Modi’s India: a digital autocracy in the making

India’s democratic credentials received another hammering last month, when a New York-based watchdog that tracks internet freedom, blamed authorities in New Delhi for imposing the highest number of online restrictions in the country.

To be fair, India is not the only country on that list. Global norms have shifted dramatically toward governments making significant levels of undue interventions in the digital sphere. This desire for ideological conformity has contributed to an unprecedented assault on online access in 35 countries during 2022. And in this ongoing battle to restrain free expression and access to the Internet, the rights of online users have become the main casualty.

Most prolific at digital curbs

In its latest report card that documents internet shutdowns during the past year, Access Now states that governments around the world imposed online restrictions approximately 187 times, and India alone accounted for 58% of all shutdowns, making the country the most prolific at imposing digital curbs.

Broad Internet censorship is not new to India. Online blackouts have been a constant occurrence in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir since Delhi formally revoked the territory’s constitutional autonomy and divided it into two federal units in a bid to integrate it into India.

Shortly after changing the Valley’s constitutional status, India made headlines by imposing the world’s longest Internet shutdown in a democracy, from August 2019 to January 2020, when minimal access to mobile Internet was restored. The following year, around 80% of all shutdowns in the country were reported from the troubled Valley.

Much of these outages in Kashmir were recorded during the peak of Covid-19 pandemic, when people around the world were relying on digital access to remain in contact with loved ones, and for information related to the global health crisis.

Setting aside Jammu and Kashmir, Access Now documented an increase in online outages in West Bengal and Rajasthan where authorities imposed more shutdowns than those in other regions in India – primarily claiming that restrictions were imposed in response to protests and communal violence. These disruptions, the advocacy group said, impacted the daily lives of millions of people for hundreds of hours across India. Even now, according to the New York-based rights group’s report, authorities in regions across the country are increasingly resorting to this repressive measure, inflicting shutdowns on more people, in more places.

BBC in Modi’s crosshairs

More recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government invoked an emergency law to block access to a BBC documentary titled “The Modi Question,” on YouTube and Twitter. The two-part programme by the London-based broadcaster revived questions about the Indian leader’s role as the chief minister of Gujarat, in a harrowing episode of bloodshed back in 2002, in which thousands — mostly Muslims — were assaulted and burned to death, over several weeks.

Despite being exonerated by India’s top court, criticism of the Gujarat riots triggers a strong reaction by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, and that experts say, exposes its intolerance for critical media coverage in general. Anything that goes against the ruling party or the prime minister, is dismissed as ‘hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage.’

In addition to labeling the BBC as a propaganda machine, the Modi administration used its entire force to block India from watching the documentary. Last month, police detained about a dozen students at Jamia Millia Islamia university in Delhi ahead of a planned screening. At Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the BBC reported, power and Internet was cut to prevent the students' union from showing the film. Under pressure from the Modi government, the university administration had asked the JNU students' union not to screen the film, saying it could "disturb the peace and harmony of the university campus". The screening, BBC said, continued on phones and laptops, via a QR code, that was widely circulated that day.

Redefining India’s Internet

While suppression of independent news coverage and online access is an alarming hallmark of authoritarian rulers, rights groups around the world are increasingly associating it with Prime Minister Modi, who, according to an article published by the Wired, seeks greater control over the country’s digital space, and may even “attempt to redefine the internet, creating a less free, less pluralistic space for the 800 million online users across India.”

Experts who follow developments in India were appalled, but certainly not alarmed at what is unfolding on BJP’s watch. “India has almost four times more internet shutdowns than war-ravaged Ukraine,” said Dr. Ashok Swain, Professor of Peace and Conflict at Sweden’s Uppsala University.

“What has Modi done to India?” the irked scholar wrote on Twitter. His posts criticising the BJP government religiously attract vitriol from Modi’s supporters, so much so that they even question the professor’s credentials and loyalty to India.

The rise in digital authoritarianism or censorship, according to Access Now, is a threat to human rights. In its report, the New York-based digital watchdog warns about the unprecedented increase in Internet outages, which surged to the highest level in 2022, since the group began recording such incidents, seven years ago.

