NEW DELHI - Ruling that indefinite shutdowns of the internet violate the country’s laws, India’s top court has ordered the government to review the five-month-long internet suspension and other curbs imposed in Indian Kashmir, after the government scrapped autonomy in its only Muslim-majority region.
"Freedom of internet access is a fundamental right," the Indian Supreme Court said Friday, ruling on petitions that had challenged restrictions imposed in the Himalayan region in August.
Kashmir's internet shutdown is the longest-ever in a democracy and has disrupted life in the region of seven million people, crippling many businesses and making it difficult for the media to function. India's government said the shutdown is necessary to prevent an outbreak of violence and maintain calm.
While most phone services have been restored, most of Kashmir still remains offline.
Authorities in India have increasingly resorted to shutting down the internet, not just in Kashmir but also in other places when faced with citizen protests. The court ruling could increase criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government for its handling of dissent.
The court said that "suspension of free movement, internet and basic freedoms cannot be an arbitrary exercise of power" and that a "complete curb of (the) internet must be considered by the state only as an extraordinary measure."
However Friday's ruling will not bring immediate relief to Kashmir - the court has asked the government to review all orders imposing such restrictions within seven days.
One of the petitioners, Anuradha Bhasin, editor of the Kashmir Times newspaper told VOA, "It may take some time for the relief to come, if it does, but we hope the government will take a call on this in accordance with the spirit of the verdict."
Bhasin also lamented that it took the court several months to respond to their petitions.
"In five months, there has been immense suffering, there have been losses all around, and in respect to media itself we faced financial losses, we faced circulation problems, we could not publish," she said.
Businesses say they have lost billions of dollars while some have virtually shut down due to lack of internet access.
It is the second time that Kashmir has been plunged into an internet blackout – in 2016 the internet was shutdown for over four months.
The court also ruled that a colonial-era law known as Section 144 that prohibits more than four people from gathering in one place cannot be used "as a curb on legitimate expression of democratic rights." The law is still imposed in Kashmir and was also used last month in several places, including the capital New Delhi, when protests erupted in the wake of a citizenship law that critics called anti-Muslim.
India’s internet shutdowns have in particular come in for criticism – the government imposed internet restrictions more often than any other country, with over 100 shutdowns documented in 2019, according to a study by internet research firm Top10VPN. The suspension in some cases, like that of Kashmir, has lasted for months.
The Supreme Court’s decision will enable more public scrutiny of government when it shutdowns the net.
"This order gives people grounds to challenge internet shutdowns," Nikhil Pahwa of MediaNama, a Delhi-based publication told VOA. “Most of the time we never know, we find out from telecom operators or users about these restrictions. From now on there will have to be transparency from the government, which means it is less likely that they will shut down the net.”
Internet activists have also called the shutdowns "ironic" in a country where the government in recent years has focused on increasing digital access.