On Sunday, the Assam government shut down mobile internet services in 24 of the state’s 35 districts for four hours to prevent fraud and questionnaire leaks from a written test administered at over 1,000 centers with nearly 500,000 candidates taking part. This happened despite candidates and supervisors being forbidden from carrying cell phones or other electronic devices inside the centers.
Although Wi-Fi services were not disrupted, the state government’s move caused much unease among many in the state. A similar closure is planned for next Sunday, August 28, when the second phase of the written test for grade III and IV posts in the state government will take place.
In recent years, Assam has witnessed several scams in the government recruitment process, including paying large sums to government civil servants and leaking questionnaires involving very senior police officers and administrators. Ahead of Sunday’s shutdown, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma apologized to the public for the inconvenience caused by the shutdown, but stressed it was necessary to ensure the tests could run smoothly.
This isn’t the first time internet services have been shut down in the northeastern state. In December 2019, the state’s first JP-led government imposed a nine-day ban on mobile internet services amid violent protests over the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, which claimed five lives in police shootings. Services resumed on December 20 after the Gauhati High Court issued an injunction revoking the move.
Assam is not the only state in the region to have witnessed internet shutdowns in recent years. The method has also been used by governments in other countries. In January this year, mobile internet and Wi-Fi services were suspended for 48 hours in the Itanagar capital region of Arunachal Pradesh. This came in response to a 36-hour strike called by the All Nyishi Youth Association (ANYA) demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Pema Khandu over corruption allegations.
Earlier this month, the Manipur government suspended internet services for 5 days to stem communal tensions after a vehicle was set on fire by some young people. The closure 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 a “positive development”.
Internet and bulk SMS services in Meghalaya were suspended for six days between February 28, 2020 and August 17, 2021. In all six individual rulings on the company closures, the legal and regulatory situation “including vandalism and arson that are likely to disturb peace and tranquility and endanger public safety” were given as the reasons for the move.
In December 2019, Tripura also suspended mobile internet and bulk SMS services for 48 hours amid protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). In December last year, immediately after security forces shot and killed 14 civilians in a botched operation, mobile internet, data services and bulk SMS services were suspended for 12 hours in Mon district of Nagaland.
Significantly, Mizoram is the only one among all seven states in the region where the state government has not yet imposed restrictions on mobile internet. It is also the only state in the Northeast where the Bharatiya Janata Party is not in government or part of the governing coalition.
According to the Center-issued Telecommunications Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Temporary Suspension Rules 2017, Internet and telecommunications services may be temporarily suspended in the event of a public emergency or public safety situation.
In January 2020, in an order in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, the Supreme Court found that “freedom of speech and expression and freedom to engage in and pursue any commerce, business or profession over the internet are constitutional Protection under Article 19(1)(a) and Article 19(1)(g)” of the Constitution”.
It added that limiting these fundamental rights should be consistent with the mandate under Article 19(2) and (6) of the Constitution, including the proportionality test.
In March 2022, in Ashlesh Biradar v. West Bengal State, the West Bengal Supreme Court ruled that suspending the internet to administer exams or to prevent cheating on exams does not meet the “proportionality test”.