For a liberal democracy in 2019-20, indefinitely suspending internet access in a region it considers to be an integral part of its own sovereign territory is not great advertisement for either ‘liberal democracy’ or governance. The Supreme Court’s verdict on Friday that internet services are a part of Article 19 of the Constitution — providing ‘basic freedoms’ that include the freedom of expression and the freedom to carry on any business — calls a spade a spade. It has demanded that internet services be restored in Kashmir for all essential services, and that all orders for the general suspension of internet services and implementation of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which bans assembly of four or more people in an area, be reviewed within a week. This is both welcome and comforting.
If the aim of the withdrawal of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, welcomed by this paper, was to ‘mainstream’ the state, not only has the internet shutdown since August 4, 2019, belied the goal, but also let such sledgehammer methods to be considered ‘normal’. True, public safety and ‘emergency’ can be legitimate reasons for restrictions on Article 19 freedoms, even if these are ill-defined. Specific reasons must be cited for such extraordinary measures, to allow them to be put to judicial review. Representatives of GoI have continued to explain away such a shutdown with the rationale of maintaining law and order. In October last year, Union minister Jitendra Singh even went to the extent to say that those opposing the indefinite curb on the internet in Kashmir either “have a vested interest in the continuance of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir” or want to “play politics at the cost of India’s sovereignty and the common man’s safety”. Should these motives apply to the Supreme Court, as well?
‘Reasonableness of Section 144 orders must be assessed based on territorial reach, nature of restrictions and time period,’ the Bench said on Friday. And it is the lack of ‘reasonableness’, in the name of ‘control’, that the court has questioned. Reasonableness demands to be restored. The court has performed its constitutional role.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Economic Times.