NEW DELHI: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,'' said Justice NV Ramana as he delivered the five bench Supreme Court ruling on petitions challenging the government imposed restrictions and curbs on Kashmir. The full stanza from A Tale of Two Cities that he was quoting reads,” It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

The Supreme Court today itself surprised and yet disappointed. For those who were expecting little the ruling on Kashmir came as a welcome surprise. For those who expected direct intervention to restore freedoms after five dark months on the people of Kashmir, the one week given to the government to review its orders came as a bit of a disappointment. More so as for for five long months, the people of the Kashmir Valley have borne the brunt of repression with fear and terror accompanying huge financial losses even as hundreds of political leaders still under detention, and countless civilians in jails.

So courageous journalist Anuradha Bhasin was not far from the truth, and actually reflected both sentiments, when she told The Citizen that she was both happy and yet a little disappointed. As the pluses for her were the Supreme Court’s recognition that internet was a fundamental right, that the government was told that it could not use arbitrary powers for unlimited periods of time, and that it was required to bring into the public domain valid reasons as to why restrictions had been imposed. She said she would have been happier had the court intervened to strike all the measures down, but then it was also clear now that the government would have to carry out the review in line with what was set out by the court today.

Bhasin was one of the petitioners to move the courts on Kashmir, limiting her intervention to the media. As she said, “the Kashmiri journalists have really suffered, incurred huge financial losses under the curbs that have been imposed.” These have not been lifted but Bhasin, herself running the Kashmir Times, said that there was now genuine hope that these will.

The tone and the tenor of the ruling today, giving the government a week to review the curbs it had imposed on an entire population was positive. One, that it recognised the Internet as a fundamental right with the five member bench headed by Justice NV Ramana maintaining, “It is no doubt that freedom of speech is an essential tool in a democratic setup. Freedom of internet access is a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) of free speech.” This itself will have a long term and wide implication as it is the most recent observation by the apex court on freedom of speech as a constitutional right.

The Supreme Court has also made it clear that it expects the review to be in favour of lifting internet curbs in the Valley. And while the media was left out of it, the court has suggested immediate relief in allowing immediate relief for "government websites, localised/limited e-banking facilities, hospitals services and other essential services, in those regions, wherein the internet services are not likely to be restored immediately". But by describing as a fundamental right, the court has actually set the way for a positive government response after a week.

"Sec 144 CrPC (prohibitory orders) cannot be used as a tool to suppress difference of opinion," the SC ruled in a ruling that will have widespread impact, as it has been used along with the internet clampdown, all across India during the recent youth protests. The state administration has been directed by the court to review all Section 144 orders within the week. Along with all restrictive order, including the suspension of the internet in the same period of time.

The SC has also said that all such orders will have to be placed in the public domain with the reasons so that the citizen could challenge these legally. And that the right to life should be secured in the best possible manner. “Our limited concern is to find a balance regarding security and liberty of people. We are only here to ensure citizens are provided their rights,” the Court ruled.

Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad , one of the other petitioners, welcomed the ruling as a reminder to the “tyrant duo.” Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah have justified restrictions impose in the Valley after they abrogated Article 370, claiming not a single life was lost. The government, however, refused access to the Valley with a complete clampdown by the security forces. Under international pressure it facilitated the visit of select European Union MPs that the EU distanced itself from, maintaining that this was a personal and not an official visit by the representatives. After this fell flat, the government now got together envoys from 16 countries to visit the Valley, that they did yesterday amidst tight security and restrictions. The US envoy was part of the delegation, but has still to be heard from in the public domain. Indian political leaders were detained at the airport and prevented from going into Srinagar.

The media has been functioning as a crippled body, with journalists being intimidated and harassed as per local reports. Harsh winter has driven the people indoors, with the tourist dependent Valley registering huge financial losses. Apples, another mainstay of Kashmiris, rotted during the clampdown leading to unrecorded loss. Businesses were crippled because of the unrest and widespread detentions, along with continuing restrictions and strikes. The story of Kashmir during these five hard months has yet to filter out of the Valley, with just a few odd reports making their way to Delhi. Local newspapers are not free to write. As Bhasin said, the journalists have internet access only at a specially opened media centre which remains under full surveillance.

Depression and panic attacks have become common amongst the youth, terrified of the ‘midnight knock’ as one of them put it. Young people are reporting high blood pressure and deep anxiety.

Cover Photograph BASIT ZARGAR