A government circular issued on January 14 appeared to bring relief to Jammu and Kashmir, reeling from internet shutdowns for over five months. But on closer inspection, it only does the bare minimum ordered by the Supreme Court on January 10, after it heard a petition against the information blockade imposed on Jammu and Kashmir since August 5.
It also makes scant progress from the government’s own measures over the past few months, allowing slivers of connectivity to a few institutions, businesses and individuals. For thousands of people living in Jammu and Kashmir, it makes little difference.
The government circular was issued in keeping with the court’s injunctions to publish all prohibitory orders and review them every week. It restores 2G networks to postpaid mobile numbers in five district of Jammu’s 10 districts. While Jammu already has broadband internet, the order decrees that it be restored to all institutions providing essential services also in Kashmir, such as hospitals and banks, to government offices, and to hotels and other travel establishments.
More of the same?
According to the administration, it had restored internet to all government hospitals on January 1 – there are few private hospitals in the Valley – around the time SMS services were back in Kashmir. Several government offices also had internet – since October, the internet at deputy commissioners’ offices were meant to be thrown open for public use.
Returning connectivity to banks and select commercial establishments was in keeping with the injunctions of the Supreme Court order, which urged the government to uphold the freedom to practise any profession or trade.
Besides, back in November, the government had already started the process of returning connectivity to subscribers who signed a bond promising it would only be used for business purposes. The current access also comes with similar caveats. Subscribers would only be able to view “whitelisted” sites, largely government websites and those related to other essential services. At government offices and institutions, access would be monitored by gatekeepers. Social media is still banned. So are thousands of broadband connections owned by ordinary Kashmiris.
The national security argument
The court, when it cracked down on the government for indefinite shutdowns, had emphasised the need to protect freedom of expression. It had counselled that if restrictions must be imposed, they have to meet the test of proportionality and ensure that the least intrusive measure is used. The government seems to have interpreted this in inventive ways. The circular justifies a curtailed and barricaded internet on the grounds of national security.
But consider the actions that would be a threat to national security: Kashmiri political leaders being allowed to speak their mind on the government’s administrative changes, Opposition leaders paying a visit to the Valley, foreign dignitaries being allowed to meet whom they want, ordinary people in Jammu and Kashmir being allowed to communicate with each other and carry on their daily business.
Consider the actions not considered a threat to national security: Union ministers visiting Jammu and Kashmir while the region is starved of information from the outside world, select parliamentarians from the European Union taking a boat ride on the Dal Lake while the Valley is shut in protest against them, holding local body elections when public anger against the state is running high.
While the government displays an agile understanding of what constitutes national security, the same cannot be said of its views on freedom of speech and expression.