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Last week Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shocked the world by claiming that Canadian resident and Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar had been assassinated by Indian government agents in an act of foreign interference. For months after Nijjar’s death in June, Canadian Sikhs reported that they too were dealing with Indian government interference: the government of India was frequently ordering Facebook to take down their posts relating to Nijjar’s death. Prominent Sikh accounts and civilians alike found their posts blocked or unpublished due to “legal demands” coming directly from the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in what may be the Indian government’s attempt to export its draconian censorship culture to discourse overseas.
All this has unfolded just ahead of the International Day for Universal Access to Information, which falls on 28 September. The Right to Know Day, as it is otherwise known, hails information access via the internet as a tool to protect human rights.
It is not the first time civilians - both within and outside of India - have faced obstacles on social media platforms for posting information or opinions that go against Modi’s carefully crafted narrative. Ultimately the Right to Know does not exist in Modi’s India and social media platforms like Facebook, X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram are part of the problem, kowtowing to Indian-government pressure to censor dissent.
Take the example of X CEO Elon Musk, whose proud defenses of free speech are undermined by his frequent capitulation to the demands of Indian government censors. He adopted a surprisingly meek tone when asked by the BBC about why X had blocked content relating to India: the Modi Question, a BBC documentary released earlier this year that exposes Modi’s complicity in episodes of massive anti-Muslim violence.
"The rules in India for what can appear on social media are quite strict, and we can't go beyond the laws of a country,” Musk told the BBC after X complied with Modi’s demand to delete all links to watch the film. “If we have a choice of either our people go to prison, or we comply with the laws, we'll comply with the laws."
“Quite strict” is putting it lightly. The Modi government’s censorship aims to remake India, transforming it from a secular democracy into a Hindu supremacist nation, one where religious minorities, specifically Muslims and Christians, are stripped of their basic human rights and reduced to second-class citizens. Any disapproval of Modi or his authoritarian goals is suppressed via the Information Technology Act, which forces social media platforms to “fact-check” all content posted about the government. These expansive powers – which Human Rights Watch cites as “enabling state surveillance” – allows the government to censor virtually any content it labels as “disinformation”, “objectionable” or “anti-national”.
The resulting crackdown on free speech has contributed to India’s top-5 ranking in the list of countries that submitted censorship requests to X in 2022. That same year, India also became the world leader in internet shutdowns, after blacking out web access a shocking 84 times. Over half of these incidents were imposed on Muslim-majority Kashmir, shortly after Modi stripped the region of its semi-autonomous status.
Censorship tightened its grip in response to mounting civil resistance in India. In the early months of 2020, as Delhi witnessed a surge in anti-Muslim violence, farmers rallied against unjust farm laws, and the government struggled to manage the Covid-19 crisis under Modi's leadership, X reported that the government made over 2,700 official requests for content removal. Content related to the protests led by Muslims against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act was also subject to removal, and the accounts of activists were blocked. By the end of the year, nearly 10,000 tweets had been deleted. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, most of these tweets were mere opinions on these events, satirical posts and expressions of solidarity with protesters.
Any attempts by journalists and activists to counter the pro-Modi propaganda circulated by mostly corporate-controlled media are labeled “anti-national” and met with consequences. In Kashmir, where human rights abuses by security forces are widespread, journalists who post content on rights violations can face detention under draconian anti-terror laws. Those who debunk Hindu supremacist propaganda, like prominent Muslim journalist Mohammad Zubair, arrested in 2022 over a 2018 tweet, have received notices from X claiming that their fact-checking posts violate Indian law.
Just days ago, the Jammu and Kashmir police reportedly claimed to have secured the direct cooperation of social media giants to access information on users engaged in spreading “anti-national sentiment” - an allegation often leveled by the regime against activists, journalists and everyday civilians who criticise the government or Hindu nationalism. Without access to secure private communications, information sharing in India will surely undergo a serious chilling effect.
All the while hate speech against minorities appears to be given a free pass in India. A prime example is within Modi’s own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is notorious for running an IT cell partially dedicated to harassing and threatening their critics with armies of online trolls. The IT cell also seeks to scare civilians into voting for the BJP by flooding Facebook, WhatsApp and X with fear-mongering propaganda against Muslims, often describing them as violent freeloaders.
