New Delhi: In a significant ruling, the Supreme Court on Friday has asked Jammu and Kashmir administration to review all orders imposing curbs including the suspension of internet in a week and put them in public domain.
Free speech through internet is a fundamental right under Article 19. Any restriction on fundamental rights cannot be done by an arbitary exercise of powers, the court ruled. The court also added that the freedom of press a valuable and sacred right.
A three-judge bench headed by Justice N V Ramana also asked that all orders suspending internet should be reviewed forthwith. The bench, which also comprised justices B R Gavai and R Subhash Reddy, asked the J-K administration to restore Internet services in institutions providing essential services like hospitals and educational places.
Suspensions can only be for a limited time period and subject to judicial review, the court added.
The bench further said that freedom of press is a valuable and sacred right.
The apex court has cautioned the state against claiming any exemption from producing before the court all orders imposing restrictions. The court said the decision has been made on balance of liberty of individual and state interest.
The three-judge bench which also comprised justices B R Gavai and R Subhash Reddy said Section 144 CrPC (prohibitory orders) cannot be used indefinitely to suppress freedom of speech and expression and difference of opinion.
"Power under Section 144 cannot be used to suppress legitimate expression. Needs to be justified by concerns of immediate violence."
The verdict came on a batch of pleas which challenged curbs imposed in Jammu and Kashmir after the Centre's abrogation of provisions of Article 370 on August 5 last year.
There had been growing demands from students, professionals and business people for the restoration of service as they claimed that its suspension had severely affected their day to day activities.
Local traders said they could not file the goods and services tax (GST) and the income tax returns due to non-availability of internet. Hoteliers said they were unable to take bookings from tour and travel operators because of no internet.
Authorities had earlier contested that the suspension of the internet had become unavoidable as anti-national and anti-social elements were using it to upload inflammatory posts, statements and pictures to disturb law and order in Kashmir.
The Supreme Court's observation on Friday that access to internet is a fundamental right has come as happy news for people in the Kashmir Valley with many expressing the hope that services will be resumed soon.
Internet access was snapped five months ago when Jammu and Kashmir's special status was revoked and the state bifurcated into two union territories, Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.
It is a piece of very happy news for us, a huge relief, as the internet has been suspended for over five months now. We really hope that services will be resumed as soon as possible now, said Ishtiyaq Ahmad, a businessman in Lal Chowk area of the city.
He said trade and business has been badly affected since August 5 when authorities cut all internet services in the Valley.
Every sector has been badly affected. This has been the worst phase for business in the valley. The internet is a basic tool on which everyone, especially people associated with business, depend. We have struggled a lot without internet services, Ahmad said.
Another businessman associated with the tourism sector in the Valley is hoping the internet-dependent business will get a fillip.
This will give a boost to the sector which is highly dependent on the internet. Everything in the sector depends wholly on internet services, from ticketing inquiries to reservations.
"Tourists also were wary of the suspension of the services and showed little interest in visiting the Valley. We are hopeful that this will give a fillip to tourism, he said.
Afreen Mushtaq, a student living in the outskirts of the city, said the student community has suffered the most and the apex court's criticism of the internet ban, though late, is a breath of fresh air.
The internet should have been restored long ago. We have been deprived of the services for far too long. It has affected our education. It has especially affected those who had to seek admissions and to take part in various examinations, she said.
A journalist in Srinagar, who did not wish to be identified, said the Supreme Court has rightly observed that internet access is a fundamental right which cannot be curtailed and expressed the hope that services to media houses will be restored so they can operate freely.
This is what we had been saying all along. The Supreme Court has rightly slammed the government. We now hope the services, especially to media houses, will be resumed soon and better sense prevails so that the services are not disrupted for so long in the future, the journalist said.
'Big jolt to Modi govt'
The Congress on Friday said the Supreme Court has given a big jolt to the 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!" Surjewala said in a tweet.
"SC recorded displeasure at Modi Govt's refusal to show its orders and reminded them that internet ban is extraordinary measure.
"Modi-Shah now have a week to review internet restrictions and place the reasons before the public. No more 'sealed envelopes' to hide the truth in," Surjewala said in another tweet.
(With inputs from PTI)