India's Supreme Court said on Friday that an indefinite shutdown of the internet in Kashmir was illegal, rebuking the government for the communications lockdown imposed after it withdrew the Muslim majority region's autonomy in August.
Internet suspensions can be imposed only for "temporary duration" and an indefinite suspension violated India's telecoms rules, the court said in an order published on its website.
It also ordered authorities to review all such curbs in Kashmir immediately.
Authorities must consider immediately allowing the functioning of essential internet services such as for hospitals and limited e-banking in regions where internet cannot be restored right away, the court added.
"Freedom of Internet access is a fundamental right," Supreme Court justice N. V. Ramana said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist government has frequently used internet shutdowns as a tool to quell dissent in troubled parts of the country.
Last month, authorities imposed an internet clampdown in parts of the capital and in areas of the eastern state of Assam and Uttar Pradesh in the north as protests raged against a new citizenship law that Muslims see as discriminatory.
The shutdown in Kashmir, which has been on for more than 150 days, is the longest such outage in any democracy, according to digital rights group Access Now.
The government has argued that the blackout in Kashmir was needed to maintain order in a Himalayan region where security forces have been fighting a long-running separatist insurgency encouraged by neighbouring Pakistan.
The Supreme Court's decision, which also asks authorities to make public all orders on internet shutdowns, should enable more scrutiny of suspensions, internet freedom activists said.
"This sheds light on the rationale behind internet shutdowns which then can be challenged as being constitutional or proportionate or not," said Nikhil Pahwa, digital rights activist and editor of MediaNama, a Delhi-based publication.
"So if the state is forced to be transparent, they will be more accountable."
In 2019, India's documented internet blackouts lasted for more than 4,000 hours, costing Asia's third-biggest economy $1.3 billion, according to a report by website Top10VPN.
India's home ministry and department of telecommunications did not respond to requests for comment.
In Kashmir, the blackout has severely disrupted the lives of millions and has had an impact on everything from college admissions to businesses filing tax returns.
For Yasin Tuman, who runs a travel agency in Kashmir's main city Srinagar, the loss of internet access has hit his business hard, as tourists stay away.
"I've suffered losses of 7 million rupees (nearly $100,000) in the past five months," he told Reuters.
The government says it was necessary to block the internet to stop agitators orchestrating mass, potentially violent, protests against its decision to revoke Kashmir's special status.
It also ordered a massive deployment of security forces, and after some protests in the initial days anti-government demonstrations have died down.
Gouhar Geelani, a journalist and writer from Kashmir, said Modi's Hindu nationalist party had used the internet clampdown "to control the Kashmir narrative by placing restrictions on mainstream media and social media platforms."
Stricter regulations are necessary to safeguard users and the nation's security as the internet has emerged as a "potent tool to cause unimaginable disruption to the democratic polity," India's technology ministry has previously said.
India is the biggest market for social media such as Facebook and its WhatsApp messenger, and with 450 million smartphone users it is second only to China.
As of now, an uneasy calm prevails in Kashmir. The internet was restored in hospitals last week and some mobile phone connections are working.
The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries welcomed the Supreme Court's ruling saying although delayed, the order could help them to claim compensation for losses of as much as 180 billion rupees.
Separately, the government on Friday revoked detention warrants for 26 men from Kashmir, paving the way for their release.