Over the weekend, mobile Internet services were shut down in 13 districts in Haryana as authorities dealt with two rallies organized by political parties in the state, reports PTI. Mobile internet was snapped in Jind, Hansi, Bhiwani, Hisar, Fatehabad, Karnal, Panipat, Kaithal, Rohtak, Sonipat, Jhajjar, Bhiwani and Charkhi Dadri till midnight of November 26 and the order came into effect on Friday. One rally was organized by the All India Jat Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti while an another was organized by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Shutdowns as a preventive measure?[Nikhil Pahwa adds] PTI added that the order came from the additional chief secretary for the home department, S S Prasad.
The order said that mobile internet was cut to “prevent any disturbance of peace and public order in the jurisdiction of state of districts.”
This is very different from what happened last year, where the Haryana government had blocked mobile internet and SMSes in certain districts after the Jat community’s protest asking for reservations turned violent.
However, there was no violence before the order was issued. Shutting down Internet access as a preventive measure makes absolutely no sense: it’s a suspension of the fundamental right to freedom of speech, and the imposition of a curfew. If a threat to public order was perceived, why wasn’t a curfew imposed across the board, both for the rallies and in the virtual space? Why is Internet access being shut down because of a presumption of public disorder?
This is not the first time that Internet access has been shut as a preventive measure, and by the looks of it, it won’t be the last: In August, mobile internet was suspended in Haryana, Punjab and Chandigarh for 72 hours to curb potential spread of violence ahead of spiritual leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s rape case verdict.
The number of shutdowns is increasing despite government guidelines
Note that earlier this year, the government issued guidelines for the enforcement of internet shutdowns in the country. In states, the Secretary to the State Government in-charge of the Home Department can issue an order. In unavoidable circumstances, this might be issued by Joint Secretary authorized by the State Home Secretary subject to review by the home secretary.
Historically, mobile Internet bans are enforced under the Section 144 of the CrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure) where it targets unlawful assembly. Earlier, Section 144 of the CrPC was usually be invoked by a district magistrate or the collector.
The number of Internet blocks has also increased dramatically with the Supreme Court’s ruling which upheld the districts and states’ right to ban mobile Internet services for maintaining law and order in February 2016. The Software Freedom Law Center, India (SFLC) has counted 60 internet shutdowns in 2017. This is the 61st. Last year, the number of internet shutdowns were 31 and the number stood at 14 in 2015. Haryana has seen 11 Internet shutdowns.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch condemned the rising number of shutdowns in the country this year and said that the response has been disproportionate. In May, two UN special rapporteurs also condemned the actions of the government in Jammu and Kashmir and said that the internet shutdowns have a disproportionate impact on the fundamental rights. “The internet and telecommunications bans have the character of collective punishment, and fail to meet the standards required under international human rights law to limit freedom of expression,” they added.
On 6th December 2016, MediaNama had held a discussion in Delhi, on issues related to Internet Shutdowns, with support from Facebook and STAR India . The following are notes based on these discussions. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.