As India’s historically massive farmers’ protests continue, as participants keep up their demands for agricultural-industry regulation, the government has been cracking down, both on the streets and in the digital realm. On Jan. 26, India’s Republic Day, some protesters deviated from their mostly peaceful methods, broke through the barricades set up around Delhi’s borders, and encroached upon Delhi’s historic Red Fort. In response, the already-brutal police violence against rallygoers reached new extremes, with mass arrests, beatdowns, and shootings. On Feb. 1, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration requested that Twitter block Indian users from accessing hundreds of accounts that had spoken out against the government and the police, especially targeting tweets that employed the infamous, popular hashtag #modiplanningfarmersgenocide. The social network complied, obscuring 250 accounts for various prominent publications, writers, activists, and politicians from Indians’ eyes for 12 hours before reversing, citing free speech concerns.
Then, on Wednesday, Twitter again suspended more than 500 accounts—including many of the originally blocked accounts, some now permanently banned—and said it would restrict certain terms from appearing in Twitter India’s Trends section. Among the accounts blocked again were those flagged by the Indian government on suspicion of being foreign influence operations or of having links with the Khalistan separatist movement. However, Twitter Safety wrote in a blog post that “because we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law … we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians.” Thus, some of the accounts restricted the first time, like those for the investigative news outlet the Caravan, celebrities like actor Sushant Singh, and local politicians representing Delhi (the very epicenter of these protests), should still be available to Indian users. But on Thursday, Twitter seemed to already go back on this policy by restricting the account of a member of Parliament who represents Uttar Pradesh.* As with the last mass suspension, the accounts and terms Twitter policed remain available to everyone outside India.
India’s rulers remain dissatisfied. They’d originally demanded that 1,100 accounts and posts be removed along with posts that they alleged spread misinformation. India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology sent out a press release shortly after Twitter’s latest action, noting that the IT secretary met virtually with Twitter executives, where he expressed “strong displeasure” at its decisions, particularly to allow the continued use of #modiplanningfarmersgenocide. He also noted what he considered a double standard between Twitter’s banning of Donald Trump following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and Twitter’s seeming lenient stance on the protesting farmers even after the Republic Day clashes.
It’s commendable that Twitter didn’t fully capitulate to India’s demands, even after the government’s threat of imprisonment of the company’s local employees. But the Modi administration’s actions, and their ultimate result, should still be of concern to those worried about the state of free speech, press freedom, and an open internet in India.
Even in pre-Modi times, it was not uncommon for Indian politicians to interfere with both individual journalists and media outlets, especially those that exposed rampant corruption scandals across the country. But the Modi regime has taken a far harsher and, unfortunately, more effective approach to censorship. India continues to lead the world in internet shutdowns; while it finally restored wider broadband access in Jammu and Kashmir after 18 months of de facto martial law within the region, it also recently shut down networks around Delhi to prohibit the spread of messages in support of the farmers’ protests. Reports of governmental intrusion and pressure on media outlets reporting on the current administration are far too common, and other pundits and media ventures have fully pivoted to Fox News–like propaganda. India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index keeps falling. The still-ongoing TikTok ban was touted as nationalistic resistance against a hostile Chinese military, but it likely was also an attempt to tamp down on grassroots dissent that organically spread through the platform, as well as expressions of gender-nonconformity, sexuality, and adherence to other religions, all of which right-wing Hindu fundamentalists consider obscene. And on Thursday, Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad sent a verbal warning to Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and LinkedIn, demanding that they “follow the Constitution of India” or face consequences.
But some international internet companies are also happy to bow down on their own. Popular streaming services, looking to cash in on India’s massive, tech-savvy, film-enthusiastic population, have self-regulated to try to avoid broadcasting content that may offend the Hindu nationalist government—which anyway passed an order late last year mandating state regulation over all online platforms. This builds on highly restrictive internet censorship rules that India proposed just a couple of years ago, which were compared to those of Russia and China.
It remains to be seen whether India will actually attempt to sue Twitter or demand even more action from the platform. But even though Twitter’s standoff against the Indian government isn’t over—and neither are the farmers’ protests—the message is clear: Any tech company that wants to do business in India will have to answer to the right-wing, Hindu supremacist government first. Already, conservative lawmakers are asking their constituents and followers to switch over to an app called Koo, an India-based Twitter rival that could sidestep the governance standards of more popular platforms (and which, incidentally, has been recently accused of leaking users’ information). Meanwhile, activists and journalists are still interred by police and government and are relentlessly sued. The continued pressure that Narendra Modi’s India is imposing on massive social networks and their users is yet another grim sign of the deterioration of the subcontinent’s democracy.
Correction, Feb. 12, 2021: This piece incorrectly implied that Delhi is located within the state of Uttar Pradesh. Delhi is its own union territory; Uttar Pradesh is a neighboring state.