After a day-long hearing Monday, the Supreme Court reserved its judgment on a plea to restore 4G internet in Jammu and Kashmir. The judgment, whenever it comes, will either buttress or junk the fact that high-speed internet is a fundamental right now, which the Supreme Court upheld earlier this year.
The case is also important because the petitioners have argued that in the absence of 4G internet, healthcare and education in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir is taking a hit.
But the outcome of the petition will, most importantly, also show if India’s Supreme Court will allow go unchallenged the specious claims made by the Narendra Modi government on why the residents in the erstwhile state don’t deserve 4G internet, something that residents of other parts of the country get normally.
The Centre’s and the UT administration’s arguments, advanced by Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, ranged from fallacious to down-right flippant, which the judges routinely see through and normally ignore.
Link with terrorism
To link 4G internet and other restrictions with a possible surge in terrorism in the militancy-hit region is an argument both silly and misplaced. When demonetisation happened in 2016, we were told it was, among other things, aimed at checking terror funding. The recent spate of militant attacks in J&K seems to suggest that the claim, like several others, was just an empty boast.
When, in August last year, the Modi government decided to dilute Article 370, amid much chest-thumping, India was assured it would be the last nail in the coffin of corruption and terrorism in J&K. Very little has changed on the ground.
While brave personnel of the Army, J&K Police and paramilitary forces continue to lose their lives in the fight against militancy in the Valley, senior police and civil administration officers keep parroting the line that militancy is on its proverbial last legs.
But, in its desperation, a clueless government seems to be clutching at the straws, now linking terrorism with high-speed internet. What next: cinema and TV? Who knows militants and their sympathisers could be drawing ideas from TV series and movies?
The Supreme Court would do well to see through the absurdity of the Modi government’s claims. The judges should ask the simple question: Does a ban on internet really help check terrorism? For six months, after August 2019, when the Centre decided to dilute Article 370 and bifurcate the erstwhile state into two UTs, J&K didn’t have any internet. Mobile internet with 2G service was restored in January. But militants continue with their activities as they did in the late 80s and also in 90s, when the state didn’t have mobile internet or broadband.
Even senior advocate Huzefa Ahmadi, counsel for the petitioner, underlined this. “Most of the terrorist activities happened in J&K during the 1990s when there was no internet,” he told the bench.
In the name of national interest
During the hearing, Venugopal again invoked the two words that we keep hearing almost on a daily basis – national interest. Unfortunately, in many cases, the courts have also come to accept national interest as an alibi to allow the government to get away with its unconstitutional or arbitrary actions. In doing so, the courts also ignore the fact that their job is to protect the rights of the citizens, and not accepting every misleading or false claim the government makes in the name of protecting national interest.
The AG Venugopal went a step ahead, making a ridiculous claim that the ban on 4G internet was stopping the enemy from gaining information about “troop movement”. “This is about protection of the lives of the entirety of the population of J&K. Yesterday, there were some tragic events. These men could easily take videos of the troop movements because they were trusted. The enemy could know the troop movements if they had 4G,” he told the court.
The learned lawyer and those guiding his arguments didn’t seem to understand that the enemy, in these technology-driven times, doesn’t need 4G internet to get information about troop movement. Satellites do that for you now.
Denying internet means denying essentials
Do citizens of J&K have right to healthcare and education?
While deciding the case, the bench must be mindful of the fact that citizens of India enjoy the right to education and healthcare.
In these trying, Covid-hit times, when internet-enabled laptops and mobile phones are the only source of education via virtual classrooms, the government should have been ensuring that the young, impressionable minds of J&K received facilities at par with those residing in the rest of the country.
Ditto for healthcare and businesses.
In fact, ensuring this, apart from the symbolism that it carries, is also the government’s constitutional mandate. And, if for some short-sighted reason the government chooses not to do its duty, the court has the duty to step in.
Hope in judiciary
In its 10 January judgment on the issue of internet access in J&K, the Supreme Court bench comprising Justices N.V. Ramana, B. Subhash Reddy and B.R. Gavai noted that the court’s limited scope was to “strike a balance between the liberty and security concerns so that the right to life is secured and enjoyed in the best possible manner”. It also, while noting that “liberty and security have always been at loggerheads”, underlined the need to ensure that “pendulum of preference (between security and liberty) should not swing in either extreme direction so that one preference compromises the other”.
Since it is the same bench that heard the 4G matter Monday, one hopes it would remember its own words.
The bench had held that internet access was a fundamental right and the only way the government could curtail it was by applying the test of mandate under Article 19 (2) and (6) of the Constitution, inclusive of the test of proportionality.
It is time the Supreme Court junks the arguments advanced by the Modi government and reiterate the law as laid down by it.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.