The indefinite shutdown of Internet access in Kashmir has been ruled illegal by India’s Supreme Court on Friday, January 10, a rebuke for New Delhi’s communication lockdown imposed since August of last year in the volatile north east Muslim majority region.
“Freedom of Internet access is a fundamental right,” Supreme Court justice N. V. Ramana said.
Indefinite suspension of the internet violated India’s telecoms rules, the court said, ordering authorities to review all curbs in Kashmir in a week.
The shutdown in Kashmir, which has been on for more than 150 days, is the longest such outage in any democracy, according to digital rights group Access Now.
The government has argued that the blackout in Kashmir, a Himalayan region claimed by neighbouring Pakistan and plagued by separatist militants, was essential to maintain calm.
The Supreme Court’s decision, which also asks authorities to make public all orders on internet shutdowns, should enable more scrutiny of suspensions, internet freedom activists said.
“This sheds light on the rationale behind internet shutdowns which then can be challenged as being constitutional or proportionate or not,” said Nikhil Pahwa, digital rights activist and editor of Media Nama, a Delhi-based publication. “So if the state is forced to be transparent, they will be more accountable.”
In 2019, India’s documented internet blackouts lasted for more than 4,000 hours, costing Asia’s third-biggest economy US$1.3 billion (US$1.8 million), according to a report by website Top10VPN.
An uneasy calm prevails in Kashmir. The internet was restored in hospitals last week and some mobile phone connections are working.
The blackout has severely disrupted the lives of millions and had an impact on everything from college admissions to businesses filing tax returns.
Last month, authorities imposed an internet clampdown in parts of the capital and in areas of the eastern state of Assam and Uttar Pradesh in the north as protests raged against a new citizenship law that Muslims see as discriminatory.
The court’s ruling stopped short of overturning the communication and transport restrictions that have been in place since Aug 5 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi scrapped nearly seven decades of autonomous status of Kashmir.
His Hindu-nationalist government has frequently used internet shutdowns as a tool to quell dissent in troubled parts of the country. (Source: The Straits Times)