The Indian government has one week to review the suspension of internet services in Indian-administered Kashmir following an order from the Supreme Court.
The recently created union territory of Jammu and Kashmir has not had internet access for more than 150 days, the longest such shutdown in India.
Internet, mobile phone and landline services were suspended after the government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, removed partial autonomy of the former state in August.
Friday’s ruling came after the country’s top court was responding to a series of petitions challenging the restrictions.
The court did not rule whether the internet is to be restored immediately. But the judgment directed that access to the internet is guaranteed under the Constitution as freedom to speech and expression; curtailing that right is unconstitutional if the government does it indefinitely and without legitimate reason.
In October, some mobile phone and landline services were restored.
“The court has to say whether the fundamental rights and freedoms of people are being curtailed in accordance with law and Constitution or not. And then the court held that, insofar as the shutdown of internet is concerned, the court said that it is to be recognized that freedom of internet is part of freedom of speech and expression,” said Vrinda Grover, a lawyer representing one of the petitioners in the case, speaking to reporters outside the courthouse.
She added that the court had said “freedom of press is impacted by the shutdown of communication and internet.”
A welcome move
The ruling opened with the lines “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,” from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” It stated that while “it goes without saying that the government is entitled to restrict the freedom of speech and expression … the question is one of extent rather than the existence of the power to restrict.”
In a later passage, the ruling said, “we think it necessary to reiterate that complete broad suspension of telecom services, be it the Internet or otherwise, being a drastic measure, must be considered by the State only if ‘necessary’ and ‘unavoidable.’ “
“It makes the government more accountable, so you give the public more power because the state cannot indefinitely curb the rights of the people and misuse arbitrary power. It is a welcome judgment in that respect,” Anuradha Bhasin, the executive editor of the Kashmir Times and a petitioner in the case, told CNN.
“We are hopeful after the principles the Supreme Court has laid down but we need to wait and watch,” Bhasin added.
Longest internet shutdown in a democracy
The ongoing internet blackout in Indian-controlled Kashmir is now the longest ever in a democracy, according to Access Now, an advocacy group that tracks internet freedom.
Only the autocratic governments of China and junta-era Myanmar have cut off access for longer.
Kashmiris have been without internet access for so long that WhatsApp has reportedly begun deleting their accounts for inaction.
Jammu and Kashmir was put on lockdown August 5 after Modi stripped the state’s autonomy and reclassified it as a union territory.
Article 370 of India’s Constitution granted the state — which encompasses the disputed Kashmir region — special status, including the power to have its own Constitution, flag and autonomy over all matters, save for certain policy areas such as foreign affairs and defense. The move was controversial and gives the government in New Delhi greater authority over the disputed Muslim-majority region.
Kashmir has been the epicenter of an often-violent territorial struggle between India and Pakistan, as both nuclear-armed neighbors claim it in its entirety.
Anticipating public backlash to the move to revoke Article 370, India deployed tens of thousands of additional troops to the region and imposed a communications blackout, travel curfews and roadblocks.