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The vice tightens

Image is everything: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the campaign trail prior to the West Bengal elections, March 2021, which his party lost.
The huge rallies by all parties were criticized for their irresponsibility during India’s coronavirus crisis. SIPA USA/ALAMY

On 4 June 2021, Manjul, an Indian cartoonist, tweetedJai ho Modiji ki sarkaar ki’ (‘Praise be to the Modi government’) with a screenshot of an email. Twitter’s legal department had written to notify him that Indian law enforcement had requested they take down @MANJULtoons, Manjul’s Twitter account, because the content ‘violates the law(s) of India’.

Which ‘law(s)’, it did not specify. Never mind the fact that the Indian Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech and expression.

‘At first, I thought it was a prank,’ Manjul told New Internationalist. ‘I have been drawing cartoons since 1988 and have been posting them on social media for 10 years. I never got any notices, letters or warnings from any government until now.’ He added that this was ‘intimidation’ because the incident ‘will remain somewhere in the corner of my mind when I draw, telling me that I am on the government’s radar’.

Manjul’s case is but one example among a multitude. String together all of the rightwing BJP government’s attempts at curbing dissent and it becomes clear that creating an almost-palpable climate of fear is the goal.

Consider the misuse of laws like the sweeping and vaguely defined Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA, India’s anti-terror law) and the sedition law under the Indian Penal Code, which have effectively been deployed to criminalize dissent by targeting people with political opinions the government doesn’t like, including several students.

Only 2.2 per cent of cases registered under UAPA between 2016 and 2019 ended in convictions, pointing to how ill-framed the accusations were. Conviction, therefore, was likely never the main aim. But by incarcerating the accused before cases came to trial and making them go through excruciating legal procedures while jailed, the law has been shown to pervert the idea of justice. It makes a nonsense of the presumption of innocence (anticipatory bail is usually denied) and places greater restrictions on the civil liberties of the accused than regular prosecutions. In a notorious case, of 16 activists arrested under this law starting in 2018 for allegedly making ‘inflammatory’ speeches, several have spent three years in jail in the most appalling unsanitary conditions, exposed to high infection risk during the Covid-19 pandemic. One, an 84-year-old social activist and Jesuit priest called Stan Swamy, died in July after being repeatedly denied bail and suffering medical neglect in prison.

As for the archaic colonial-era sedition law, cases of those charged have been rising ever since Narendra Modi took office as prime minister in 2014, with the usual suspects being targeted – politicians, students, journalists, authors, academics and members of opposition parties.

As the monumental failures in tackling India’s sweeping second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded, they were accompanied by arrests and threats against 55 journalists for their coverage of the crisis. More generally, there has been a sharp rise in criminal cases lodged against journalists, with a majority of cases in BJP-ruled states.

The range of measures, from ‘anti-terror’ laws to outright arrests of journalists and social media censorship, come right out of the autocrat’s playbook

The government has also censored social media posts which criticized its handling of the pandemic by getting them taken down. And if that weren’t enough, it went so far as to ask Indians studying in the US to help counter the purported ‘biased and negative narrative’ against the country in the international media during the pandemic’s second wave.

The range of measures to control the government’s public image, from ‘anti-terror’ laws to outright arrests of journalists and social media censorship, are mind-boggling but come right out of the autocrats’ playbook. It is for these reasons that V-Dem Institute, an independent research unit at the University of Gothenburg, said India slid from being an ‘electoral democracy’ to an ‘electoral autocracy’ in 2020.

Online curbs

A new addition to this already extensive toolkit are the Information Technology (IT) Rules, introduced in February 2021. They have dire consequences not only for freedom of speech and expression but also with regard to privacy, another right guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. For instance, relying on these rules, the government classified the end-to-end encrypted messaging app Signal as a violator. The regulations mandate traceability, effectively jeopardizing citizens’ privacy.

The IT Rules could also result in significant curbs on online news outlets and streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime because they allow for blocking, deleting or modifying of content published by digital publications and over-the-top platforms that provide streaming services to viewers directly over the internet. They also mandate certain social media providers should develop automated tools to censor content.

