs 2,000 notes, in fact, continue to be illegally duplicated. So, once again, to argue that by stopping 4G you are going to check terrorism, in my opinion I just cant understand the logic of what the government is claiming.
What do you think of the way the court has dealt with this matter of grave urgency, especially after pandemic had come on top of the prolonged 370 lockdown?
It is not just I, the United Nations Human Rights Commission has formally stated on 22 August 2019, “The blackout is a form of collective punishment of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, without even a pretext of a precipitating offence.” So, I would also like to say that this is a collective punishment, unless anybody is suggesting that every single person in the Kashmir valley is a terrorist or a sympathiser of terrorism, or a separatist or whatever… so you are collectively punishing an entire population which is not just unfair, it is downright authoritarian. And in my view, by not allowing 4G, it is not just the media that is suffering, doctors, healthcare workers, people who need to use their internet in this time of a pandemic, even they are being deprived. Hence this is especially not just unfair, it is most unfortunate that you have a pandemic going on and you are just sort of collectively punishing everybody. Because you are saying that some people, few people are terrorists and they are misusing 4G.
Again to me, this logic is highly questionable. One would have hoped that the court would have dealt with the matter more expeditiously, faster and the court has by and large gone along with the administration in J&K, with the administration in Delhi. They (the top court) have not questioned their aims and even the Special Committee was set up after we (the FMP) intervened in the matter.
Do you have faith in the judiciary and do you think the people of Kashmir will get justice from the Supreme Court?
We have to have faith in the highest court of the country. The Apex court in our country is the last hope for ordinary citizens. I hope the judiciary will empathise with the people of Kashmir valley even if in the past, certain judgments have disappointed some of us. But we don’t want to lose faith in the Supreme Court giving justice to the citizens of the valley.
(Ritika Jain is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.)