Copying gangs, law and order: Exams and Internet shutdowns in Rajasthan - Hindustan Times
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Copying gangs, law and order: Exams and Internet shutdowns in Rajasthan

ByHindustan Times
May 16, 2023 01:58 PM IST

This article is authored by Torsha Sarkar, The Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru.

In September of 2022, the Supreme Court (SC) admitted a petition filed by Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), that challenged five Indian states — Rajasthan, West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Gujarat — for shutting down the internet to prevent cheating during examinations. The petition argued that this practice of ordering internet shutdowns is an arbitrary exercise of the law, being a misinterpretation of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 (‘the Rules’) and shutdowns issued in this manner are unconstitutional, given the SC’s previous ruling that the right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to carry on business using the medium of internet is constitutionally protected.

Internet
Internet

India is not unique in either ordering internet shutdowns, or ordering them in lieu of exams (for instance, research has shown that countries in the West Asian and North African region are equally trigger-happy). However, the sheer number of shutdowns that occur in any given year in India outnumber those in every other country in the world. In particular, Rajasthan is known for continually ordering internet shutdowns in days leading up to examinations. In this piece, I examine a small database of internet shutdown orders that have been issued by the Rajasthan government to prevent cheating in different examinations. These orders are sourced from the annexure of the SFLC petition, which lists approximately twenty-five government documents corresponding to internet shutdowns that had been issued by the Rajasthan government between 2018-2021 in lieu of examinations.

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What do these orders have in common? At the outset, they are issued in clusters around specific government exams. For instance, in 2021, during the Rajasthan Eligibility Examination for Teacher (REET-2021), there were four unique instances of shutdown orders, ordered by government officials in Bikaner, Ajmer, Udaipur and Jaipur. These orders were all issued one day before the stated date of the examination and the reasons underpinning these orders were phrased nearly identical: apprehensions of ‘law and order’ situation arising due to inter-district traffic of a large number of exam candidates, or due to ‘fake news’ of exam leaks. In at least six other instances of shutdown orders, spanning from 2018 to 2021, the divisional commissioner of Jaipur alluded to apprehensions of “active exam solver gangs or copying gangs” causing disruption in the examinations.

These shutdowns usually lasted for a day or two, their timings coinciding with the duration of the shifts of the exams. Almost all the orders were for mobile internet to be shut down, as opposed to broadband services. With mobile data plans being substantially cheaper than broadband connections in India, a predominant number of Indians rely on mobile internet for access to the internet, which means that disrupting this service is often sufficient to cut off a large amount of the population from access. In addition, India’s telecommunication sector is dominated by a handful of companies, which makes it easier for officials to rely on these operators while ordering internet shutdowns.

These orders are predominantly issued by offices of divisional commissioner or district magistrates in different cities/districts of Rajasthan, manifestly in contravention of the Rules, which specifies that such orders can only be issued by the secretary, ministry of home affairs, or secretary, home department of a state government. Interestingly enough, the bureaucratic machinery that enables these shutdowns, have also found two loopholes in the provisions of the Rules, to lend a veneer of legality to the process by which these shutdowns are ordered.

First, Rule 2(1) specifies that a divisional commissioner may issue shutdown orders, provided: i) they have been duly authorised, and ii) only in unavoidable circumstances. In 2017, the home secretary of Rajasthan issued an order which authorised the divisional commissioners of the state of Rajasthan to exercise the powers conferred by the Rules, “in case of public emergency or public safety”. However, this blanket authorisation completely overrode the second condition required to trigger the exception to Rule 2(1): the presence of unavoidable circumstances.

Even assuming that this authorisation is legally valid and there is some factual veracity to the government’s apprehensions about “copying gangs”, it is difficult to understand how the terms “public emergency or public safety” can include question papers being leaked. In fact, this legal interpretation is against the Rajasthan government’s own admission in a 2018 case where the home department of Rajasthan had filed an affidavit in the Rajasthan High Court, stating that conducting examinations does not fall in the ambit of ‘public safety’ or ‘public emergency’. Accordingly, all subsequent orders for internet shutdown issued by the Rajasthan government are not only in contravention of the existing legal framework, but also goes against the government’s own affidavit in front of the court of law.

Two, the proviso to Rule 2(1) states that an order issued in this way will be subject to confirmation from the competent authority within 24 hours of issuing such order. Towards this, all of the shutdown orders contained an endnote, where they are forwarded for confirmation/approval to relevant officials. While the SFLC petition does not contain additional information about whether these orders were eventually validated, we can assume that there is a strong chance that they were, simply because these orders almost always correspond to actual internet shutdowns.

Beyond the patterns and reasonings repeated ad nauseum in the orders, what could explain the Rajasthan government’s tendency to order internet shutdowns around examinations? While there is no definitive answer, previous research has shown that competitive exams in Rajasthan are a way for recruitment in government jobs that provide generous benefits. Accordingly, these exams are a political affair, with stakes seemingly high enough for the government to curb internet access in an effort to prevent cheating. While this does not justify the illegality of the practice, it provides some political context behind both the presence of groups that systematically disrupt these examinations, as well as the government’s propensity to order these shutdowns.

While there is scholarly consensus about the fact that internet shutdowns constitute a disproportionate means to an end, and threatens our fundamental freedom of speech, expression and association, we also must understand that no two shutdowns are alike. An internet shutdown enacted to prevent protests, would likely operate much differently than a shutdown enacted to prevent cheating in examinations. As such, there is some value in examining the unique features that outline different kinds of internet shutdowns, to ensure that future policy research and advocacy measures are tailored to the circumstances of the particular shutdown.

This article is authored by Torsha Sarkar, The Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru.

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