New in the Northeast | Are internet shutdowns becoming the norm? | Latest News India

On Sunday, the Assam government shut down mobile internet services for four hours in 24 of the state’s 35 districts to prevent cheating and leak of question papers of a written test carried out in over 1,000 centres with nearly 500,000 candidates taking part. This was done despite candidates and invigilators being barred from carrying mobile phones or any other electronic gadgets inside the centres.

Though wi-fi services were not disrupted, the state government’s move caused much discomfort among many in the state. A similar shutdown is slated for August 28, next Sunday, when the second phase of the written test for Grade III and Grade IV posts in the state government will take place.

In recent years, Assam has witnessed several scams in the recruitment process for government jobs including payment of large sums for state public service jobs and leakage of question papers involving very senior policemen and administrators. Ahead of Sunday’s shutdown, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma apologised to the public for the inconvenience due to the shutdown but stressed that it was needed to ensure the smooth conduct of the tests.

This is not the first instance of internet services shut down in the Northeastern state. In December 2019, amidst violent protests against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA, which claimed five lives in police firing, the state’s first JP-led government imposed a ban on mobile internet services for nine days at a stretch. Services were restored on December 20 after the Gauhati High Court issued an order revoking the move.

Assam is not the only state in the region, which has witnessed internet shutdowns in recent years. The method has been employed by governments in other states as well. In January this year, mobile internet, as well as wi-fi services, were suspended for 48 hours in the capital region of Itanagar in Arunachal Pradesh. This was in response to a 36-hour strike called by the All Nyishi Youth Association (ANYA) demanding Chief Minister Pema Khandu’s resignation over corruption charges.

Earlier this month, the Manipur government suspended internet services for 5 days as a means of curbing communal tensions after a vehicle was set ablaze by some young people. The shutdown was imposed amid a blockade of national highways by the All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur (ATSUM). Internet and mobile services were restored three days later citing “positive development”.

Between February 28, 2020, and August 17, 2021, internet and bulk SMS services were suspended for six days in Meghalaya. In all the six separate orders on the shutdowns, law and order situation “including incidents of vandalism and arson which have a potential to disturb peace and tranquillity and cause a threat to public safety” were cited as reasons for the move.

In December 2019, Tripura also suspended mobile internet and bulk SMS services for 48 hours amidst protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). In December last year, immediately after security forces fired upon and killed 14 civilians in a botched operation, mobile internet, data services and bulk SMS services were suspended for 12 hours in Nagaland’s Mon district.

Significantly, Mizoram is the only one among all seven states in the region where the state government has not imposed any curbs on mobile internet to date. It is also the only state in the Northeast, where the Bharatiya Janata Party is not heading the government or is part of the ruling coalition.

According to the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 issued by the Centre, internet and telecom services can be suspended temporarily in case of public emergency or public safety.

In January 2020, the Supreme Court in an order in the Anuradha Bhasin v Union of India case stated that “freedom of speech and expression and the freedom to practice and profession or carry on any trade, business or occupation over the medium of internet enjoys constitutional protection under Article 19 (1)(a) and Article 19 (1)(g)” of the Constitution”.

It added that the restriction on such fundamental rights should align with the mandate under Article 19(2) and (6) of the Constitution, including the test of proportionality.

In March 2022, the West Bengal High Court in the Ashlesh Biradar v State of West Bengal case held that suspension of the internet to conduct exams or prevent cheating in exams does not satisfy the “test of proportionality”.

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