The Delhi high court on Tuesday ordered in-camera proceedings in a senior army officer's plea challenging the Indian Army's recent policy banning armed forces personnel from using social networking platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
The high court conducted the hearing in-camera after the counsel for the Centre requested for it on the ground that it was a very sensitive decision taken by the Army and the inputs cannot be made public.
Accepting the request, a bench of Justices Rajiv Sahai Endlaw and Asha Menon, which was conducting the hearing through video conferencing, asked its court master to only keep the lawyers associated with the case and remove all others, including media persons, from the weblink.
According to those who were privy to the proceedings, the high court has reserved its order on the issue of maintainability of the petition.
The bench was hearing the petition of Lieutenant Colonel P K Choudhary who was on July 14 asked by the High Court to either abide by the mandate of the organisation or put in his papers.
At the outset when the advocate representing Choudhary commenced his arguments, Central government standing counsel Ajay Digpaul said this is a sensitive matter and 'I request for an in-camera proceeding. Those who are not in connection with it may be asked to leave'.
He added that it was a very sensitive decision taken by the Army based on deliberation on specific inputs which cannot be made public.
The counsel representing the army officer said he does not have any problem if the proceedings are conducted in-camera.
However, he added that there is no confidentiality in the decision as the letter has been circulated by the Army to all its officials and even it has informed the media about it.
The high court had earlier declined to grant any interim relief to the army officer saying the officer has a choice to make and asked him to delete his FB account.
It had said the policy to ban the use of social networking platforms for army personnel was taken keeping in view the security of the nation. It had said he can create a new social media account later.
The army officer had sought an interim relief that he be allowed to retain his Facebook (FB) account in deactivated form till the court decides 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.
Choudhary has contended that once deleted all the data, contacts and friends in his FB account would be 'irretrievably lost' and the loss would be 'irreversible'.
The Centre, represented by Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Chetan Sharma, had earlier 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'.
He had said the petitioner's grievance was that he needs FB to communicate with his family in the United States, when there were other modes of communication like WhatsApp, Twitter and Skype which were available to him.
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.
The plea said Choudhary got to know through a July 9 news report about the Army's order requiring him and other personnel to delete Facebook, Instagram and 87 other applications by July 15.
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.