New Delhi: Five months after the communication lockdown in Jammu & Kashmir, the Supreme Court on Friday rapped the Centre, saying “indefinite internet suspension is not permissible” and asked the Union territories’ administration to review all orders of restrictions imposed in J&K within a week, according to LiveLaw.
In a significant verdict, with ramifications across the country, the three-judge bench went on to observe that a complete curb on the internet must be considered by the State only as an extraordinary measure.
The verdict comes at a time when a huge delegation of foreign ambassadors and diplomats from 15 countries is visiting Kashmir to “assess” the situation there, a move initiated by the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre.
On August 5, 2019, the Centre had, in a sudden move, advised tourists to move out and then declared a complete lockdown of J&K, after abrogating Article 370, withdrawing the state’s special status. It also bifurcated the state into two Union territories, directly under Central control
In its order, the Supreme Court said, “suspension of free movement, internet and basic freedoms cannot be an arbitrary exercise of power," asserting that "mere expression of dissent or disagreement against a government decision cannot be reason for Internet suspension."
On August 5, 2019, the Centre had, in a sudden move, advised tourists to move out and then declared a complete lockdown of J&K, after abrogating Article 370, withdrawing the state’s special status. It also bifurcated the state into two Union territories, directly under Central control.
In another significant observation, though made in the contest of Kashmir, the apex court also flayed the repeated use of Section 144 to prohibit large gatherings, saying to amounted to “abuse of power.”
"It can't be used as a tool to oppress difference of opinion," the judges said, as per an NDTV report.
The bench, consisting of justices, NV Ramana, Subhash Reddy and BR Gavai, said it had not delved into the political intent behind the prohibitory orders, and added that Kashmir had seen a lot violence and it is “our limited concern is to find a balance regarding security and liberty of people. We only here to ensure citizens are provided their rights.”
The bench noted that Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) was remedial and preventive measure and must be subject to the test of proportionality.
“It can only be used if there is a likelihood of violence and danger to public safety, it held,
The bench was hearing a clutch of petitions challenging the validity of government's move to impose restrictions on media, communications, transport, and to impose curfew in parts of Jammu & Kashmir immediately after the abrogation of Article 370, according to Bar & Bench.
Incidentally, the Centre had Centre had justified restrictions imposed in J&K after abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, claiming that that due to the preventive steps taken, neither a single life was lost nor a single bullet was fired.
Among those who filed the petitions challenging the communications lockdown are Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anuradha Bhasin, Executive Editor of Kashmir Times, and other.
A Big Jolt to Modi Govt: Congress
"We welcome this judgement. This is the first time the SC has talked about how people of J-K feel. I would like to thank the SC for a very historic decision and the people from across the country were waiting for it, especially the people of JK," said Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, one of the petitioners.
"The government of India has misled the entire country. This time the SC was forthright and they didn't come under any pressure," he said.
Reacting to the judgement, the Congress said the Supreme Court had given a big jolt to the Narendra Modi government's "illegal activities" by ruling that access to the internet is a fundamental right and that dissent cannot be oppressed by imposition of prohibitory orders.
"SC delivers first big jolt of 2020 to illegal activities of Modi Govt by stating importance of internet as a fundamental right. Double shock for Modi-Shah that dissent cannot be oppressed by imposing section 144. Modiji reminded that nation bows before Constitution and not him!" Congress leader Randeep Surjewala said in a tweet.