Access to internet a fundamental right: SC

Freedom of speech and conducting business on the Internet are protected under the Constitution, the Supreme Court said while directing the Jammu and Kashmir administration to immediately review curb orders.

The top court also set the ground for challenging of all orders of preventive detention, the imposition of Section 144, and the internet shutdown by asking the authorities to publish every such order so that affected by them can challenge the orders in courts.

The top court also said that power under Section 144, which prohibits assembly of four or more people, cannot be used to suppress legitimate expression of opinion or grievance or exercise of any democratic rights.

It directed the authorities in the Union Territory to immediately review all orders suspending Internet services and said that orders not in accordance with the law must be revoked.

However, there was no mention of any time frame to restore the services.

It said Internet services cannot be suspended “indefinitely” and directed the J&K authorities to “consider forthwith” allowing government websites, localised/ limited e-banking as also hospitals and other essential services in areas where the services are not likely to be restored immediately.

Justice NV Ramanna, who read out the judgment, began by quoting the opening lines of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...”

The court criticized the repeated use of Section 144, a colonial-era rule to ban large gatherings, in the former state that was bifurcated into two union territories as part of the government’s decision to scrap Article 370. “It can’t be used as a tool to oppress difference of opinion,” the court said.

“Our limited concern is to find a balance regarding security and liberty of people. We only here to ensure citizens are provided their rights. We will not delve into the political intent behind the orders given,” said Justice Ramana.

“Orders passed under Section 144 have direct consequences upon the fundamental rights of the public in general. Such a power, if used in a casual and cavalier manner, would result in severe illegality.”

The centre had justified the restrictions and said that due to the preventive steps, not a single life was lost and not a single bullet was fired.

Kashmir has been through the longest internet shutdown in any democracy. Kashmir’s chamber of commerce says the Internet shutdown cost the economy over 2.6 billion dollars and over 1 lakh people lost their jobs.

Besides Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, the top court had heard the petitions filed by Anuradha Bhasin, Executive Editor of Kashmir Times, and others questioning the restrictions in Kashmir.

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