Geopolitics Non-Military Security

The gradual decline of democracy in India: Musk’s Twitter helps the government censor its critics

Štefan Talarovič

At the request of the Indian government, Twitter recently blocked more than 100 accounts belonging to prominent politicians, activists and journalists living in India and abroad. This comes just two months after the social network censored a BBC documentary on human rights abuses by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Although Elon Musk presented the buyout of the social network as a victory for free speech advocates, at least in India, Twitter has become an ally of the government in enforcing censorship against critics of the policies of the Indian People’s Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Modi. But the Twitter case is just the tip of an iceberg that is part of the growing pressure on democratic institutions, the judiciary, the media and regional governments in India, in addition to social networks. Modi is thus succeeding in gradually dismantling the foundations of democracy in the world’s most populous country.

The latest target of the federal government in New Delhi has been the spread of information about a security forces operation to track down and detain Amritpal Singh, the leader of the separatist movement of the Sikh religious minority in the Indian state of Punjab. The BJP government declared a nationwide lockdown, and the people of Punjab complained of telecommunication outages. Not only have hundreds of alleged supporters been arrested, but the technology giant Twitter has blocked hundreds of accounts of prominent politicians, journalists, and human rights activists criticizing New Delhi’s draconian measures. Among them were Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), Indian-Canadian writer Rupi Kaur and the account of the BBC’s local branch. 

It was the BBC’s production of an investigative documentary on the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat that was a thorn in the side of the federal government, as it pointed to Narendra Modi’s complicity. He has long faced allegations that he, as the highest-ranking public official in the West Indian state at the time, prevented the police intervention. In doing so, he indirectly encouraged violence on the scale of hundreds of casualties. In this case, not only Twitter but also YouTube and Internet Archive have complied with requests to remove posts which, according to Modi’s cabinet, spread ‘misleading propaganda’ to smear the reputation of the Indian Prime Minister.

In the context of Modi’s BJP’s governance practices, it was already predictable that social media would come under pressure since it came to power in 2014. The ideological basis of the party stems from Hindutva, a Hindu nationalist movement. That is inherently in direct conflict with the institutions of liberal democracy as it advocates homogenization of Indian society. Accusations of inciting Islamophobia and violating the constitution were part of the international criticism following the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in 2019. At that time, members of the lower house of the Indian parliament (Lok Sabha) allowed all religious minorities except Muslims coming from neighbouring states to acquire Indian citizenship. The chauvinistic nature of Modi’s cabinet is also reflected in its intervention in the autonomous status of regions such as Kashmir or Punjab, where ethnic and religious minorities make up the majority of the population.

The absence of critical voices has been caused by the increasingly close relationship between the owners of influential media outlets and leaders of the ruling BJP. The acquisition of the independent media company NDTV (New Delhi Television Ltd) by a long-time ally of Prime Minister Modi, Gautam Adani, has become the latest instance of what many analysts describe as the transformation of the Indian economy into oligarchic capitalism. In addition, journalists investigating government corruption, the handling of the minority issue and the Covid-19 pandemic have long faced various forms of intimidation. This comes not only in the form of physical violence but also in the form of investigations into support for terrorism or the threat of defamation lawsuits.

The conviction of politician Rahul Gandhi for insulting Prime Minister Modi and the subsequent loss of his parliamentary seat have raised questions about the degree of judicial independence. The Gujarat court ruled relatively quickly despite the judicial system being chronically overwhelmed with millions of pending cases. As a result, the opposition party, Indian National Congress (INC), could lose one of the main faces right before the upcoming election campaign. The authoritarian regime of conservative President Erdogan in Turkey faces similar allegations of silencing the opposition.  

In an attempt to mitigate the economic impact of inflation, Western powers are turning their attention away from India’s authoritarian direction because of the rapid growth of the Indian economy. Moreover, from a geopolitical perspective, the US sees India as a counterweight to China’s rising power in Asia. In addition, Emine Dzhapar, Secretary of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during an official visit to India, confirmed the possibility of New Delhi becoming a mediator in the Russian aggression in Ukraine. The BJP government has maintained a neutral stance in the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv from the beginning. In next year’s elections, Narendra Modi, the world’s most trusted leader, and Indian People’s Party are heading towards a decisive victory. The issue at hand, then, is not whether he will hold on to power but at what pace the erosion of institutions in the world’s largest democracy will accelerate.

Photo credit: Flickr.com/Akbar Nugroho_G20 Presidency of Indonesia

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