Tharoor responds to Speaker’s advisory, says J&K 4G curbs no longer sub judice

In a letter sent to the Speaker last week, viewed by Hindustan Times and shared with the members of the panel, the Congress MP has addressed the various points highlighted by Birla
Shashi Tharoor heads the Information and Technology parliamentary panel.(Sanjeev Verma/HT photo)
Shashi Tharoor heads the Information and Technology parliamentary panel.(Sanjeev Verma/HT photo)
Updated on Aug 31, 2020 03:55 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByDeeksha Bhardwaj

Congress lawmaker Shashi Tharoor, who heads the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information and Technology (IT), has written to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, saying the issue of Internet shutdowns in Jammu & Kashmir is no longer sub judice and thus taking up the matter is not in contravention of rules, HT has learnt. He cited the need to prevent misuse of social and online news media platforms and added summoning Facebook’s representatives in this regard is within his mandate.

Also read: Kerala Congress chief steps in after party leader attacks Shashi Tharoor

The panel has summoned the social media company’s representatives over a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report this month that said Facebook’s India policy head, Ankhi Das, opposed applying hate-speech rules to a BJP politician whose posts targeted Muslims. According to a new WSJ report on Sunday, Das also praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the “strongman” who had broken the Congress’ socialist hold. The comments were made in a Facebook group designed for employees in India, but it was open to a global audience.

The panel has been split over asking Facebook executives to explain the report. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lawmaker Nishikant Dubey, who is a member of the panel, has maintained Tharoor cannot call Facebook to seek an explanation because the House rules do not allow it. He cited Rule 269 and added the secretary-general has the power to summon.

Parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam have supported Tharoor’s decision to call Facebook for an explanation and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has demanded a criminal investigation into the matter.

Birla had written to the chairpersons of all parliamentary panels and asked them to select subjects in line with Parliamentary rules and conventions, which include not taking up subjects pending before courts.

In a letter to Birla last week, a copy of which HT has seen, Tharoor addressed various points the speaker has highlighted. He cited the Internet shutdowns in Jammu & Kashmir and referred to the May 11 Supreme Court judgment related to it and the dismissal of a subsequent contempt petition that followed to make his point.

The Centre on August 11 told the Supreme Court that restrictions on 4G mobile internet will be relaxed in one district each of Jammu and Kashmir divisions of the Union Territory after August 15 on a trial basis. The decision was arrived at on the recommendations made of a special committee constituted on the top court’s May 11 directive to the Centre to review restrictions on high-speed mobile internet.

The Supreme Court was hearing a petition filed in June by the Foundation for Media Professionals, a non-government organisation, seeking initiation of contempt proceedings against the Centre and Jammu & Kashmir administration for failure to comply with the top court’s May 11 directions to review restrictions on mobile internet speeds in the Union Territory, where people are only able to access 2G services.

The top court appreciated the stand taken by the Centre and closed the contempt case on August 11.

Tharoor added that since the matter has been addressed, it should no longer be considered sub judice and the panel would proceed on considering it. The panel was slated to hear from the Union home ministry, department of telecommunications and representatives from the states and Union territories on the issue on September 1.

HT on August 25 reported Birla had written to the chairpersons of all parliamentary panels on the selection of subjects based on rules and conventions.

In a ‘partially modified agenda’ circulated among members on August 29, there was no mention of Jammu & Kashmir, even though the panel was still slated to hear from Delhi and Bihar on internet curbs. The modified agenda came after Dubey said since the issue was sub judice, it should not be discussed.

A member of the panel told HT that they would still like to hear from the government about the facts of the case. “We should still like to hear the facts from the government, even if we do not have a discussion on J&K [Jammu & Kashmir],” said the member on the condition of anonymity. “A statement has been allowed in the past. It should not be against the rules.”

According to experts, there is no rule that the panel cannot take up subjects pending before courts and a topic already bulletinised can be discussed.

Former Lok Sabha secretary general PDT Achary said a chairperson has additional powers, including a second casting vote. “There is no particular rule that prohibits the panel from taking up matters that are pending before courts.”

With reference to the Facebook issue that the panel is slated to hear, Tharoor, in his letter, said that under the topic of “Safeguarding citizens’ rights & prevention of misuse of social/online news media platforms” summoning the social media company representatives is within his mandate.

The agenda of a panel is pre-approved by and bulletenised by the Speaker before it meets.

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