Kashmir has been without high-speed internet for 14 months now and the Centre will not explain why. On Wednesday, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, headed by Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, asked home ministry officials why it had not been restored.
The home ministry refused to answer questions, citing national security reasons, claiming that the matter was sub judice so could not be discussed – the same reason had forced the Tharoor panel to drop the subject in August. It also argued that the Union government does not maintain a record of “suspension orders issued by various state governments including Jammu and Kashmir”.
All three reasons sound weak, at best, suggesting the Centre hides behind formalities to avoid questions on Kashmir.
The government argued national security to stonewall questions, citing Lok Sabha conduct rules that allow it to do so. It is an argument that is wearing thin.
For over a year now, the government has been citing security reasons for suspending high-speed internet, alleging that militant networks and “anti-national elements” would misuse it, that it would help circulate propaganda from across the border. But a year of internet curbs have not made a noticeable difference to the security situation. Reports suggest 2020 saw the second highest spike in militancy in a decade – as of early November, 191 had been killed and 145 new recruits had taken up arms. Frequent gunfights and militant attacks continue, including a shootout in Srinagar on Thursday that left two soldiers dead. Deaths in ceasefire violations across the Line of Control have not stopped either. Meanwhile, internet curbs continue to take a heavy toll on everyday life, affecting businesses, education and healthcare in the midst of a pandemic.
For the home ministry to claim that only state governments maintain records of suspension orders also appears disingenuous. After August 5, 2019, Jammu and Kashmir ceased to be a state. It was split into two Union Territories directly controlled by the Centre. Since then, the Union home ministry has closely monitored all administrative decisions in Jammu and Kashmir. Even if suspension orders come from the local administration, the lines of accountability go all the way to the Centre.
Lok Sabha conduct rules do prescribe that matters sub judice be left out of discussion. But those rules have been liberally ignored in the past – only consider the raging house debates on scams and corruption cases that were also being prosecuted in court at the same time. In August, soon after the house committee was forced to drop discussion of Kashmir’s internet curbs, Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla wrote to the chairpersons of all parliamentary panels instructing them stop taking up matters pending in the courts.
The principle of the sub judice rule is to prevent the court from being swayed by public discussion. But that must be balanced against the need for parliamentary accountability and democratic debate. As India’s first speaker, GV Mavalankar, noted, “The chair has to ensure that no discussion in the House should prejudice the courts of justice, the chair has also to see that the House is debarred from discussing an urgent matter of public importance.”
Fourteen months of internet curbs on a population of millions must surely count as an urgent matter of public importance?
Indeed, the Supreme Court verdict on petitions challenging the internet curbs may have paved the way for the new normal in Kashmir. The court held that the freedom of speech and the freedom to practise any profession through the internet were constitutionally protected. It also held that suspension orders were temporary and subject to judicial review. But it failed to provide any immediate relief to the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
It has led to a situation where democratic processes are formally observed with no actual protection for rights and liberties. The suspension orders are periodically extended under vaguely defined compulsions of national security. In August, the government announced it was restoring high-speed internet in two of the 20 districts: Udhampur in Jammu and Ganderbal in Kashmir. Three months later, there is still no reprieve for the other districts.
The real shut down
Over the past year and more, all existing channels of democratic accountability appear to have closed up in Jammu and Kashmir. The legislative assembly went first, dissolved as the Centre revoked special status and turned the state into Union Territories.
At the same time, Jammu and Kashmir lost its powerful right to information act, which was replaced by the Central law. Activists and journalists say that most queries have failed to draw an answer from the government over the past year. Jammu and Kashmir lost its state information commission, which means appeals must now be filed in the Central Information Commission in Delhi. Activists say not a single appeal has been heard in Delhi in one year.
Now, the government seems to be avoiding parliamentary scrutiny as well. As it dismantled structures of accountability in Jammu and Kashmir, the Centre sang paens to “grassroots democracy”, mainly in the form of local governments that could address the day to day needs of people. But local governments, which cannot look into the matter of internet curbs, are no replacement for a working parliamentary democracy.