Other Hindu extremists also rely on social media to promote and carry out violence, posting everything from slur-filled tweets to horrific videos of Muslims being violently attacked. Mainstream “news” personality Suresh Chavhanke, who consistently refers to Muslims as “terrorists”, once posted on X asking his hundreds of millions of followers if he should shoot a group of Muslims. A well-known Hindu militant accused of sparking deadly violence against Muslims, Monu Manesar, received a Gold Play Button from YouTube for running a massively popular channel that filmed and glorified cow vigilante attacks against Muslims.
Another influential Hindu militant, Bittu Bajrangi, uploaded hate speeches to social media that some have alleged played a direct role in triggering mass violence in Haryana state last month.
Posts offering firearms for sale in Hindu militant Facebook groups have gone untouched for an extensive period of time, while Facebook responded to activist concerns by claiming such posts didn’t violate any community policies. (Only after the Wall Street Journal inquired into the posts did Facebook finally take them down.)
The promotion of hateful content at the expense of marginalised voices across all these platforms is troubling to say the least. Facebook, X and other platforms are aiding in the death of free speech in India. Abetting these human rights abuses on such a massive scale is unacceptable. They should be protecting the right to freedom of information in India and wherever they operate, instead of helping foreign governments along in their spiral towards autocracy. They must learn from Facebook’s own role in the Rohingya genocide, following which victims in the USA and the UK took legal action against the social media firm, accusing it of failing to prevent incitement of violence.
It is long past time for social media companies to stand up to the censorship demands of the Modi regime and stand behind the Right to Know in India and elsewhere.
Rasheed Ahmed is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Indian American Muslim Council, the USA’s oldest and largest Indian Muslim diaspora organisation
An Indian man has found himself in trouble for allegedly posting a Facebook comments against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The incident raises serious doubts over online freedom in the world’s biggest democracy
On March 23, shipbuilding professional Devu Chodankar posted in the popular Facebook group Goa+, that if Modi became prime minister, a holocaust "as it happened in Gujarat", would follow. Modi was the Gujarat chief minister during the 2002 pogrom in which more than 1000 people -- most of them Muslims -- were killed in communal violence. Chodankar also wrote that it would lead to the Christian community in the state of Goa losing their identity. He later deleted the post. In another Facebook group he regretted his choice of words but stood by the substance of his argument, calling it his crusade against the “tyranny of fascists”.
The incident was reported to the police in March by former chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industries in Goa Atul Pai Kane, who was close to Modi's party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He filed a First Information Report (FIR) to the police, under sections 153(A), 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and section 125 of the People’s Representation Act and 66-A of the Information Technology Act. Under the former, it is a crime to promote enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., as do acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony. Meanwhile, the latter makes it a punishable offence to send messages that are offensive, false or created for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience.
In his complaint, Kane said that Chodankar had threatened the group members not to vote in favour of the BJP, as it would virtually make Narendra Modi the prime minister of India. “I made this complaint as Chodankar issued inflammatory statements and tried to create communal hatred. He even refused to withdraw those comments. You cannot make such comments on a public forum. There has to be a limit.”
Police summoned Chodankar for the first time on May 12, and a trial court on 22 May rejected anticipatory bail. Chodankar has left Goa to evade possible arrest. Police want to interrogate him to find out whether he had any broader intentions with his comments, and whether he had plans to “promote communal and social disharmony”.
Social activists and opposition political parties feel that lodging a police complaint over a Facebook comment is an attempt to curb individual freedom, and that such cases would become the order of the day under Hindu nationalist BJP rule. Activists also believe that this type of police action is tantamount to curbing freedom of expression, ultimately meaning that you should either stay away from social media or stop speaking your mind on such platforms.
Amitabh Pandey, a media freedom activist, said: “The message is very clear. You should know how to behave in the cyber world. If you dare to write against Narendra Modi on any social media platform then you should be ready to face the consequences.”
Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) alumnus Dr. Samir Kelekar has been actively working for the case against Chodankar to be dropped. “I feel arresting a person for making a comment against someone is too much. We don’t agree with his comments but we don’t agree with police action either. His comment is not going to affect the society in any way,” he said.
