Our Statement on Delhi High Court’s Dismissal of the Public Interest Litigation Challenging Internet Shutdown in Delhi

On 24.12.2019, the Delhi High Court refused to exercise its powers under Article 226 of the Constitution of India in passing any order while dismissing the petition filed by SFLC.IN in public interest challenging the Internet shutdown order issued by the DCP, Special Cell, New Delhi on 19.12.2019. Delhi witnessed its first ever Internet shutdown on the 19th of December, 2019 through the aforementioned order which was imposed due to the protests againsts the Citizenship Amendment Act which were conducted in specific areas within Delhi alongside other similar protests in the country.

SFLC.IN filed Writ Petition (Civil) No. 13853/2019 in public interest in the Delhi High Court challenging the order above mentioned seeking an order of the court setting aside the impugned order of the DCP, Special Cell, New Delhi. SFLC.IN also sought directions to the DCP not to issue further Internet Shutdowns orders as the DCP did not have any authority to do so as per the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 (“2017 rules”) which was enacted specifically for the purpose of regulating telecom service suspensions in India. Through the petition, SFLC.IN also sought directions to the respondents to impose telecom service suspensions only as per the provisions of the 2017 rules and only when there is an immediate threat to public safety and impose them after notifying the public about an intended suspension.

Adv. Jayant Mehta assisted by Adv. Bhuvan Mishra and Adv. Basil Ajith appeared and argued for SFLC.IN basing the petition on the grounds that the Internet shutdown imposed in Delhi flouted the provisions of the 2017 rules and that arbitrary shutdown of Internet services adversely affects the citizens, affecting their fundamental rights to freedom of speech and life. The economic impact of such shutdowns were also pointed out. A similar petition was disposed of by the Guwahati High Court which ordered Internet services to be restored in the state of Assam as state of affairs had returned to normalcy. The counsel for SFLC.IN also produced and relied on the said order of the Gauhati High Court. However, the Delhi High Court refused to provide any recourse in the matter citing the temporary nature of the suspension order in Delhi.

Interestingly, the Delhi High Court did not go into the merits of the matter concerning the legality of the order passed by the DCP sans any authority. Nor did the Court seek an undertaking from the respondents that Internet shutdowns will be imposed only as per the 2017 rules. The Court refrained from providing any proactive remedy to curb arbitrary Internet shutdowns.

SFLC.IN considers the order of the Delhi High Court legally untenable and will explore alternative remedies to protect the rights of citizens in this matter. Internet shutdowns in India (which have reached the mark of 378 shutdowns within the period from 2012 to present) are in a lot of cases imposed illegally under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 rather than the 2017 rules. Even when orders are issued under the 2017 Rules, these are often in clear violation of the procedures prescribed. Internet shutdowns affect the society adversely and are blatant violations of the fundaments rights to freedom of speech and expression, and the right to conduct trade and the right to life under Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India. Also, it is a gross violation of India’s obligations under International Law.