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As Second Year of Kashmir 4G Ban Nears, Signs of Official Rethink on J&K Internet Blockade

J&K Lieutenant Governor G.C. Murmu has said that the Union Territory government has informed the Centre that it is not opposed to internet restoration, effectively pushing the ball in the home ministry’s court.

New Delhi: It has been nearly a year since internet services were first withdrawn from Jammu and Kashmir, just before the reading down of Article 370 on August 5, 2019. While 2G internet was restored a few months ago, the slow speed has posed a particular challenge for healthcare professionals in the time of the COVID-19 crisis, not to speak of students struggling to keep up with online classes and businesses that need proper internet connections for their daily work.

While the Centre is officially sticking to its guns, insisting that 4G speeds cannot be restored for “security reasons”, G.C. Murmu, lieutenant Governor of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, now says that his government has told the Union home ministry that it has no objection to restoring 4G internet services in the region.

In an exclusive interview to The Sunday Express, Murmu told Express that he is “not afraid how people will use” the internet:

“We have been making [a] representation for this…I feel that 4G will not be a problem. I am not afraid how people will use this. Pakistan will do its propaganda, whether it is 2G or 4G. It will always be there… But I don’t see an issue,” he was quoted as having said.

The LG’s statement represents a distinct change in position. The J&K government has earlier said that restoration of high speed internet could, among other things, lead to the spread of “fake news and targeted messages”, “propagate terrorism,” lead people to “indulge in rumour-mongering, support fallacious proxy wars, spread propaganda,” and cause “disaffection and discontent.”

Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Girish Chandra Murmu during inauguration of upgraded Maulana Azad Stadium, in Jammu, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. Photo: PTI

In a controversial move on May 11, the Supreme Court rejected a petition seeking the restoration of 4G internet services and handed over the judicial task of deciding upon the constitutional validity of the internet suspension to a “special committee” – composed of members of the executive. It will be headed by the home ministry’s secretary, the Supreme Court ordered.

Shrutanjaya Bhardwaj’s analysis of the move for The Wire, had pointed to the apex court’s cryptic acknowledgement that its own orders in Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India over safeguards to ensure before cutting off high-speed internet had been violated.

Since the constitution of a special committee, to review the high-speed internet ban, four orders have been issued by the government under the Telecom Suspension Rules 2017 to extend internet restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir.

The most recent of these orders was issued on July 8, 2020, and it directs slowdown of mobile internet speed in Jammu and Kashmir to 2G till July 29.

Read in the context of an ongoing contempt matter in the Supreme Court — where the Forum for Media Professionals has accused the Centre of disregarding a direction for a special committee to take a reasoned decision on the 4G ban — Murmu’s revelation suggests there is more than meets the eye in the Attorney General for India, K.K. Venugopal’s claim that the court order has been complied with.

Also read: Why Modi Government is in the Dock for Contempt of Court in Kashmir 4G Internet Case

One of the committee’s members is the J&K chief secretary. There is notably, no official information available in the public domain about the special committee, and its constitution, as directed by the Supreme Court.

Murmu’s statement that “we have been making (a) representation” for the restoration of 4G opens up the possibility that the committee’s deliberations and decisions — if indeed they have happened, as the Centre claims— may not have been unanimous, which is why the Attorney General, insisted on sharing the minutes with the bench in a sealed cover.

This lack of unanimity appears evident in the ranks of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as well. In May, party national general secretary Ram Madhav wrote in a column on The Indian Express that, “Certain harsh measures like denial of 4G services, which were necessary under special circumstances, can now be done away with, as the state administration and security apparatus are capable of handling difficult situations.”