TThe Indian government’s response was swift and draconian. Days after the release of a BBC documentary examining the role Narendra Modi, now prime minister, played in communal riots in Gujarat in 2002, the information ministry announced that all links to the footage would be banned on social media.
Emergency laws enacted by the Modi government just two years ago were used to implement the ban.
Both Twitter and YouTube were quick to comply with the government’s censorship demands. Posts on about 50 Twitter accounts were removed, including activists, politicians and even Hollywood actors, as well as an unspecified number of YouTube channels. Widely circulated clips of the documentary, which alleged that Modi, in his role as Gujarat chief minister at the time, facilitated and then did nothing to stop the violence that killed nearly 1,000 Muslims, quickly disappeared from Indian social media.
This is not the first time the Modi government has used the Information Technology Rules of 2021 to censor online content critical of the administration. But the action taken over the BBC documentary is among the most publicized use of the law and shines a light on the fragile and uneven place social media such as Twitter now occupy in India and directly confirms the pledge of the platform’s new billionaire owner. , Elon Musk, to be a “free speech absolutist” against the increasingly authoritarian laws governing the country’s online sphere.
Widely criticized by human rights groups and digital activists, the 2021 IT rules give the government the power to remove any content it deems to threaten the “unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India”.
Even before the law was passed, legal requests from the Modi government to remove content from Twitter rose 48,000% between 2014 and 2020, according to an analysis by the company’s transparency report.
The BBC’s two-part series documenting the rise of Modi has proved highly controversial in India, despite being broadcast only in the UK, prompting accusations from India’s foreign ministry that it was “biased propaganda” showing “obvious colonial mindset”.
Kanchan Gupta, a spokesman for the information ministry, called the documentary “hostile propaganda and anti-India rubbish”, and students who staged a screening at a Kerala university this week were accused of “treason”. At Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, students who tried to do the same were hit with power and internet cuts and others from right-wing groups pelted them with stones.
The BBC said its documentary was “rigorously researched to the highest editorial standards”.
Many have cited their compliance with online censorship of the documentary as an example of how Twitter and YouTube are helping to further erode free speech in India, in order to appease the Modi government and not threaten access to India’s vast and increasingly online population. There are over 40 million Twitter users in India, making it the third largest market after Japan and the US.
“This use of emergency laws as a censorship mechanism is a very worrying development, but far from the first time it has happened,” said Pratik Waghre, director of policy at the advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation in India. According to a statement in parliament in July, action has been taken against 94 YouTube channels, 19 social media accounts and 747 URLs at the request of the government since the IT rules were passed.
Before Musk’s takeover, Twitter had pushed back — albeit somewhat inconsistently — against the Modi government’s increasingly heavy-handed approach to social media. Twitter returned some of the accounts it had requested to be removed by the administration, and in July filed a lawsuit in Indian courts alleging that New Delhi abused its power by ordering the company to arbitrarily and disproportionately remove accounts belonging to government critics.
Twitter continues to report all posts and accounts it removes at the request of the Indian government to the online database Lumen. YouTube, however, does not.
Yet for all his protestations of being a fighter for free speech, there are indications that Musk’s Twitter feed may be far less bullish in opposing the Modi government. When Musk was trying to back out of a deal to buy the platform, he made it clear in court filings that he wasn’t happy with the lawsuit against the Indian government, saying he believed moderation should “come closer to the laws of the countries where Twitter operates.”
Among the Indian accounts that have been reinstated since Musk took over is that of Kangana Ranaut, a fiercely pro-Modi actor who espoused anti-Muslim sentiments and was suspended in 2021 for posts seen as calling for violence against minorities.
During the takeover, he never once mentioned the lawsuit, but he fired almost all of Twitter’s 200 employees in India. Separately, Musk’s Tesla car company is lobbying the Indian government to lower import taxes on electric vehicles to gain access to the lucrative Indian market.
Vaghre said Musk’s stance on advocating free speech on Twitter, which is already wildly inconsistent, was likely to be “severely tested in India”, as the furor over the BBC documentary proved.
“We are talking about pressures on free speech in the world’s largest democracy,” Vaghre said. “Musk’s promise is empty everywhere, but in India the impact will surely be greater.”