The South Asia Channel

Warning Bells for Freedom of Expression in Modi’s India?

In a tragic reaction to morphed Facebook pictures of Hindu warrior King Shivaji and late Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, a young Muslim man was bludgeoned to death by Hindu extremists in Pune, Maharashtra on the night of June 2. Although Mohsin Shaikh, a 28-year-old technology professional was unconnected to the Facebook posting, he was apparently targeted because of his skullcap. After assaulting Shaikh, the mob reportedly torched and damaged select Muslim-owned bakeries, lending credence to the theory that these attacks were planned, not spontaneous.

Several right-wing organizations also vandalized more than 200 buses in Pune, an otherwise peaceful city. Disturbingly, after Shaikh was beaten to death, some members of the group Hindu Rashtra Sena, who are allegedly responsible for these attacks, circulated a text message that translates to "the first wicket has fallen." Still more disquieting was the reaction of newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament, Anil Shirole, from Pune. Referring to the offending Facebook post, he said: "It was bound to have some repercussions," though he later qualified his remarks by claiming that "repercussions" referred to the damage caused to public property. Further, the violence does not seem to be abating. Following morphed pictures of Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar on Facebook, protesters took to the streets and pelted stones on buses in Pune on June 8, almost a week after Shaikh was brutally attacked and left to die.

Since the Narendra Modi led right-wing BJP government came to power last month, the country's mood has largely been festive. In stark contrast to his predecessor Manmohan Singh, Modi is seen as a doer. He bears huge expectations to singlehandedly transform India into an economic powerhouse. At the same time, Modi has been accused of standing by and even inciting the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat, where around 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed in communal violence. Some also see him as a quasi-authoritarian figure that does not encourage opposing views. Would the Indian people be free to express dissent against this new right-wing government? A recent series of incidents involving comments on social media has raised worry in some quarters about safeguarding the freedom of expression.

In the BJP-ruled southern state of Goa, Devu Chodankar, a shipbuilding engineer was detained and interrogated by the police for anti-Modi comments in the run-up to Lok Sabha elections in March this year. In the concerned Facebook comments, Chodankar had said that if Modi was elected prime minister, Christians, the largest minority in Goa, would lose their identity in Goa, referring to a possible "holocaust" similar to Gujarat. After his anticipatory bail application was rejected by a district court, Chodankar was interrogated for over five hours by the Goa police in the first week of June.

In yet another similar incident, a group of five students were interrogated, and one of them detained in late May this year for circulating a WhatsApp message containing the graphic procession of Modi's funeral. Spoofing the BJP's election campaign slogan "Abki Baar Modi Sarkaar" (This time, Modi government), the message read "Abki Baar Antim Sanskar" (This time, last rites).

The framing of a section of India's Information Technology Act might also be partially to blame. Section 66A of the act prescribes criminal punishment of up to three years for merely sending messages which can cause ‘annoyance', ‘inconvenience', ‘danger', or ‘insult.' This broadly worded language leaves much to discretion and might be misused to target those with opposing political or religious opinion.

While not many have come out in the open, a section of the media is also relatively uneasy about press freedom under the new government. Apprehension is widespread enough that the newly appointed Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar assured the media a day after assuming office in late May that fears regarding the freedom of press under Modi are unfounded. He also invited ‘constructive criticism.' It is not clear if the non-media section of the population would also enjoy similar freedom. 

Prominent Indian-born author Salman Rushdie had earlier expressed concerns that freedom of expression would worsen if the BJP came to power. Rushdie's book "Satanic verses," regarded by some Muslims as blasphemous, was banned in India in 1988. In an address at the Pen World Voices festival in New York in early May this year, Rushdie said he was worried about a kind of self-censorship setting in, where people worry they are going to be bullied and try not to do anything that will attract the wrath of the ‘Modistas.' Given the latest series of incidents, it is hard to disregard this analysis.

