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SC Allows Petitioners Challenging Manipur Internet Shutdowns to Move Manipur HC Instead

The Supreme Court petition sought an interim order restoring Internet services, while also challenging the constitutionality of the orders themselves.

The Supreme Court permitted petitioners challenging Manipur’s long-drawn Internet ban to move the Manipur High Court instead, where other challenges against the ban are currently pending. The state has been in the throes of widespread communal conflict for the last two months, with Internet services first snapped in some districts in late April.

Appearing for the petitioners, Advocate Shadan Farasat submitted today that the aspect of proportionality of the prolonged shutdowns also merits consideration in the pending proceedings. Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud advised Farasat to move the Manipur High Court instead. “The moment we issue notice…the High Court will say with deference to the Supreme Court we will not interfere now,” he observed.

“Learned Counsel Mr. Shadan Farasat [appearing for the petitioners] seeks permission of the Court to withdraw the petition…to enable the petitioners to either intervene in the pending proceedings, or to file an independent proceeding before the High Court,” ordered Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud today. “We grant permission to the petitioners to do so, keeping all their rights and contentions open.”

Filed by Manipur residents Advocate Victor Chongtham and James Mayengbem, the Supreme Court petition sought an interim order restoring Internet services, while also challenging the constitutionality of the orders themselves. On the issue of the proportionality of the bans, the petitioners argued that the Internet suspension orders failed “to indicate how [state-wide] internet shutdowns might help in the ‘achievement of public order’,” especially when the violence was confined to specific areas.

The Manipur High Court passed orders in the pending proceeding on June 27th constituting an expert committee to examine Internet services in the state, and to report back on whether limited services can be restored, Chief Justice Chandrachud’s order recorded. “The object and purpose of the committee is to address their task of finding a solution to provide limited internet services to the public by blocking social media network websites,” Farasat informed the Court.

On Indian courts’ limited tryst with proportionality in the case of Internet shutdowns: Lawyers speaking at MediaNama‘s recent event on user verification noted that India’s courts have been slow to test whether government infringements on fundamental rights, which include Internet access, are ‘proportionate’ or not.

For example, the Supreme Court’s 2017 verdict reaffirming privacy as a fundamental right laid out tests to determine the legitimacy of intrusions on rights. The intrusion can only happen if backed by a law justifying it. It should be in pursuit of a “legitimate state aim”. Finally, the violation should be proportionate—there should be ”a rational nexus between the objects and the means adopted to achieve them”. However, as lawyer Vrinda Bhandari noted in the case of the Anuradha Bhasin challenge against prolonged Internet shutdowns in Kashmir,

“We went to [the Supreme] Court and said this was disproportionate, our petitions had this detailed proportionality assessment,” said Bhandari. “The Court simply said that all [Internet suspension] orders should be published. Then, when the orders were challenged, it set up a Special Committee to look into the matter. Then we went [to Court] in contempt, saying the committee isn’t looking at the evidence.”

This could be because proportionality assessments are inherently political. In a separate discussion, Bhandari observed, “if you see the Anuradha Bhasin case, the Court doesn’t hold any Internet shutdown order to be unconstitutional. That’s because it’s a huge decision that we are seeking, with huge political implications. Courts want to punt that decision down the road…it’s just easier for somebody else to take that responsibility, because these issues have serious legal repercussions. Our petitions are not being decided because nobody wants to decide these very difficult issues.”

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I'm interested in stories that explore how countries use the law to govern technology—and what this tells us about how they perceive tech and its impacts on society. To chat, for feedback, or to leave a tip: aarathi@medianama.com

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