The Supreme Court today directed the Central government to constitute a “special committee” headed by the Union Home Secretary to ascertain whether it’s necessary to continue restrictions on the internet in Jammu & Kashmir. The committee will be headed by the Union Home Secretary, and also consists of Union Communications Secretary, and chief secretary of Jammu & Kashmir. The court directed the committee to examine the issues raised by the petitioners, as well as the government’s responses.

It will examine how appropriate the alternatives suggested by the petitioners are, such as limiting restrictions only to areas where it is necessary, and allowing 3G or 4G speeds on a trial basis in certain geographical areas, the court said. The committee will then advise the Union government. The ‘special committee’ is effectively a replacement of the Review Committee under the Telecom Suspension (or Internet Shutdowns) Rules under the Telegraph Act. The review committee consists of state level officials to review internet shutdown orders passed by a state. For orders passed by the Central government, central level officials, including the Union Home Secretary, are part of the committee.

The court observed that since the issues affect the state and country, the Review Committee, “which consists of only State level officers, may not be in a position to satisfactorily address all the issues raised”. However, Jammu & Kashmir was culled out into a union territory by the Centre after the abrogation of its special status in August 2019. Union territories are administered directly by the Centre.

“In Anuradha Bhasin case, we said that there should be adequate procedural safeguards. On the same note, we directed to constitute a committee of secretaries comprising of Centre and States, Secy of MHA, Ministry of Communication, and CS of J&K,” the bench said.

Since the court refrained from passing any order on restoration of 4G services — the status quo will prevail in the union territory, which was first plunged into a seven-month communications blackout amid a political crisis following the abrogation of Article 370. After the Supreme Court intervened in response to a petition filed by Kashmir Times editor Anuradha Bhasin, the administration finally restored access to a limited number of whitelisted websites. Internet services — limited to 2G speeds, with increased scrutiny of prepaid SIM cards — were restored only on March 4, just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown hit the country.

The petitioners had asked for restoration of 4G internet, given the fallouts of the COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent nationwide lockdown. The 3-judge bench comprised of Justices N.V. Ramana, R. Subhash Reddy, and B.R. Gavai has reserved order on the case on May 4 on petitions filed by Foundation for Media Professionals, Private Schools Association of J&K, and Soayib Qureshi.

Foundation for Media Professionals sought restoration of 4G speeds, citing difficulties in access to online classes and accurate information, in delivery of healthcare in the territory, and the inability to “work from home” due to slow internet speeds, amidst the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and lockdown. Doctors are struggling to download latest studies, protocols, manuals and advisories on treatment and management of COVID-19, the foundation said. Telemedicine and online education are impossible to carry out on 2G speeds, and the public’s access to information is impeded, they added.