Telcos seek SC protection in inter-state tussle

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New Delhi | Published: July 24, 2015 12:35:36 AM

Caught in a squabble between Andhra Pradesh and the newly-created state of Telangana over phone-tapping allegations, telecom companies Bharti Airtel, Idea Cellular, Reliance Communications...

Caught in a squabble between Andhra Pradesh and the newly-created state of Telangana over phone-tapping allegations, telecom companies Bharti Airtel, Idea Cellular, Reliance Communications and state-owned BSNL on Thursday approached the Supreme Court seeking protection.

A bench headed by justice Vikramajit Sen, while agreeing with the companies that they were being harassed, gave a week’s time to the companies to submit records before a lower court and also allowed the companies to move the state high court for protection from prosecution by the two states.

“Have faith in the judicial set-up,” it told the senior counsel appearing for the operators.  “We are not denying that this is a serious matter,” justice Sen said, adding HCs are equally equipped to deal with such issues.

The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) had moved two petitions before the SC — one seeking the top court’s intervention to protect the companies, and the second challenging the Vijaywada magistrate’s order directing them to submit phone-tapping records in a sealed cover.

The dispute began after a channel part-owned by Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhara Rao’s (KCR) family aired an audio recording last month of a purported conversation between Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu and a lawmaker. KCR’s Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) alleges that Naidu was trying to make a deal with an independent lawmaker to ensure support for his party candidate in Telangana legislative council polls.

However, Naidu has claimed that the tape was doctored and his phone was tapped allegedly after his Telangana counterpart sanctioned the same. Both chief ministers are working out of Hyderabad since Telangana was carved out of Andhra Pradesh in June last year.

Challenging a Vijayawada court’s July 7 order that asked the telecom companies to submit all documents and electronic details related to interception and monitoring of certain cell phone numbers done by them as directed by the Telangana chief secretary in a sealed cover, the petition led by Idea Cellular said that the orders should be set aside as they are violative of various provisions of law and the compliance with them will result in their criminal prosecution.

According to them, the AP government has directed them to produce details of phone tapping to it, failing which they will have to face criminal proceedings under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). However, the Telangana government doesn’t want the companies to comply with Andhra Pradesh’s demand and has warned the telcos of criminal proceedings under the Official Secrets Act and the Indian Telegraph Act if such information/documents/data are disclosed to any authority without its written permission, the petitions stated.

“Both the state governments, in their tussle pertaining to interception and monitoring of phone numbers, has put the petitioners in a catch 22 situation, where it will certainly be visited with criminal sanctions/punishment for no fault of its own in case it complies with either order,” the petitions stated.

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