India court ruling a rap for government - GulfToday

India court ruling a rap for government

India Supreme Court

The Supreme Court ruling on the indefinite shutdown of the Internet in Kashmir should be seen as a direct rebuke of the government.

At a time when technology and Internet have become an important part of life, it is disturbing to note that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has frequently used Internet shutdowns as a tool to quell dissent in troubled parts of the country.

The ruling by India’s Supreme Court on Friday that an indefinite shutdown of the Internet in Kashmir is illegal should be seen as a direct rebuke of the government for the communications lockdown imposed after it withdrew the Muslim majority region’s autonomy in August.

The right to access the Internet is a fundamental right under Article 19 of the Constitution and indefinite suspension of the Internet violates telecom rules. Such Internet shutdown also impacted the freedom of the press, which is part of freedom of speech and expression.

The apex court has taken the right step by directing the Jammu & Kashmir administration to immediately restore Internet services connected with access to government websites, localised/limited e-banking facilities, hospital services and other essential services.

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.

In 2019, India’s documented Internet blackouts lasted for more than 4,000 hours, costing Asia’s third-biggest economy $1.3 billion, according to a report by website Top10VPN.

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 is seen as discriminatory against Muslims.

The government’s argument that the blackout in Kashmir was needed to maintain order in a Himalayan region where security forces have been fighting a long-running separatist insurgency does not hold much water.

India’s Supreme Court has made several significant points as part of the ruling.

There is no dispute that freedom of speech and expression includes the right to disseminate information to as wide a section of the population as possible. The wider range of circulation of information or its greater impact cannot restrict the content of the right nor can it justify its denial.

The court has identified the Internet as a very important tool for trade and commerce.

Such a right of trade through Internet also fosters consumerism and availability of choice. Therefore, the freedom of trade and commerce through the medium of the Internet is also constitutionally protected under Article 19(1)(g), subject to the restrictions provided under Article 19(6), as per the observations.

The ruling well elucidates that non-recognition of technology within the sphere of law is only a disservice to the inevitable. The importance of the Internet cannot be underestimated, as from morning to night we are encapsulated within the cyberspace and our most basic activities are enabled by the use of Internet.

It may be recalled that the Modi government’s decision to abolish Kashmir’s special status was accompanied by an extensive lockdown, with New Delhi sending tens of thousands of additional troops to the already heavily militarised region, imposing a sweeping curfew, arresting thousands and cutting virtually all communications.

The court ruling is also significant especially because in Kashmir, the blackout has severely disrupted the lives of millions and has had an impact on everything from college admissions to businesses filing tax returns. The loss of Internet access hit several businesses hard with tourists preferring to stay away.