Interestingly, the man at the center of these apprehensions has himself been accused of pushing the boundaries of freedom of speech. Some of Modi's earlier speeches and statements, particularly around the 2002 Gujarat riots, have been accused of being inflammatory. In the run-up to the recent elections, the Indian Election Commission (EC) asked Modi to be more careful in his public discourse. Acting on a complaint filed by the Congress party, the EC told Modi that the "right to freedom of speech and expression ... is not absolute and is to be exercised in such a manner that it does not transcend, inter alia, the boundaries of decency and morality or disturb the public order or cause defamation." Meanwhile, a link shared on Modi's twitter account last year paints him as a defender of free speech, pointing out that he opposed media censorship during the Congress-imposed emergency in the 1970s.

For a man with an extraordinarily social media presence, Modi has remained unusually silent on the recent incidents so far. In fact, prominent citizens and civil society activists issued a joint statement on June 7 questioning the prime minister's silence on attacks to curb the right to free speech of those who did not "share the euphoria, hope and enthusiasm associated with recent election results." Giving examples of recent "blatant" attacks on free speech of writers and academicians, the statement said that last month, U.R. Ananthamurthy, a writer from Karnataka, was sent a one-way ticket to Karachi as well as threatened with phones calls for saying, "I would not like to live in a country ruled by Modi." The signatories of this statement include prominent social activist Aruna Roy, historian Romila Thapar, and economists Jayati Ghosh and Jean Dreze.

Modi's silence may have to do with pressures of the new prime ministership. However, his continued silence would be a matter of grave concern. India's new prime minister needs to ensure Indians across religious groups are able to express dissent through any medium without fear of retribution. If the country's youth have to pause and consider the consequences of their action before expressing political opinions on social media, that does not bode well for Indian democracy. Similarly, if journalists tone down reporting because they fear repercussions, the outcome would be a shameful violation of the right to freedom of expression envisioned by the founding fathers of the Indian constitution. Such an environment would mean that only pro-government things get reported, likely coming from the prime minister's active PR machinery. This might be good news for the economy, as only positive sentiment would thrive. The cost, however, will be a big setback to Indian democracy. Emulating China's economic success story should not come at the cost of losing fundamental human rights. True freedom of expression cannot thrive in an atmosphere of fear.

In fairness to the Modi government, previous Indian governments have hardly had a blameless record on freedom of expression. In February this year, Penguin India agreed to withdraw and pulp all copies of a book on Hinduism by U.S. academic Wendy Doniger, after a right-wing Hindu organization filed a case against the publisher. In a similar case, Sonia Gandhi loyalists threatened to take legal action against her fictionalized biography in 2010. The previous Congress led government also tried to get social media operators to delete, controversially, objectionable content on their websites, a move that many criticized as an attempt to gag freedom of expression. In another incident that led to much outrage, a professor was arrested in West Bengal in 2012 merely for circulating a cartoon of the state chief minister. Even before the recent elections catapulted BJP to power, a mob attacked the Mumbai office of the Caravan magazine in February this year for reporting the alleged involvement of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu organization, in terror attacks.

What makes these concerns particularly vehement now is the increased frequency of these incidents coupled with skepticism regarding the new government's willingness to rein in hardliners from targeting such behavior towards minority groups and opposing voices. To allay these fears, the new government must send strong signals to right-wing organizations that such violence and targeting is unacceptable. The real culprit is not ‘offensive' social media messages but the lack of tolerance towards opposing religious and political views, encouraged in part by the knowledge that perpetrators of such backlash can get away with it.

Modi's supporters have elevated him to an almost ‘Godlike' status, refusing to tolerate any criticism of their hero, and their own accepted religious views. The only person who has the political pull to put a stop to this unhealthy adulation is Modi himself. The new prime minister will need to rein in Hindu hardliners, who are likely assuming they have license to oppress, maim, kill, and subdue opposing opinion under the new government. This ought not to be hard for Modi, skilled as he is in using media to convey messages effectively. Now the million-dollar question is whether Modi will choose to issue a strong statement clarifying his stance or continue to maintain silence. His choice would determine the right to free expression of one in six people around the world.

Ritika Katyal is pursuing a Master in Public Affairs at Princeton University. 

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