This isn't the only such case in recent times in India. On 15 May, author Amaresh Mishra was arrested in Gurgaon, in the northern Indian state of Haryana, for posting content on Facebook and Twitter against Modi and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a radical Hindu organisation associated with BJP. Charges alleged he had incited violence against Modi.
Along with social activists, many netizens are opposing the police action against Chodankar. “In a way we are living in a country which claims that we have freedom of expression, but in reality it doesn’t exist," said Facebook user Animesh Upadhyay, adding that people don't know which comment will be treated as an offence and might get them arrested.
However, some feel that there has to be a limit. Ashutosh Jaiswal, convener of hardliner Hindu organisation Bajrang Dal said: “The police should deal sternly with such public comments.”
Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar has refused to interfere in the case. In a written statement he said: “As per Supreme Court directives, it is compulsory to register all complaints. A prominent citizen has filed a complaint and judiciary has refused to grant anticipatory bail to the accused person, which proves that there is substance in the complaint.”
He has also stated that there was "no intention" to arrest Chodankar. "He was issued two summons after which he did not appear before police, and his lawyer went for anticipatory bail...Police opposed the bail as a regular process."
“The Ram- Rahim ideal and the secular ideology are often the stuff of an Indian politician’s election haberdashery, not his soul-stuff.” Justice Krishna Iyer of India’s Supreme Court was scathing in his criticism of those electoral candidates who canvass votes in the name of religion or by instigating polarisation among different religious and ethnic communities. Besides violating India elections law, they also damage the country’s secular fabric.
The law is Section 123(3) of the Representation of the People Act, which deems candidates’ or their agents’ appeal for votes on the basis of religion or religious symbols as a "corrupt practice", and if found guilty, entails disqualification.
On May 6, while campaigning for Lalloo Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) candidate from Faizabad, Narendra Modi, with the picture of Ram, a mythological king of ancient India, revered as a god by the Hindus, adorning the background, promised to bring about “Ram Rajya” (kingdom of Ram) if voted into power. The Election Commission was quick to order an investigation for a violation of the election law as well as the Model Code of Conduct--a set of guidelines which aren’t legally binding.
As it has become de rigueur for a Hindu Right party like the BJP, bellicose arguments about violation of the fundamental rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression were relentlessly trotted out. The truth is quite different, because the Supreme Court has held that the restriction on religious electioneering doesn’t impinge upon any such right.
When the constitutional validity of Section 123 (3) was challenged in 1954, a bench of five Supreme Court judges while upholding the provision held that it does not prevent a man from speaking and merely prescribes conditions which must be observed if he wants to enter parliament. The right to contest an election is not a common law right but a special right created by a statute and the statutory provisions have no bearing on the fundamental rights. Then when a similar challenge was mounted again in 1965, the court affirmed its earlier decision and stated that the law acted as a wedge against the secular, democratic process being vitiated by bigotry and violence. It must be mentioned that both these judgements hold ground to this day.
Going back to Modi’s speech, take a look at the photograph, and some more facts. “Ram Rajya”, which the BJP so desperately tried to pass off as a moniker for good governance, is an exclusive Hindu term, and no one professing any other faith would ever use that expression. The setting in which the speech was delivered makes Modi’s actions all the more egregious. He was speaking at Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh, which is only a stone’s throw away from Ayodhya, which has attained permanent notoriety for the site of the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992 by hordes of militant Hindus swearing fanatical allegiance to the BJP and its associated parties. In fact 6 December 1992 marks that watershed moment when communalism became an inalienable and vicious part of Indian politics. Things have only slid downhill from there, and who can forget the carnage in Gujarat in 2002 (under Narendra Modi’s watch)?
And the fact that Lalloo Singh is one of those arraigned as accused for razing the mosque to the ground leaves no one in any doubt as to Modi’s real agenda- to whip up Hindu communal passions and garner as many votes as possible.
Modi’s increasingly strident bigotry has bared its fangs open in the last lap of the election campaign. Only on May 5, he tried to charm his Uttar Pradesh supporters by thundering that only those who worship Durga--a Hindu goddess--are true Indians, and all Muslim migrants will be deported once he came to power.
