In the last eight years, governments across India have shut down mobile internet services 367 times. But New Delhi, the country’s capital, seemed to be immune to such actions.
That was until Thursday, when the prospect of widespread protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act made Delhi Police resort to a combination of prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and mobile services shutdown in several parts of the city.
In New Delhi, it is to be noted that the directive to the telecom service providers was to snap all mobile services – internet, text messages and calls. This was imposed in five different pockets, including Mandi House, which is located near the Supreme Court of India.
Orders for shutting down mobile services are governed byTemporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017. While civil rights have slammed these rules for being vague, the authorities have often flouted them. For example, in March-April 2018, citing different incidents of unrest, at least six states shut down mobile internet services. Of these, only two followed the rules framed by the Centre, Scroll.in found.
What are these rules? And did the Delhi Police follow them?
Rules for internet shutdowns
According to the rules, whenever governments at the Centre or in states want to suspend internet and mobile services, the directions have to come from the secretary of the relevant home ministry. When the secretary cannot issue orders for unavoidable reasons, they must come from an office not less than a joint secretary authorised by the Union government or the state government. If issued by such an officer, the home ministry of the Union or the state has to confirm it within 24 hours.
The rules mandate that such a suspension order should carry with it reasons for the direction. The order issued by the secretary or the joint secretary has to be communicated to the mobile service provides by an officer of the rank of the superintendent of police.
The order of the Delhi Police that is available in public domain is essentially the communication to the mobile service providers. It was issued by the deputy commissioner who is equal to the rank of superintendent of police and therefore, the communication has been done by the right authority.
But the full suspension order detailing the reasons given by the authorities for taking such an action has not yet been released by the Union Home Ministry, under which the Delhi Police falls.
The communication order does not state clear reasons for ordering an internet shutdown. It merely cites the “prevailing law and order” situation, which does not fulfill the test of imminent danger to public tranquility that the courts insist upon when fundamental rights are curbed.
If indeed the full direction to suspend internet in parts of Delhi does not go beyond citing the “prevailing law and order” situation as the reason, this is bound to be questioned by the court.
In the past, the Supreme Court has made a distinction between “law and order” and “public order” as the Constitution mandates a disturbance to public order as the necessity for curbing fundamental rights. While law and order could be affected by even small crimes directed at the individual, for public order to be disturbed, the incidents have to be on a larger scale.
For the Delhi Police to resort to mobile service shutdown, it would have had to give concrete reasons for why the public order was disturbed and not merely law and order.
On Thursday, the Guwahati High Court in Assam asked the administration to lift the internet shutdown in the city, which was imposed on December 11 as a response to the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The court laid down a deadline of 5pm, but well past 8 pm, many residents in the city were still not able to access the internet.
In the last one month alone, internet services have been shut down by the authorities in as many as eight states, The Hindu reported on Monday.
The Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, meanwhile, entered its 138th day of internet shutdown on Thursday, making it the second longest such period in India ever.