The Indian Government has recently responded to major protests with a raft of reforms designed to tighten control over social media and heighten censorship of opposition voices.
The ability of Indian citizens to speak freely online or in public is growing more difficult as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rolls out increasingly strict legislation to curtail criticism of its policies. In November 2020, protests by Indian farmers resulted in a conflict between information technology company Twitter and the BJP, with the BJP demanding that 1,000 Twitter accounts be banned. Twitter’s refusal to comply with that directive has led the government to create a Code that is designed to provide more government oversight of online social media. Previous abuses of such powers by the BJP have, however, led to the perception that such oversight is little more than a means to silence criticism.
The farmers’ protests in New Delhi that commenced in November 2020 have proved a flashpoint in the BJP’s response to criticism of its policies. The protest against the ruling party, which started in response to three laws rushed through the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of India’s Parliament), that were intended to free up the market into which farmers sell their crops, has already been falsely accused by the BJP as being a front for a Sikh separatist movement. Journalists have been specifically targeted by the police at these protests, with the high-profile arrest of Mandeep Punia and Dharmender Singh, with Punia released only after a three-day imprisonment. Both men were accused by the BJP of sharing ”unverified” news, with the Delhi Police filing cases against others for posting “fake, misleading and wrong information”. Many observers have noted the key role that social media has played in the protests, with the spread via Twitter of a viral video showing Punia being physically removed from the protests by police, preventing the police from denying that Punia was ever there.
Tweets from Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmentalist, have promoted the farmers’ cause internationally and helped spread an online “toolkit” that, the authorities claim, was designed to help create further protests. The response from the BJP was a legal demand to block more than 1,000 Twitter accounts that had circulated hashtags associated with support for the protests. That generated even further controversy after Disha Ravi, the Indian environmentalist founder of “Fridays For Future India”, was arrested for helping to draft and spread copies of this toolkit and subsequently charged with sedition by the BJP.
Twitter’s decision to reinstate accounts banned by government order and its refusal to remove more, has prompted the release of an aggressive new set of rules by the BJP that have been designed to clamp down on online discussion and criticism of the government’s activities. The Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code introduces a raft of new requirements designed to further suborn companies such as Twitter and Facebook to the ruling party’s mandates. The new code requires companies to remove requested content within 36 hours, assist in law enforcement investigations by providing personal information, and appoint multiple new executive officers to liaise with the federal government. The combined effect of these measures has been to place what some observers call an impossible regulatory burden upon information technology companies. While these new regulations could be interpreted as necessary to stop the spread of false information, the BJP’s deteriorating track record when it comes to free speech makes it unlikely that combatting fake news will be the Code’s only use.
While often seen as a bastion of relative political and democratic freedom in Asia, especially when compared to neighbouring China, Myanmar and Bangladesh, India has continuously ratcheted up an aggressive programme designed to curtail the ability of citizens to speak out against or criticise the BJP. Recent examples include the application of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act against a journalist investigating violence against Dalits in Hathras, the resignation of ex-Finance Minister Dr Arvind Subramaniam from a prominent academic position over concerns for basic academic freedom, and the unilateral blackout of the communications infrastructure in Kashmir, during the process of India taking direct control of the territory’s government. Disha Ravi’s arrest and the government’s spat with Twitter have been further high-profile examples of the BJP tightening its grip on discourse critical of the government.
What has become clear from the government’s responses to the farmers’ protests is that this step for the federal government is one that aims to take India further towards a kind of “digital authoritarianism”, to permanently silence online critics of the BJP government. The final applicability of the reforms remains to be seen, as a Supreme Court challenge to determine if the Code applies to online news media is due to be heard on 16 April; the reining-in of Twitter and Facebook, however, remains in effect in the interim. In the short term, the Code has attracted significant criticism, but the longer term may see those critics themselves silenced. The real long-term effects of the Code on free speech will be decided when the Supreme Court rules exactly how far reaching across the online sphere the government’s powers truly are.