The Delhi High Court on Tuesday declined to grant any interim relief to a senior army officer, who has challenged the Indian Army’s recent policy banning armed forces personnel from using social networking platforms like Facebook and Instagram, saying he has to either abide by the mandate of the organisation or put in his papers. The high court said he has a choice to make and asked him to delete his Facebook account as the policy to ban the use of social networking platforms for army personnel was taken keeping in view the security of the nation.
It said he can create a new social media account later. A bench of Justices Rajiv Sahai Endlaw and Asha Menon said that when it has not even found a reason yet to entertain the plea, “the question of granting any interim relief does not arise. Especially when the matter has the potential of concerning the safety and security of the country,” the bench said. Lieutenant Colonel P K Choudhary contended that once deleted all the data, contacts and friends in his Facebook account would be “irretrievably lost” and the loss would be “irreversible”.
“No. No. Sorry. You please delete it. You can always create a new one. It cannot work like this. You are part of an organisation. You have to abide by its mandate,” the bench said. It further said, “If you are so dear to FB, then put in your papers. See you have to make a choice, what do you want to do. You have other choices which are also irreversible.”
The army officer had sought an interim relief that he be allowed to retain his Facebook (FB) account in deactivated form till the next date of hearing when the court will decide whether to entertain his petition after going through the Army’s policy under challenge. According to the new June 6 policy, all Indian Army personnel have been ordered to delete their accounts from Facebook and Instagram and 87 other applications.
The counsel for the army officer said the only choice he has is whether to face departmental action for not deleting the account. The officer’s lawyer repeatedly urged the bench to allow him to retain the account in deactivated form, saying forcing him to delete it and the data therein amounts to violation of his right to privacy. The Centre, represented by Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Chetan Sharma, told the court that the policy decision was taken as “we found that Facebook was a bug. It was infiltrating as a cyber warfare and there were so many instances of personnel being targeted”.
ASG Sharma also said the petitioner’s grievance was that he needs Facebook to communicate with his family in the US, when there were other modes of communication like WhatsApp, Twitter and Skype which were available to him. After hearing him for some time, the bench said it finds no ground to grant the interim relief. It asked the ASG to file the policy document in a sealed cover for perusal by the bench and said the reasons for taking the decision be also filed.
With the direction, the court listed the matter for hearing on July 21. The petition has sought a direction to the Director General of Military Intelligence to withdraw its June 6 policy to the extent that it orders all the members of the Indian Army to delete their accounts from Facebook and Instagram and 87 other applications.
Lt Col P K Choudhary, who is currently posted in Jammu and Kashmir, said in the plea that he is an active user of Facebook and uses the platform to connect with his friends and family as most of them are settled abroad, including his elder daughter. In the petition, the officer has sought a direction to the Ministry of Defence to withdraw the June 6 policy to ensure that the fundamental rights of armed forces personnel are not abrogated amended or modified by arbitrary executive action which is not backed by the mandate of law, offends the provisions of the Army Act and Rules made thereunder and is unconstitutional.
The petition has alleged that the policy which bans social media platforms is illegal, arbitrary, disproportionate, violates the fundamental rights of soldiers including but not limited to the freedom of speech and expression, the right to life and the right to privacy. It has said the authorities have cited security concerns and risk of data breach as the basis of imposing the restrictions contained in the policy regarding usage of social media platforms but the act of banning it is a clear violation of Article 14 (Equality before law) of the Constitution.
The plea also seeks a declaration that the Director General of Military Intelligence is not empowered under the Constitution or under any other law to modify, amend or abrogate the fundamental rights of the petitioner and other members of the armed forces. Besides, the Centre and Director General of Military Intelligence, the petition has also made Chief of the Army Staff, who is the professional head, commander and the highest-ranking military officer of the Indian Army, party to the petition.