“All Internet shutdowns violate human rights. In 2022, we saw a spike in the use of shutdowns to shroud violence and serious human rights abuses,” said Felicia Anthonio, #KeepItOn Campaign Manager at Access Now via email.

Anthonio, who wrote the report on online restrictions around the world, along with Zach Rosson and Carolyn Tackett, believes that digital authoritarianism is rising steadily, and Internet shutdowns are becoming an increasingly vital tool for authorities seeking to solidify control over populations.

In IIOJK, where Access Now recorded 60% of India’s Internet shutdowns, authorities claim to have disrupted digital access to prevent political instability and violence. Responding to a question about the justification provided by the Indian authorities, Access Now’s Felicia Anthonio said: “Normalising Internet shutdowns is dangerous for human rights. The increasing use of shutdowns in India is a call for the international community to join forces to bring an end to these acts of oppression.”

“Imposing shutdowns does not match the weak justifications governments provide, they only worsen already dire situations and deny people access to crucial information or services,” Anthonio told the Express Tribune.

The regional picture

Across South Asia, restrictions on the Internet have become common. In Pakistan, a ban on Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, was lifted last month after the country’s prime minister was forced to intervene. Before that, similar restrictions were imposed on TikTok, and much before that, access to YouTube was suspended for a number of years.

“Digital authoritarianism is a reality in South Asia, more so in India, which has forever claimed the title of the world’s largest democracy. Nations that claim such titles, don’t indulge in activities such as censorship and restrictions on internet access,” said Talat Wizarat, former professor and head of the International Relations department at the University of Karachi.

In India’s case the criticism is getting audible and more prominent, at least from rights groups around the world. Amnesty, a London-based human rights organisation that has also suffered at the hands of the BJP administration, for exposing rights violations in the country, was the first to endorse Access Now’s latest report.

“If the intense crackdown on free speech in India wasn’t evident by now, the latest report by Access Now reveals the staggering number of deliberate internet shutdowns imposed in the country to stop protests, control elections and silence populations,” said the London-based advocacy group, that like the BBC, faced months of interrogation by the Central Bureau of Investigation on the pretext of alleged violations of foreign funding rules.

While Access Now has limited operations in the country, its report, which portrays India as the world’s worst perpetrator of Internet shutdowns, has been widely rebuked by supporters of the BJP government on social media platforms.

Protecting the information gateway

When asked about ways to reverse the increasing trend of online disruptions in South Asia, Access Now’s Felicia Anthonio said prevention was possible through regional and international action.

“Internet shutdowns may be internal to countries — more often than not, governments are disconnecting their own people — but they require regional and international action. ASEAN and other international bodies must keep the pressure up to denounce shutdowns and hold those in power accountable.”

“The Internet is more than a commodity being sold, it is a gateway to freedom of expression and association, access to information, and an avenue for communication, and telecommunication providers have a responsibility to protect it,” Anthonio explained.

In countries with weak democracies, or anywhere where authorities are shutting down the Internet, the #KeepItOn Campaign Manager at Access Now said, companies must step up and push back against such restrictions.

“Judiciary also has a crucial role to play to prevent the normalisation of shutdowns,” she concluded.

Although Access Now recorded fewer than 100 shutdowns in India for the first time since 2017, the digital advocacy group expressed its dissatisfaction over actions taken by Indian authorities.

“We have not yet recorded all disruptions. In addition, the proposed Draft Indian Telecommunication Bill, which would empower central and state governments with unrestricted powers to impose shutdowns when “necessary and expedient,” signals the government’s intention to continue down this troublesome path,” the group said in its report.

Democratic backsliding

Experts believe the Access Now report comes at a time when India’s commitment to freedom of speech and expression is at its lowest. A number of rights groups, advocates of human rights and democracy have raised concerns about India’s democratic backsliding. Philanthropist George Soros is one of them. The Hungarian American billionaire investor who has donated a significant portion of his personal fortune to Open Society Foundations, his flagship philanthropic venture that promotes vibrant and inclusive democracies, recently called India opinionated and dangerous.

