India, the world’s largest democracy, prepares to kick off its election season in just a matter of weeks. But activists and experts worry that the government is cracking down on platforms and internet service providers to silence critical voices, and tighten its grip on the information ecosystem.
On January 16, Raqib Hameed Naik, an Indian journalist and founder of the website Hindutva Watch, received a notice from X, formerly Twitter, that the website’s account had been blocked, by order of the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY). “I received frantic messages from people in India saying they cannot access the Hindutva Watch Twitter,” says Naik
Hindutva Watch, along with its sister site, the India Hate Lab, tracks incidents of religiously motivated violence perpetrated by supporters of the country’s right-wing government, helmed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Press freedom declined under Modi, leaving fewer spaces for those reporting critically of the government and the impact of its policies on the country’s minorities. In the lead up to elections, where Naik predicts a “surge in hate crimes,” Hindutva Watch’s information may be more critical than ever.
For nearly two years, Naik says the Indian government had tried at various times to have Hindutva Watch’s content on X removed, citing a violation of India’s IT Act. “We received 26 legal requests from the government of India and different law enforcement agencies, mostly from the BJP-ruled states’ police to take down different posts,” says Naik.
But this marked the first time the account as a whole had been targeted by the national government, and the MeitY did not respond to a request for comment about what specific laws Hindutva Watch had violated.
“Independent researchers and civil society like Hindutva Watch help people understand the stakes of the election at hand,” says Kian Vesteinsson, senior research analyst at Freedom House. “Censoring Hindutva Watch’s online content and that of India Hate Lab cuts Indian voters off from important information that may have shaped people’s perception of the election.”
Naik and others worry that blocking Hindutva Watch and India Hate Lab is the latest move by a government seeking to control the information space of one of the most populous countries in the world as it slides further into authoritarianism.
Under Modi’s leadership, the BJP and its allies have risen to power on a Hindu nationalist platform, fomenting fear of the country’s Muslim minority. Just days before Hindutva Watch was banned across the country, Modi consecrated the new Ram Mandir temple, built on the site of the Babri Masjid, a mosque destroyed in 1992 by a BJP-supported mob. The riots that followed left some 2,000 people dead, and the site has been a point of contention for more than 30 years. Modi’s leadership has also seen an increased crackdowns on critics–including journalists, activists, academics, and other lawmakers, in addition to platforms themselves.
“Since 2020 and 2021 in particular, there’s been a dramatic uptick in the amount of blocking orders being sent by the federal government, to tech platforms and telecom companies,” says Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international counsel and Asia Pacific policy director at Access Now. In the past, blocking orders were often issued during major protests or civil unrest, he says, but now the government has now expanded, cracking down on content that “it perceives to damage the country’s reputation globally.”