Dhirendra Singh Rajpurohit v. State of Rajasthan
Closed Contracts Expression
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The High Court of Gauhati refused to stay the operation of an internet shutdown order issued by the State of Assam, India to prevent cheating during governmental recruitment examinations. After the Government of Assam suspended internet services for the first time a social worker filed a writ petition challenging the internet shutdown order on the grounds that it was unlawful. The Court refused to grant an interim measure as it may disrupt conducting of the exams. It did not discuss the constitutionality of the Suspension Order and found that the social worker had failed to make out a case on facts in support of his prayer for interim relief.
This post is adapted for our database based on research by The Internet Freedom Foundation and is reproduced here with permission and thanks.
On August 18, 2022, the Principal Secretary to the Government of Assam, Home and Political Department in India issued a Suspension Order directing the suspension of internet services for the 2 days of August 21 and August 28. The stated purpose of the Suspension Order was to curb the malpractice of cheating during governmental recruitment examinations by the use of mobile phones & internet technology and to facilitate free, fair and transparent conduct of the written examination. The Suspension Order suspended all forms of the internet, including broadband, leased line, mobile data, and 2G/3G/4G to ensure that candidates did not use “unfair means” during the exam. The Suspension Order cited official documents that the Government of Assam received from the Secondary Education Board of Assam (SEBA). In that document, the SEBA only asked the Government to explore the feasibility of disabling internet connectivity “at the examination centre”, however, the Suspension Order directed the suspension of internet services in the entirety of the listed 24 districts.
Raju Prasa Sorma, a social worker based in Kamrup (Metro), Assam filed a writ petition before the High Court of Gauhati challenging the constitutionality of the order. He argued that the Suspension Order violated Article 14 (equality before the law), Article 19(1)(a) (freedom of expression), and Article 21 (life and personal liberty) of the Indian Constitution because it is arbitrary, unreasonable, and restricts freedom of expression.
Article 19(1)(a) states that “all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression”.
Justice Suman Shyam delivered the judgment of a single-judge bench of the High Court of Gauhati. The central issue for the Court’s determination was whether the Suspension Order had been lawfully issued.
Sorma argued that the Suspension Order unlawfully suspended the internet services in various parts of the state. He submitted that the suspension order violated Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act and the Telecom Suspension Rules which allows a state to restrict the transmission of messages on “the occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of the public safety.” Sorma argued that, in principle, the Telegraph Act does not empower the state to restrict the internet “to prevent cheating” in the examination hall. Sorma referred to the case of Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India where the Supreme Court found that “public emergency” is such a situation which involves “widespread risk of injury to public” and that the expression “public safety” means a state of danger or risk for the people at large. With reference to the People’s Union For Civil Liberties v. Union of India case, Sorma submitted that seeking to prevent cheating in exams does not meet the public emergency threshold. Sorma also referred to the case of Ashiesh Biradar v. State of West Bengal where the Calcutta High Court stayed an internet suspension order issued by the Government of West Bengal to prevent cheating in exams on the ground that it did not comply with Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act. He also referred to the Twenty-sixth report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communication and Information Technology titled “Suspension of Telecom Services/Internet and its Impact” where it was stated that cheating in exams does not amount to large-scale public safety concerns or public emergencies.
Sorma argued that the Suspension Order violated the Supreme Court guidelines issued in Anuradha Bhasin where the Supreme Court identified access to the internet as a crucial component of the freedom of expression protected by Article 19 of the Indian Constitution and that any restriction of internet services must be lawful, necessary and proportionate. He submitted that the Suspension Order failed to adhere to the three-prong proportionality test, and did not constitute a legitimate aim.
The Advocate General for the State of Assam defended the Suspension Order and submitted that the Suspension Order was limited in its scope, as well as being proportionate and necessary. The Advocate General contended that the temporary suspension of the mobile data services during the examination hours was adopted as the last option and that the Suspension Order was issued to instill public faith and confidence and to ensure a free, fair and malpractice-free recruitment process. The Advocate General argued that the government of Assam has faced the onslaught of question paper leakages through the use of mobile phones and mobile internet in the recruitment processes over the past several years leading to the cancellation of the process. As a result, the State took this measure to preserve the sanctity of the process since it was not technically feasible to selectively suspend mobile data services only in those areas where examination centers were located. The Advocate General stated that internet services through broadband and cable internet all over the State would remain uninterrupted even during the examination time, and that it was only the mobile data services which would be suspended temporarily, that too, for a specified period, on a Sunday afternoon which is a holiday for the other institutions.
The High Court refused to pass an interim order suspending the Suspension Order. The Court held that an interim order may disrupt conducting of the exams because the next examination was scheduled for August 28, 2022 (two days after the hearing). The Court noted that the Counsel for the Government of Assam assured the Court that the suspension of data services would not be extended to the examination scheduled to be held on September 11, 2022.
The Court did not address the merits of the Suspension Order and its constitutionality or whether the Executive is empowered to suspend internet services to prevent cheating in exams. The Court did issue a notice on these questions and directed the Government of Assam to explain its stance through an affidavit.
The Court concluded that Sorma failed to make out a case on facts in support of his prayer for interim relief.
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