A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court has heard oral arguments and reserved its judgment in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India and Ghulam Nabi Azad v. Union of India, in which the petitioners have impugned, among other things, the ongoing shutdown of the Internet in the Kashmir Valley. The arguments raised in these petitions touch upon questions critical to the functioning of India's democracy. This post is an effort at expounding some of the issues at stake in the case.
Sometime on August 4, on the eve of the Union government's decision to issue presidential orders divesting the state of Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy, a complete blockade on information and communication services was placed in the region. Since then, a few of these restrictions have been lifted, but access to the Internet in the Kashmir Valley remains elusive. As the Petitioners have pointed out, while landlines and post-paid mobile phone voice calls are now functioning, only a miniscule proportion of the population in the region have access to these services. Post-paid mobile phone SMSes remain blocked and so too pre-paid mobile phone voice calls and prepaid mobile phone SMSes. Messaging services, as we're only too aware now, are critical to carrying out various forms of economic transactions. They are, in many ways, an essential service. Even according to the government's own response, out of a total of nearly 60 lakh mobile phones, only 20 lakh phones are working and even on those phones SMSes remain wholly blocked. What is more, access to the Internet in the Kashmir Valley continues to be prohibited, despite the critical role that the web plays today in various kinds of economic, social and educational activities.
These orders blocking communication services, Ms. Bhasin and Mr. Azad have argued, have had a damaging effect on a number of fundamental rights. In Ms. Bhasin's case, the newspaper she edits, The Kashmir Times, could not be distributed on 5 August and went entirely unpublished between 6 August and 11 October. Today, owing to the absence of the Internet, and the barriers placed on journalists seeking to do their job, only a pruned version of the newspaper is published. Therefore, in Ms. Bhasin's argument, the ban on communication services, in particular, the restrictions placed on the Internet, have affected both her right to free speech and her newspaper's right to freedom of the press.
The Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Mr. Azad, on the other hand, who was himself prohibited from visiting the Valley, until the Supreme Court intervened, has underlined various other impacts that the bans have had on people living in Jammu and Kashmir. For example, basic livelihood, he points out, has been deeply affected. Industries such as tourism, handicrafts, manufacture, construction, cultivation, agriculture and information technology have been brought to a state of cessation, with the economy in the region suffering losses running into the thousands of crores. Access to basic healthcare too, he argues, has been impeded, with people in the Valley unable to avail of the government's Ayushman Bharat scheme. Over and above all this, the ban has meant that people in the Valley have been entirely cut out from the rest of India. Residents outside the state have been unable to speak to their families in Kashmir, leading, Mr. Azad says, to a great deal of mental stress and anxiety.
Issues and legal arguments
It's simple enough to deduce the issues that arise in the case: (1) Does a denial of access to the Internet violate any fundamental right? And (2) can access to the Internet ever be blocked, and, if so, under what circumstances can such an action be validly enforced?
Access to the Internet
Perhaps the finest exposition of why access to the Internet is a fundamental right is contained in a recent judgment of the Kerala High Court in Faheema Sharin v. State of Kerala. There, the court recognised that access to the Internet is today essential because it grants people an avenue not only to information but also to a host of other services. Although the web brings with it its own set of challenges there can be little doubt, as the court held, that it enhances individual freedom, in granting to people a liberty of choice, in determining what they want to read, see and hear, in determining what kind of information they wish to access, and, more than anything else, in limiting the government's ability to control a person's private self.
As the High Court held, the Internet has become so central today to our lives that it plays an instrumental role in the realisation of a number of constitutional guarantees. The court, in arriving at its conclusions, relied on a United Nations General Assembly Resolution which noted how access to information on the Internet "facilitates vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally, thereby being an important tool to facilitate the promotion of the right to education." Given the importance of education to the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and given how important the Internet was in fulfilling these promises, access to the web, the court held, ought to be considered in and of itself as a fundamental, inalienable right.
Apart from this the court also recognised, that the Internet constitutes not only a medium for speech but also promotes a gateway to information. A right to access the Internet, therefore, in the court's opinion, has to be seen as an integral component of a citizen's right to freedom of speech protected under Article 19(1)(a) and can only be restricted on the grounds enumerated in Article 19(2).
The Kerala High Court's view that access to the Internet is a fundamental right is not only in keeping with the global trend but is also consistent with India's entrenched free speech jurisprudence. After all, as early as in 1961, the Supreme Court had in Sakal Papers v. Union of India, recognized the instrumental value of speech: that access to the news and the media's role in facilitating the distribution of information and knowledge played a direct role in the promotion of democracy. That the Internet plays a significant part in ensuring the protection of the right to health, personal liberty and livelihood therefore ought to mean that accessing the web deserves to be considered as fundamental, as flowing out of the guarantees contained in Articles 14, 19 and 21, which, today, after the 9-judge bench's judgment in Justice (Retd). KS Puttaswamy v. Union of India (Puttaswamy I) (2017) 10 SCC 1, together form a trident against arbitrariness.
Therefore, any blocking of the Internet would ex facie violate fundamental rights. As a result, to enforce a restriction on the Internet action of the state must be predicated on compelling reasons and must necessarily be made in a constitutionally sustainable manner.
When can restrictions be made
It is today settled law, as is clear from a reading of the judgments of the Supreme Court in Puttaswamy I and Puttaswamy II (the Aadhaar judgment), that fundamental rights can only be limited by state actions that conform to the doctrine of proportionality. The test to determine what state actions are proportionate was laid down by a 5-judge bench of the Supreme Court in Modern Dental College v. State of MP. The court there relied on judgments of the Supreme Court of Israel and the Canadian Supreme Court to hold that the doctrine was inherent in Article 19 itself.
A limitation of a constitutional right will be constitutionally permissible if (i) it is designated for a proper purpose; (ii) the measures undertaken to effectuate such a limitation are rationally connected to the fulfilment of that purpose; (iii) the measures undertaken are necessary in that there are no alternative measures that may similarly achieve that same purpose with a lesser degree of limitation; and finally (iv) there needs to be a proper relation ('proportionality stricto sensu' or 'balancing') between the importance of achieving the proper purpose and the social importance of preventing the limitation on the constitutional right.
In Puttaswamy II, the Supreme Court reiterated this test when it held as follows:
The proportionality test which is stated in the aforesaid judgment, accepting Justice Barak's conceptualisation, essentially takes the version which is used by the German Federal Constitutional Court and is also accepted by most theorists of proportionality. According to this test, a measure restricting a right must, first, serve a legitimate goal (legitimate goal stage); it must, secondly, be a suitable means of furthering this goal (suitability or rational connection stage); thirdly, there must not be any less restrictive but equally effective alternative (necessity stage); and fourthly, the measure must not have a disproportionate impact on the right-holder (balancing stage).
The question therefore that the Supreme Court must now answer in Anuradha Bhasin and Ghulam Nabi Azad is whether the state actions imposing the communications ban in the Kashmir Valley meets this four-prong test or not. And given that there has been an ex facie violation of a fundamental right, the burden to establish that these conditions are, in fact, met, in this case, lies on the state. Here, the restrictions placed quite clearly impinge on the doctrine of proportionality for the following reasons:
Ultimately, therefore, the actions of the state in enforcing a host of communication barriers in the Kashmir Valley, in particular its decision to entirely restrict access to the Internet, constitute a collective punishment on the people of the region and violate, among other things, the fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Constitution.
Suhrith Parthasarathy is a Madras based lawyer and Columnist
This article was first published in The Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy Blog. You can read the original here
[The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of LiveLaw and LiveLaw does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same]