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Anuradha Bhasin vs. Union of India (2020): Scrutinizing Internet Shutdowns in the Context of Fundamental Rights

The case of Anuradha Bhasin vs. Union of India addresses one of the most pressing issues in the digital age — the imposition of internet shutdowns by the state and its implications for fundamental rights. This case emerged in the backdrop of the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which granted special autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Background of the Case: In August 2019, the Indian government took a momentous decision to abrogate Article 370. Accompanying this decision were several security measures, including a communication blackout in Jammu and Kashmir. This involved the suspension of internet services, mobile services, and landline connectivity. Anuradha Bhasin, the Executive Editor of ‘Kashmir Times’, petitioned the Supreme Court challenging these restrictions, particularly the internet shutdown, on the grounds that they violated the freedom of speech and expression and the freedom to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade, or business.

Key Aspects of the Judgment:

  1. Internet and Fundamental Rights: The Supreme Court recognized that the freedom of speech and expression and the freedom to trade and commerce through the internet are constitutionally protected under Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g) of the Indian Constitution.
  2. Proportionality: The Court emphasized that any restriction on such rights, including internet shutdowns, should adhere to the principle of proportionality, meaning they should be necessary, unavoidable, and should have a direct relation to the achievement of a legitimate state aim.
  3. Orders to be Published: The Court directed that all orders imposing such restrictions should be published, allowing them to be reviewed by affected persons and challenged in court.
  4. Review of J&K Restrictions: The Court didn’t provide an immediate relief concerning the restoration of internet services in Jammu and Kashmir but directed the local administration to review the restrictive orders in place, ensuring they align with the principles laid out in the judgment.

Critical Analysis:

  • Affirming Digital Rights: By situating internet access within the ambit of fundamental rights, the judgment marked a significant step in acknowledging the importance of digital rights in today’s age.
  • Ambiguity in Relief: While the Court laid down essential principles, it stopped short of providing immediate relief, which led to continued hardships for the residents of Jammu and Kashmir.
  • Ground for Future Challenges: By mandating the publication of shutdown orders, the judgment provides a clearer path for citizens to challenge such restrictions in the future.

Conclusion: Anuradha Bhasin vs. Union of India shines a light on the critical balance between state security concerns and individual rights in the age of digital communication. While the judgment was a watershed moment in the recognition of internet access as a fundamental right, its real-world impact, particularly in terms of providing immediate relief in Jammu and Kashmir, remained a point of contention. Nonetheless, it laid a robust foundation for future challenges against internet shutdowns in India.

Shivendra Pratap Singh

Advocate

High Court Lucknow

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