NEW DELHI: In a significant judgment with implications on basic freedoms beyond Kashmir, the Supreme Court on Friday said internet access is a fundamental right under Article 19 of the Constitution and asked the Jammu and Kashmir administration to review within a week all curbs in the union territory.
Welcomed by people in the Kashmir Valley who have been without internet for the last five months as "happy news" at last, the apex court verdict also said Section 144 of the CrPC (prohibitory orders) cannot be used indefinitely to suppress freedom of speech and expression and difference of opinion.
Extending its observations to the media, the bench said freedom of press is a valuable and sacred right.
The three-judge bench, headed by Justice N V Ramana and also comprising Justices B R Gavai and R Subhash Reddy, asked the Jammu and Kashmir administration to immediately restore internet services in institutions providing essential services like hospitals and educational places.
However, there was no mention of any time-frame of restoration of internet services to other sectors and people in the Valley.
The apex court said magistrates should apply their mind and follow the doctrine of proportionality while passing prohibitory orders.
The Supreme Court verdict, welcomed by the opposition Congress as the "first big jolt of 2020" to the government, came on a batch of pleas challenging the curbs imposed in Jammu and Kashmir after August 5 -- when the Centre revoked the state's special status and bifurcated it into the union territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.
"It is a very, very significant pronouncement by the Supreme Court," Vrinda Grover, lawyer for Kashmir Times' executive editor Anuradha Bhasin whose plea was among those taken up, told reporters.
Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, whose plea was also taken up, labelled the judgment "historic".
"This is the first time the Supreme Court has talked about how people of Jammu and Kashmir feel. I would like to thank the Supreme Court for a very historic decision and the people from across the country were waiting for it, specially the people of J-K," he said.
"The government of India has misled the entire country. This time the Supreme Court was forthright and they didn't come under any pressure," he said.
The National Conference and the People's Democratic Party welcomed the order too.
"The observations of the apex court about snapping of internet services indefinitely are significant and the government must take a call to review and restore the connectivity immediately," NC provincial president Devender Singh Rana said here.
"Finally #SupremeCourt has woken up to the injustices cast upon the people of J&K, calling such govt. lodged curbs an "abuse" of power reinstates our faith in the judiciary," the PDP, an ally of the BJP till 2018, said on its official Twitter handle.
Away from the political slugfest, people in Kashmir Valley said they hoped their internet connections would be restored soon.
"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 Srinagar's Lal Chowk area.
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.
Afreen Mushtaq, a student in Srinagar, 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.