One of the easiest routes governments and security agencies take these days to curb popular unrest or disturbances is to shut down Internet services for an infinite period. The latest victims of this irresponsible, undemocratic and even illegal measure in a country that boasts of its digital prowess are the people of Manipur, who are made to live without Net connectivity for more than a month now with no signs of its return in the near future.
The agencies are right in their assessment that the Internet could provide an easy medium for miscreants to spread messages of hate and violence in a disturbed area and that they can control it by shutting the medium down. But there is little justification for its continuance for an indefinite period. In a country where 90 per cent of the people access the Internet through mobile phones, it is not all that difficult to track and trace the mischief-makers, should the agencies make an attempt. Instead, they take the easier option and put the entire population in the dark for a period of their choice.
The Supreme Court had in 2020 ruled that indefinite shutdown of the Internet is curtailment of fundamental rights, an abuse of power and not permissible. While deciding a case against the Union government suspending the Internet in Jammu and Kashmir, the court had held that usage of the Internet is a fundamental right under Article 19 of the Constitution and the government can impose a temporary shutdown after meeting the guidelines and specifying the exact duration. The court also directed that the review committee formed under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rule, 2017, issued on the strength of Section 7 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, must review the shutdown orders every seven days. It is clear that the law as it stands today gives the government no power to shut down Internet for an unspecified number of days.
India has taken pride in the fact that it is on the way to global leadership in digitising lives. Prime Minister Narendra Modi misses no chance to showcase India as a country where technology is finding solutions to people’s day-to-day issues; he often describes to foreign audiences how the country seeks to change its future with the arrival of 5G and 6G communication systems. And he is right in that digitisation has become a part of life for most Indians. From effecting banking transactions to making online purchases, accessing government services and attending classes, meetings and conferences, digital connectivity is now an essential service. The government promotes telemedicine which offers an effective, cheaper and easier option to access healthcare. It will be a double whammy for its users if the government itself shuts that option down when peace in an area is disturbed as it closes off the offline options as well.
The government must realise that the country earned global notoriety by imposing Internet shutdown 84 times in 2022, the highest for a nation. Worse, India has retained the top position on a list of nations that have taken this measure for the last five years. Seeking to restore law and order in a region by shutting people down for an indefinite period does not behove a democratic nation. It must find more responsible, democratic and legal means to achieve its objectives and spare the people.