| Welcome to Global Village Space

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Silencing dissent in Modi’s India

Silencing dissent, censorship, geo-blocking social media accounts and freedom of speech have become some of the pressing issues of apparently democratic India. Besides, mainstream news platforms; Twitter accounts of several activists, journalists, and socio-political movements have been targeted in a coordinated manner to curb press freedom.  

During the recent UNGA’s 77th session, which commenced in New York City, India’s Minister for external affairs, S. Jaishankar opened his address by highlighting the importance of India as the ‘world’s largest democracy. Those familiar with this phrase would be aware of the soft power or authority that India wishes to command by reiterating it in front of the international community. Meanwhile, those following recent socio-political developments in India would also report the disturbing status of declining democratic norms and dissent, under Prime Minister Narender Modi’s regime.

Silencing dissent, censorship, geo-blocking social media accounts and freedom of speech have become some of the pressing issues of apparently democratic India. Besides, mainstream news platforms; Twitter accounts of several activists, journalists, and socio-political movements have been targeted in a coordinated manner to curb press freedom.

Read more: Exporting Hindutva: From Godse to Modi

Understanding the matter better

Over the past two years particularly, state authorities have repeatedly intimidated and subdued press freedom in India, making it one of the most dangerous places for journalists. From stopping journalists from flying abroad like Aakash Hassan, Pulitzer winner Sanna Irshad, and Amnesty International’s Aakar Patel, to withholding Twitter accounts of prominent journalists like Rana Ayyub, India is setting new precedents in place for press brutality. The One Free Press Coalition has  also identified Rana Ayyub among the list of ‘10 most urgent cases for journalists under attack.’ More recently, authorities have arrested Alt News’ Muhammad Zubair on the basis of an old tweet. He posted a hotel signboard photo altered from ‘honeymoon hotel’ to ‘Hanuman hotel’, in his 2018 tweet. Seemingly, he offended the religious sentiments of Hindus.

One of the prominent critics of the Indian current regime is an Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK)-based activist and a civil society member, Khurram Pervez. Time magazine, while acknowledging his contributions to the Kashmiri cause called him ‘modern-day David’. Khurram has a history of highlighting and resisting Indian states’ abuse of force and power in IOK. Despite the global backlash from the international community and the United Nations, the state charged him under the extremely vague, Unlawful Activities Prevention (Act), last November. Albeit, a mix of traditional and digital methodologies so far has worked in curbing the crucial dissent successfully, the agitation of the Indian government only appears to grow further.

According to the World Press Freedom Index report 2022 released this year, India has slipped to the 150th position, compared to its 142nd position last year. For the largest democracy in the world, with a population size of 1.3 billion individuals, this is a concerning development. Critical media outlets like Newslaudry, The Caravan, and the Wire were subjected to consistent intimidation and raids by Indian state agencies, in 2020. The Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) in their statement consequentially declared raids to be “ominous, clearly aimed” to damper independent critical voices in Indian news media.

This state of media coercion has also been noted by Reporters Without Borders, which outlined the hate campaign against Indian journalists and media outlets, on social media. Their findings have concluded that anyone writing against Hindutva ideology, or about something that perturbs Hindutva followers, faces online harassment and threats.

Read more: Indian media under siege in Modi regime: An appraisal

This year, around June, Twitter blocked around 80 posts, on the pretext of informational Technology Rules 2021. Barring the social media accounts that were vocal in their support of farmers’ protests and were active in expressing solidarity with Kashmir. Prominent handles facing geo-blocking by Twitter were @standup4farmers and @StandWithKashmir. Both these trends were disapproving of the Modi government’s policies and governance extensively. In fact, during the farmer’s protests, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs went on to call climate activist Greta Thunbergs’ and singer Rihanna’s support for protests ‘irresponsible and sensational.

The way forward

Besides silencing dissent at home and abroad via geo-blocking and employing digital and legal methods of curbing diversity, targeting minorities, and inciting social, religious, and political polarity; India is also actively pursuing a case of disinformation and fake news against other states. Earlier in 2019, the EU Dinsinfo lab published a detailed report titled ‘Indian Chronicles’ in order to shed light on the coordinated disinformation campaign, online targeting Pakistan and China.

Lately, an elaborative report compiled and published by Standford Internet Observatory revealed more than 1,000 Twitter accounts have delegated the task of targeting specific people perceived as ‘enemies’ of the Indian government. India’s obstructive use of social media platforms in extending its power or sphere of influence doesn’t find many parallels, in the contemporary world.

Arguably anyone who doesn’t agree with the Indian government’s policies seems to be at the receiving end of online harassment, physical intimidation, arrests, and retribution in modern India. It is a common understanding that democracies need dissent to flourish, therefore, the presence of those who can speak truth to power and correct the course of affairs, is a necessity for functional democracies. India under BJP leadership has neither created an inclusive space for diverse opinions, voices, and perspectives nor is it empowering the rare segment of society that challenges the status quo in spirit and letter. When the history of Modi’s India will be written, ‘diversity and ‘truth’ are going to be counted as the first, few casualties.

Written by Mahnoor Saleem

The writer is an independent researcher and journalist. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.