In essence, the IT Rules have the potential to shake the very foundations of internet usage in India. Meanwhile, the official image presented to an international audience is quite different. Take Modi’s speech at the recent G7 summit in the UK, which bigged up ‘open societies’ and ‘freedom of expression, both online and offline’.

Three United Nations Special Rapporteurs have written to the government of India expressing their concerns over the new IT Rules, saying that they do not conform to international human rights norms. They are also being challenged in courts by concerned citizens and digital news outlets.

Secretive laws strengthened

A major issue with censorship laws in India is that ‘no-one is required to explain anything to you’, says Srinivas Kodali, a researcher for the Free Software Movement of India.

For example, the email Manjul received from Twitter lacked transparency. ‘Indian law enforcement’ could refer to a host of bodies like the Indian police, the Enforcement Directorate, the National Investigation Agency or the Central Bureau of Investigation. There was also no clarity as to how it was determined that he broke the country’s laws.

‘Censorship laws, especially those under the IT Act, are secretive. They allow the government to block entire websites. With the new IT Rules, the government is just expanding on these powers,’ Kodali explained. The IT Act he refers to came into force in 2000, under a previous administration. It allows the government to censor online content ‘in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India’.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s Minister of Law and Justice, specifically referred to ‘digital sovereignty’ as justification for regulating social media under the new IT Rules.

‘Where is the oversight mechanism?’ asks Kodali. ‘The executive is using the law to maintain its power by controlling narratives and people like Manjul seem to have only one recourse – the courts. This shows how the democratic setup is not working.’

Image paranoia

In response to questions about why exactly the government seems to be paranoid about Twitter content, Kodali says: ‘People are organizing on Twitter and this content moves to Facebook and WhatsApp if it trends. Twitter is also a space where the influencers are – actors, politicians, activists and journalists.’

Social media is also increasingly being viewed as a space for independent thinking and dissent, given how much of mainstream television has been taken over by strident programming that aggressively propagandizes on behalf of the government. In so-called ‘debates’ (shouting matches in reality) critics of the ruling party and its hardline Hindu nationalist ideology are routinely denounced as ‘anti-national’ and ‘traitors’. Many print outlets also seem to be taking dictation from the Modi administration and are rewarded by generous government ads.

The government’s obsession with image goes beyond the country’s borders. At the peak of the second wave, when official weekly Covid-related deaths were at least 10,000, a report in British newspaper The Times titled ‘Modi leads India out of lockdown and into a Covid apocalypse’ pulled no punches. ‘Arrogance, hyper-nationalism and bureaucratic incompetence have combined to create a crisis of epic proportions, critics say, as India’s crowd-loving PM basks while citizens literally suffocate,’ the author wrote. The article was republished by The Australian.

The courts have upheld fundamental rights like free speech by telling the police not to lodge cases against people who were desperately seeking medical supplies on social media

In typically insecure fashion, Indian authorities got into narrative-control mode. The Indian High Commission wrote to The Australian calling for the paper to publish its ‘rejoinder to set the record straight [on India’s Covid management] and also refrain from publishing such baseless articles in future’. On the same day, 26 April 2021, India recorded over 350,000 new cases and over 2,800 deaths. Experts have routinely flagged that such numbers are severe underestimates.

There seems to be barely any semblance of democratic values within the ruling administration. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the government experiments with every authoritarian tool at its disposal to make people see what it wants them to see.

In the last few months, the country’s courts have upheld fundamental rights like free speech by telling the police not to lodge cases against people who were desperately seeking medical supplies on social media. It beggars belief that these people, who were often facing personal tragedies at the height of the second wave, were being persecuted for supposedly tarnishing the image the government wanted to portray: that it was in control and managing the situation perfectly. The new IT Rules have also been challenged in courts.

But regardless of how these cases play out, there is little doubt that the country’s democratic setup is being actively dismantled by the ruling government. At stake are the constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms of 1.3 billion people.

Free Software Movement of India

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