The limited internet connectivity is cosmetic and does not satisfy the principles laid down by the apex court
The longest ever internet ban in the world has been further prolonged as Jammu and Kashmir’s communication lockdown completes more than 170 days. While some hopes had been imbued when the Supreme Court of India on January 10 upheld right to access to internet as a fundamental right and questioned the government’s bid to use arbitrary powers to impose restrictions on public for a prolonged period, the government’s response appears to show that the principles laid down by the court are being subverted. While the verdict itself was over-delayed, failing to provide timely relief, the announcement of limited connectivity through two orders actually translates into no delivery on the ground. In fact, it warns of the state assuming the role of a control freak.

What the public has got is very different from how the optics of restoration of internet connectivity is being projected in different regions of Jammu and Kashmir. Landline internet connectivity was claimed to have been restored in five hilly districts of Jammu region much before the court order came but many areas have complained of erratic connectivity with disruptions for days together, leaving aside the fact that majority subscribers in these areas are reliant on mobile internet connectivity. In the other five districts of Jammu region, the only privileged areas to have been left out of the complete internet ban since August 5, the government has now given 2G mobile services but these do not exist on ground primarily because the technology is obsolete that even the service providers are unable to deliver on the ground. Much worse is the Valley, where additional 400 internet kiosks, that operate under complete surveillance and are inadequate, besides limited landline internet connectivity for government offices, hospitals and educational institutions, besides the two northern districts of Handwara and Kupwara does not qualify for restoration. While the people of Kashmir have been virtually robbed off this fundamental right which will be available only at select places, they will have access to only 153 specially screened websites; these do not include the social media networking sites, you tube or news websites. This is nothing but censorship by another name.

Clearly, the government has circumvented the court verdict which said that “freedom of speech and expression and the freedom to practice any profession or carry on any trade, business or occupation over the internet enjoys constitutional protection under Article 19(1)(a) and Article 19(1)(g)” and that any internet ban the government imposes “should be in consonance with” the reasonable and proportionate restrictions envisaged by the constitution.” The purpose of the internet is to keep the public informed and to provide them a platform for free expression. The court’s guidelines satisfy this principle. However, the connectivity provided does not satisfy these conditions of fundamental needs. This model of pushing major sites behind the firewall resembles the Chinese and North Korean models of keeping public disconnected and under surveillance.

The response of the government is a mere eyewash and a sham but it limits the access of the public to the internet to the bare minimum. This is counter to the spirit of the verdict given by the apex court, which unfortunately stopped short of directing immediate and full resumption of internet connectivity. The cosmetic connectivity that Jammu and Kashmir has been given does not satisfy democratic needs and is a mere attempt to keep the entire population, particularly in Kashmir, under control. The continuation of restrictions also mocks at the face of the claims of Article 370 abrogation aimed at full integration of the state and offering people of the erstwhile state equal rights. The limited connectivity showcases how the people would be deprived of whatever rights they enjoyed before the August 5 action.