In a lecture at Cambridge University, one of its own leaders, former president of India’s main opposition party, Rahul Gandhi, launched a scathing attack against the BJP government, accusing the administration of ‘weakening the fundamental structure of the country's democracy.’ The 52-year old Indian Congress politician even claimed that his phone was monitored using the Israeli spyware, Pegasus.

Gandhi, who is Nehru’s grandson, one of India’s most revered leaders, even said that the country’s Parliament, press, and judiciary were being restricted.

Interestingly, while a strong barrage of criticism is directed against the Indian government by rights groups and opposition leaders, US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken celebrated the India-US partnership as consequential without any criticism.

Responding mildly to a question about the ongoing human rights violations in India during a press briefing, Washington’s top diplomat said: “It’s an issue we discuss with each other. We both have to hold ourselves to our core values-human rights like freedom of religion, etc.” On Twitter later that day, Blinken said: “Together we bolster security, freedom, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.”

According to professor Wizarat, gets away with serious offenses with a mere slap on the wrist. “If Iran and China are criticised so heavily for the violations of human rights, why is it that India is not subjected to the same treatment by the global community? It only exposes the biases in the existing global order and its priorities – which certainly are not genuinely focused on human rights,” the academic said.

“Despite concerns about the state of India’s democracy, world leaders continue to bend over backwards to please the country – primarily due to its economic offerings and because it has become a critical piece in Washington's aggressive efforts to neutralise Beijing’s growing influence,” explained the former professor.

A number of think tanks and global advocacy groups, Dr. Wizarat pointed out, have published well-researched documents that downgrade India’s status as a fully functional democracy and criticize its poor human rights record.

In its last report, US-based non-profit Freedom House downgraded the country from a free democracy to a "partially free democracy".

“While India is a multiparty democracy, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP has presided over discriminatory policies and a rise in persecution affecting the Muslim population,” said the Washington-based group that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights.

While India’s constitution guarantees civil liberties including freedom of expression and freedom of religion, Freedom House reported an alarming increase in the harassment of journalists, nongovernmental organizations, and other government critics under Modi.

“Muslims, scheduled castes (Dalits), and scheduled tribes (Adivasis) remain economically and socially marginalised,” it added. The BJP government, Freedom House pointed out, was using its powers to coerce social media platforms into removing or censoring posts critical of its governance or handling of certain issues.

“The government in India has introduced new rules that have made it easier for authorities to compel social media platforms to remove unlawful content. Among other removals, Twitter was ordered to take down posts that criticised the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Freedom House said.

In its annual report, the Washington-based advocacy group raised several red flags. Academic freedom, it said, has been weakened significantly in recent years, through active intimidation of professors, students, and institutions over issues related to politics and religion.

Media reports, over the past few years, blame members of the student wing of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—from which the ruling BJP is widely believed to draw its political strength — have engaged in violence on campuses across the country – often intimidating professors and students – particularly Muslims.

In addition, Freedom House reported that university administrators and faculty in India have been investigated, disciplined, or compelled to step down owing to their perceived political views.

“Academics face pressure not to discuss topics deemed sensitive by the BJP government, particularly India’s relations with Pakistan and conditions in Indian Kashmir,” the group said.

Most recently, the V-Dem Institute, which is based at the Department of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, placed India high on the list of countries witnessing a decline in freedom. This latest report corroborates information published by the Freedom House.

According to the Sweden-based institute, India is among 22 countries and territories out of 179 in the world, where institutions and scholars enjoy ‘significantly less freedom’ than they did a decade ago. The recent update, the Wired reported, places India behind immediate neighbours Nepal, Pakistan and Bhutan and before Bangladesh and junta-ruled Myanmar.

“India demonstrates the pernicious relationship between populist governments, autocratisation, and constraints on academic freedom,” the report said.

“No surprises there… India’s decline is clearly being documented by a wide range of organisations, advocacy groups, and activists. It will be difficult for the Modi government to silence all of them – particularly in this age. Free flow of information cannot be restricted for long these days,” said Dr. Wizarat.

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