India’s hate speech trackers are being blocked
Even from exile in the USA, a Kashmiri journalist critical of India’s ruling BJP is being silenced
16 Apr 24

Media freedom in India continues to be eroded under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Al Jazeera English via Flickr

In January this year, when Raqib Hameed Naik received a notice from X (formerly Twitter) that Hindutva Watch was blocked on the platform by order of the country’s ruling Hindu–nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he was not surprised. The government had submitted more than 28 legal requests to X in the past two years, seeking removal of Watch’s posts. As well as the X account being blocked in India, the Hindutva Watch website was, and is, also inaccessible in the country.

“While shocking, it’s not surprising, considering Prime Minister Modi regime’s history of suppressing free press & critical voices,” Naik wrote on X on 16 January in reaction to the ban.

Naik, a journalist reporting on conflict and marginalisation of minorities, founded and runs US-based independent research project Hindutva Watch, which tracks hate crimes by right–wing Hindus against Muslims, Christians and members of the historically oppressed castes in India. The website of India Hate Lab, another initiative by Naik that is exclusively dedicated to tracking hate speech in India, has also been rendered inaccessible in the country.

Various law enforcement agencies have frequently attempted to erase Hindutva Watch and India Hate Lab’s documentation of hate crime and speech towards minorities, primarily on the pretext of violating India’s controversial Information Technology (IT) Act 2000, though the government never clarified which specific laws were violated by the two websites. 

The IT Act grants authorities the power to block access to information under the guise of safeguarding India’s “sovereignty, integrity, and security”. In 2022, the country’s Supreme Court invalidated a provision of the Act which empowered the government to prosecute individuals for sharing “offensive” messages online. Various governments, irrespective of political affiliations, had misused the provision to detain ordinary civilians critical of the government.

Hailing from the conflict-ridden India-administered Jammu and Kashmir, Naik started working as a journalist in 2014. He said it was evident for him from the beginning of his career that the government was vindictive against journalists and media outlets who reported critically on them, especially from sensitive areas like Kashmir. The situation, he believes, is worse for journalists from minority communities.

“The assault on the pillars of free press, coupled with the anti–minority policies and generation of an atmosphere grounded in hate and violence towards minority communities, profoundly affected me, as a Kashmiri Muslim journalist,” he told Index.

Naik’s fears were not unfounded. Initially covering political conflict and human rights in Kashmir and later on religious minorities and Hindu nationalism in India, he was among the handful of journalists who was able to report on the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy by the BJP in 2019 amidst a tight curfew and communication blockade, including internet shutdowns for several months in the Himalayan valley.

As Naik’s reporting on Kashmir’s unrest gained international recognition, it also landed him in trouble. He faced questioning from the country’s intelligence officers and frequent inquiries from the police about his whereabouts and work, putting pressure on his family.

“It’s pure harassment but also a debilitating feeling,” said Naik, who is currently in the USA, since fleeing India in 2020 as the death threats and harassment for his reporting ramped up.

“Four years have passed, and I haven’t been home since. The thought of being unable to go home indefinitely just breaks my heart,” he said. “But then, I have to gather strength because there are very few journalists left in the country to tell and humanise stories of the minorities.”

Initially running the two websites and their X accounts anonymously from Massachusetts in the USA, Naik created a unique and robust digital database of human rights abuses, which routinely occur from big cities to remote villages in what is considered the world’s largest democracy. Yet, such cases do not receive adequate mainstream press coverage in India. Interestingly, two news outlets from the country, Hindustan Times and IndiaSpend, made attempts to monitor hate crimes only to stop their operations in 2017 and 2019 respectively. 

Modi’s tenure so far has been marred with an increased suppression of dissent, targeting critics such as journalists, activists, academics, lawmakers and minority communities in India. Shortly before Hindutva Watch and India Hate Lab were blocked, Modi presided over the consecration of the new Ram temple, constructed on the ruins of a historic Mughal–era mosque which was demolished by a mob in 1992. The ensuing riots took over 2,000 lives while the site remained a point of contention for over three decades.

According to IndiaSpend’s Citizen’s Religious Hate Crime Watch, a data–driven news platform, around 90% of religiously-motivated hate crimes that have occurred since 2009 did so after the BJP took power on a national level in 2014.

The scale of these hate crimes remains obscured. After 2017, the country’s national crime bureau stopped keeping a separate record on hate crimes or lynching. Naik’s project keeps track of such incidents in absence of any documentation by authorities or media in the country. Run by a small group of 12 volunteers spread across five countries, Naik’s project documents two to four hate events daily using video and picture evidence submitted by a network of Indian activists and citizens.

“Since 2021, we have documented and archived thousands of videos and stories on hate crimes and hate speeches,” Naik said. “Our efforts have led to actionable outcomes in states where law agencies were willing to take a stand against right–wing members involved in such activities.”

“What we have collected serves as the evidence for facilitating judicial intervention, particularly in cases related to hate speech,” he added.

According to the latest report released by India Hate Lab before it was blocked in India, nearly two anti–Muslim hate speech events took place every day in 2023 and around 75% of those occurred in states ruled by the BJP. Collating a total of 668 hate speech events, the report observed that the cases peaked between August and November in 2023 – the period of political campaigning and polling in four major states in the country.

In India, press freedom also took a severe plunge under Modi’s leadership and with people now heading to the polls, Naik worries that blocking of his websites could tighten the government’s grip on the information ecosystem in the country.

Despite the suspension, he remains undeterred in continuing his work. He says: “There is extreme fear. And the climate of fear may continue to stifle reporting. But I know there are journalists who won’t succumb or surrender. I see hope in them.”

Read more about how authorities are silencing their critics across borders in the upcoming issue of Index. For a 50% discounted subscription to our digital edition, visit our page on Exact Editions and use the code Spring24 here

By Hanan Zaffar

Hanan Zaffar is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in South Asia.