It remains a mystery and one of grave consternation as to why the Election Commission finally went easy and took no action. But a fitting reply to the last Modi apologist would be -the promise of building a Ram temple over the pulverized mosque occupies pride of place in the BJP’s election manifesto.
The cauldron has always been simmering, despite abundant shibboleths about this election not being about hate or Hindutva (the communal political ideology of the Hindu Right wing) but about development.
Therefore it came as no surprise when on 19 April, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) International President Praveen Togadia exhorted a mob in Bhavnagar to storm a house which had recently been purchased by a Muslim businessman. And in case he refused to vacate the house within 48 hours, Togadia raged, go after him with stones and tyres. After all, since those who went on the rampage in the 1984 Delhi riots have enjoyed impunity, there’s nothing to fear, he thundered. Ram Madhav, a senior functionary of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), stoutly defended Togadia. But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi have remain tight-lipped about the entire affair.
It is unfortunate, alarming, but true that hate propaganda has always yielded rich political dividends, and the BJP and its allies of the Hindu right have been frontrunners in making the most of it. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Election Commission, the supreme authority in charge of managing and conducting polls, has been woefully inept at dealing with this malaise. Consider this, Amit Shah, Modi’s henchman and campaign manager, got away with a mere censure after egging on people in riot-torn Muzaffarnagar to vote for the BJP if they wanted revenge on Muslims.
The fault doesn’t lie with the Election Commission, though. It is the lacunae in the laws which allow the purveyors of hate and bigotry to have a free hand. India’s election law prescribes a “Model Code of Conduct” which prohibits incendiary speeches, especially those pandering to religion and seeking to stir up communal violence. But mere prohibition, without adequate authority for imposing meaningful punishment which acts as a deterrent, is not of much use. And it is here where the commission’s hands are tied. The code does not have any legal teeth, so a candidate caught delivering hate speeches cannot be debarred. For instance, in 2009, Modi had a crowd baying for the blood of Muslims, but the commission’s chief stated that he couldn’t do much except “rebuke”.
The cynical subterfuge adopted by political parties aggravates the situation. Immediate legal action is ruled out, since the law permits a candidate’s election to be challenged only after the results are declared, thereby giving ample opportunity to the poisonous tree of hate to bear its bitter fruit. In the meanwhile, the offenders parrot vehement denials, knowing very well that dilatory tactics only work in their favour. Modi did it 2002, engaging in protracted sparring with the Indian Supreme Court, and in 2007, the BJP’s rebuttal of charges of having widely disseminated a CD containing communally inflammatory speeches fell apart only when a sting operation by an investigative journalism magazine exposed all the lies.
More insidious than explicitly incendiary speeches is what can be termed as religious electioneering, that is, canvassing for votes in the name of religion. It’s a tried and tested strategy of the BJP and its allies, particularly militant Hindu organisations like the RSS and VHP. This is usually done by glorifying Hinduism and pandering to a manufactured sense of victimhood, which, in the political arena, inevitably morphs into vilification of “the other”, “the minorities” -- Muslims and Christians, primarily the former. In BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh in central India, the RSS distributed pamphlets urging Hindus to vote in full strength in order to put the minorities in their place. The supreme court is primarily to blame for this state of affairs, because in a 1996 decision, it erroneously conflated Hinduism with the communal political ideology of Hindutva and acquitted a demagogue notorious for his Islamophobic screed.
It would be a mistake to believe that hate speech is the sole preserve of the militant Hindu Right. Azam Khan, representing the Samajwadi Party, remains defiant about his tirade, while Akbaruddin Owaisi, experienced in the politics of hate, remains unscathed due to the patronage and skulduggery of the Congress.
The Togadia saga isn’t over yet. Going by standard modus operandi, not only has he has alleged a political conspiracy to frame him, but has also slapped a legal notice on the television channels and newspaper which reported his Saturday’s labours. Senior journalists from these channels, however, are standing their ground, contending they have video footage to prove his culpability.
Optimistic about better politics? Look at 21 April, Mumbai. With Modi on the dais, a political ally boasts that he would be the best one to teach Muslims a lesson. And the man being hailed as the next prime minister “disapproves” of “petty statements” by the likes of Togadia.