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Internet curbs not conducive to people’s right to information
Opinion

Internet curbs not conducive to people’s right to information

Hari Jaisingh

Hari Jaisingh

The Supreme Court has rendered a great service to the nation and its people by giving a much-needed wider and specific orientation to our concept of “freedom of speech and expression” in its landmark verdict.On the petitions filed by Kashmir Times Editor Anuradha Bhasin and Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad challenging freedom curbs imposed in Jammu and Kashmir.

Over 35 years after declaring that newspaper publication was part of the right to free speech, the Supreme court ruling has clearly stated that the expression of views and carrying out trade through internet are part of the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right to free speech. Therefore, indefinite suspension of internet services is“Impermissible”.

The bench categorically stated: “The importance of internet cannot be underestimated, as from morning to night, we are encapasulated within cyberspace and our activities are enabled by use of internet”.

I very much appreciate the apex court’s forward-looking approach to the “freedom” concept. Equally noteworthy is the court observation on the right of dissent. Decrying the on-going practice of imposition of prohibitory orders under section 144 of the criminal procedure code since the British days, the apex court has ruled that the Section 144“cannot be used to curb the citizens’ right to dissent or expression of grievance in exercise of democratic rights.”

This sharp observation should help putting the ruling authorities in their place. The bench made it clear that application of the provision should be to situations of emergency, and for preventing obstruction and annoyance or injury to any person lawfully employed. It stated that repetitive orders under Section 144 would be “an abuse of power”.It has asked the authorities to notify all prohibitory orders passed in J & K so as to enable aggrieved persons to challenge it at an appropriate forum in any part of the country.

It may be recalled that mobile phones, landlines and internet services were suspended in the Valley on August 4, 2019. An international advocacy group, says that the J & K net shutdown has been longest ever in any democracy. A UK technical research firm recently said that State-imposed net blackouts cost the Indian economy $ 1.3 billion last year. This is shameful, to say the least. I am sure this must have added to the cost of the country’s economic slowdown.

It is regrettable that India tops the list of internet shutdowns globally. PM Modi needs to look into this matter seriously. At stake,is India’s image on the world stage. It is widely known that internet services were often suspended in UP, Delhi and Karnataka in the wake of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). This ought to be a matter of serious concern to the persons at the helm. The Supreme Court has apparently given them a big blow on the way they have been playing with citizens’ freedom.

Amidst today’s complexities, what is required on the part of our ruling class is a proper understanding of what people want. Unless our solutions reflect the people’s genuine needs and expectations, the authorities are bound to fail. And it needs to be understood that India is too large a country to be moved by short-cuts and over-simplifications of “internet curbs”.

Clay has a tendency to mould, but it needs a potter’s expert hand to shape and form. This is where our authorities are failing the people and the nation in the intricate art of governance. There are, of course, both positive and negative pointers to the polity, depending on how one looks at the image of the nation. Much depends on the rulers’ perspective and attitude to the overall situation. This is where we see serious gaps in the one-track mindset of PM Modi and Amit Shah in governing India.

Take the current restlessness. It could be described as alarming, in parts of India, the Valley included. All the same, as long as legitimate democratic safety valves could help people to let off steam, there would always be hope for reconciliation and readjustment,whatever be the nature of problems concerning the people’s right to information.

Greatness, howsoever blessed by the glorious past, cannot be sustained through a series of compromises. A great and rich tradition demands vision as well as the ability to translate it into reality. A balanced vision of modern India demands we should hold all communities together. Today the rulers do not seem to have faith in their own ability to restore and recreate the fabric of an integrated and forward-looking national society.

In the circumstances, we need to constantly remember that only persons of courage and decisive firmness leave their imprint on the pages of history. Here the principal objective is to reverse the process of internet and other curbs and make the system and the ruling class more responsive two the people’s changing needs. I am sure the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment will help change the mindset of today’s rulers.

Indeed, the people have the right to information. So, it is imperative that the sluice gates of misinformation are identified,exposed and closed, whether they are operated by state agencies or non-official agencies. Of crucial importance here is the task of reorienting the administrative structure and revamping the established procedures as laid down by the apex court’s orders. Over to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his close associates.