On June 13, the Indian government signed a joint statement at the G7 Summit to promote “open societies” that reaffirm and encourage the values of “freedom of expression, both online and offline, as a freedom that safeguards democracy and helps people live free from fear and oppression”.
A critical part of the joint statement is against the use of “internet shutdowns” as a political tool to stifle freedom of speech and expression.
However, the signing of the joint statement foregrounds the Indian government’s hypocrisy on civil liberties. While at global forums it trumpets democratic values, at home, the Modi-led central government has laid a politically motivated siege on the freedom of speech and expression by criminalising dissent.
‘Internet shutdown’, ‘UAPA’, ‘sedition’ – these serious punitive measures have become part of the ‘anti-democracy folklore’ of the present government’s rule. They have shifted from being serious penal offences to be used only rarely, to become tools of everyday governance to quell “too much democracy”.
In the backdrop of India’s “lip-service to open societies”, we attempt to revisit the 'free speech' legacy of the present government. We try to understand how a government, which boasts of the world’s longest politically motivated internet shutdown, can pretend to back the 'right to dissent'.
World's Longest Internet Shutdown
After revoking the special constitutional status of the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir, the Indian government imposed an almost complete internet shutdown in the valley on 5 August 2019.
While the complete shutdown continued for just over five months, the “restoration of the internet” that followed was a complete sham. The “restored internet” was at the 2G level with a 384 Kbps speed cap.
It was only after a year of institutionally silencing an entire population that the Indian government announced the restoration of internet services at the 4G level in some of the districts of Kashmir on a “trial basis”. According to InternetShutdowns.in, Kashmir accounts for nearly half of the total 413 internet outages that India has seen since 2012.
The politically motivated internet shutdown in Kashmir was a form of “collective punishment”, wherein an entire region was punished without a trial for an uncodified crime of being Kashmiri. The continued internet shutdown was not just undemocratic, it was colonial in nature. It was a ‘technological ethnic cleansing’.
A report published by the Jammu-Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) in August 2020 documented the harm caused by the internet shutdown.
"“The communication and internet blockades imposed in Jammu and Kashmir are premised on a dubious, vague and evasive legal framework easily exploitable for authorities to inflict ‘collective punishment’ and ‘criminalise all forms of political interactions and mobilisation’ as ‘terrorist related’ and threats to ‘national security. (sic)”" - JKCCS report
According to Khalid Shah, an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, such measures, taken under the garb of “security”, have alienated the population of an erstwhile state instead of fostering political reintegration.
The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, India’s anti-terror law, which was amended by the present government, has become a primary tool for stifling dissent across the country. The Modi-led central government has routinely used UAPA for the political witch-hunt of academics, students, journalists, and protestors, despite knowing that these cases do not hold up before the court of law.
As per data presented at the Parliament by the Union Home Ministry, only 2.2 per cent of UAPA cases between 2016 and 2019 ended in conviction. Arrests under the same anti-terror law have substantially increased since 2014.
Another tool in the central government’s armoury to stifle free speech is sedition.
Data published by the National Crime Records Bureau clearly shows that over 96 per cent of sedition cases did not end up in convictions. However, the alarming rise in arrests and delay in filing charge sheets, despite the falling rate of conviction, exposes the intention of the government to use the law to punish the idea and not a crime.
The website Article 14’s sedition database shows that 96 per cent of sedition cases filed against 405 Indians for criticising politicians and governments over the last decade had been registered after 2014, with 149 accused of making “critical” and/or “derogatory” remarks against Modi, and 144 against Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
Incentivising Hate Speech
Apart from throttling dissent and democratic principles, the central government has created a political system where hate-mongering and polarisation are incentivised.
On June 12, right-wing group Karni Sena’s chief Suraj Pal Amu was appointed as the BJP’s spokesperson in Haryana. He’s the same man who in 2017 had announced a bounty on actor Deepika Padukone’s head for release of her movie Padmaavat.
The list of politicians who have benefitted from this hate-incentivisation scheme is quite long. Just before the riots broke out in Delhi’s northeast districts in February 2020, BJP leaders Anurag Thakur, Kapil Mishra, and Parvesh Verma, were caught on camera making inflammatory speeches, calling for violence against the anti-CAA protestors and the minority community.
All three of them are not only yet to face any criminal action, but they have also been elevated in party ranks. In fact, Anurag Thakur was promoted as a “Captain” in the Indian Army in March 2021.
'Too Much Democracy 4'
India’s stance on freedom of speech and expression at the G7 Summit stands diametrically opposite to the statements made by the present government’s ministers and advisors.
On December 08, 2020, NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant, while addressing a virtual event hosted by Swarajya magazine, said that fostering reforms in India is difficult as we have “too much democracy”.
Takedown notices on Twitter and Facebook have become a norm, targeting anyone – from journalists and comedians to cartoonists – who questions the government. The iron fist of the government’s crackdown has not spared IT intermediaries either. The recent raid at Twitter’s India office and threatening statements from the Delhi Police and the IT Ministry show how an ally is termed a foe to sustain undemocratic practices.
Therefore, the Indian government echoing the G7 joint statement on open societies fails to engender confidence or faith – especially with so many political prisoners languishing in jails, new sedition cases still being slapped against dissenters and content creators, and militant curbing of free speech being routinised.
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