Kashmir Internet shutdown illegal, says India court

Supreme Court rebukes govt, orders review of all curbs in the region in a week

NEW DELHI/SRINAGAR • India's Supreme Court said yesterday that an indefinite shutdown of the Internet in Kashmir was illegal, rebuking the government for the communications lockdown imposed after it withdrew the Muslim-majority region's autonomy in August.

Indefinite suspension of the Internet violated India's telecoms rules, the court said, ordering the authorities to review all curbs in Kashmir in a week.

"Freedom of Internet access is a fundamental right," Supreme Court Justice N.V. Ramana said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist government has frequently used Internet shutdowns as a tool to quell dissent in troubled parts of the country.

Last month, the 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 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 was needed to maintain order in a Himalayan region where security forces have been fighting a long-running separatist insurgency encouraged by neighbouring Pakistan.

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 Supreme Court's decision, which also asks the 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 Mr Nikhil Pahwa, digital rights activist and editor of MediaNama, a Delhi-based publication. "So if the state is forced to be transparent, they will be more accountable."

Last year, India's documented Internet blackouts lasted for more than 4,000 hours, costing Asia's third-biggest economy US$1.3 billion (S$1.8 billion), according to a report by website Top10VPN.

India's Home Ministry and department of telecommunications did not respond to requests for comment.

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.

For Mr Yasin Tuman, who runs a travel agency in Kashmir's main city Srinagar, the loss of Internet access has hit his business hard, as tourists stay away.

"I've suffered losses of 7 million rupees (S$133,000) in the past five months," he told Reuters.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2020, with the headline 'Kashmir Internet shutdown illegal, says India court'. Print Edition | Subscribe