India's top court says internet shutdown in Kashmir is illegal

Narendra Modi government ordered to review restrictions imposed on Muslim-majority region after revoking its autonomy

FILE PHOTO: A view of the Indian Supreme Court building is seen in New Delhi December 7, 2010. REUTERS/B Mathur/File Photo
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India’s top court ruled on Friday that the “continued, limitless” internet shutdown enforced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Kashmir for the past five months is “illegal”.

It also ruled that repeated restrictions on assembly were unlawful and asked Mr Modi’s government to publish its orders to enable citizens to challenge them in court.

In a ruling that was critical of the government but stopped short of overturning the communication and transport restrictions in Kashmir that have been in place since August 5, when Mr Modi scrapped the region's autonomous status, the Supreme Court ordered the government to review them within seven days.

Authorities have since eased several restrictions, lifting roadblocks and restoring landlines and cellphone services, but the internet service is yet to be restored in the Kashmir Valley. Top political leaders from the region continue to be under arrest or detention.

Ghulam Nabi Azad, an opposition Congress party leader, and Anuradha Bhasin, editor of The Kashmir Times, were the main petitioners in the court case.

Bhasin said the restrictions had crippled the freedom of the press, essential services and even communications between families, bringing untold misery to people.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who argued the government’s case, said authorities acted based on evidence from intelligence and the military, inflammatory material and speeches, and faked stories, photos and videos that were spread on social media.

He argued that “modern terrorism relies heavily on the internet” and considers social media as its most effective weapon.

The verdict will be a disappointment for Mr Modi’s government, which is accused of fast-tracking implementation of his party’s Hindu nationalist agenda after winning a sweeping mandate for his second term last year. The decision to renounce the special status of Kashmir – India’s only Muslim-majority state – was the first of three significant government actions last year that affect Muslims.

In November the Supreme Court handed a victory to Hindu groups over Muslim petitioners in a long-running dispute over the ownership of a plot of land in the northern city of Ayodhya. Hindus claim the site is the birthplace of Hindu god Ram. A medieval mosque that stood at the disputed site was demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992.

The latest move was the introduction last month of a citizenship law that allows migrants from neighbouring countries to seek Indian citizenship, except those of the Muslim faith. The law triggered weeks of demonstrations and a police crackdown on protesters has at least 24 people dead.

The Congress party said in a tweet that the Supreme Court verdict showed that measures such as cutting off the internet and "indiscriminate" use of Section 144, which prohibits public gatherings to maintain order, were "unacceptable in a democracy".

There was no immediate comment from the government.