THE INTERNET is an indispensable tool for education, employment, health care, and communication between people. It has become the vehicle through which the fundamental rights, as enshrined in the Constitution of India, legislation, and international law, are enabled. It has, in itself, become inseparable from basic rights to the extent that it has materialised as a crucial human right.
The United Nations, to which India is a member state, declared that access to the internet is a basic human right. It has recommended every country to make access to the internet a fundamental human right. Furthermore, the internet is recognised as a human right in several economically developed states. The Estonian parliament enacted a law almost twenty years ago (in 2000), that declared 'internet access' as a fundamental right. In France, the Constitutional Council stated in 2009 that internet access is a human right. Similar examples include Costa Rica and Finland.
Very recently, the Supreme Court of India, upheld the freedom of free speech, expression, and trade or business on the internet as a fundamental right that is to be protected constitutionally. However, it refused to express any views on whether the very access to the internet is a fundamental right or not.
The apex court had directed the Indian government to review orders suspending internet services in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. The decision of the bench, headed by Justice N V Ramana, was in connection with internet blockade in J&K where internet services have been suspended since the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, last year. While ‘limited access’ to 2G services was restored towards the end of January 2020, 4G services still remain suspended.
Ironically, while the Indian establishment is preparing to build 5G services, the Kashmir valley is languishing in an imposed time capsule with just limited 2G mobile data.
Nonetheless, the apex court of India did declare the internet to be a fundamental right, adding that the freedom of speech and expression and the freedom to practice any profession or business or occupation via the use of the internet is constitutionally protected under Article 19 of its Constitution.
The court stated that the Indian government’s shutdown of the internet in Jammu and Kashmir lasting several months was a clear abuse of power and contradicted the country’s constitution. This decision of the Supreme Court was foreshadowed by a similar decision by the High Court of Kerala, situated in India’s most literate state.
Additionally, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which includes freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. The United Nations, in a report, stated that Article 19 of the UDHR was drafted with the foresight to accommodate future technological developments. Arguably, this includes access to the internet.
The provision of 4G services is only being denied to J&K. This has created a “digital divide” between the residents of J&K and the surplus of Indian nationals. It is an alienating gap between those with access to the internet and those who have limited to no access.
Post the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A of Indian constitution, internet services of all types and networks were completely severed. After the excruciating wait of five months, it was restored with its speed restricted to 2G only. It is pertinent to mention that tourism, healthcare, education, and many other sectors are drowning in incredibly murky waters owing to the snail’s speed of the internet.
The worst affected is the education sector and the damage runs deep. It is not only the teachers' livelihoods that are being badly affected but the children’s collective future and mental health. With deplorable working speed, especially in the distant mountain villages, online classes are not yielding any results. Students are not finding it comfortable and are not able to download the materials sent to them through Whatsapp or Zoom-like applications.
Rayees Ahmad Kumar
Email: rayeeskumar[email protected]
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