Democracy in India under microscope as hundreds of anti-government accounts censored

The brutal second wave has left politicians in a state of disarray as Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempts to steady his country’s reaction to the crisis.

“India is literally gasping for oxygen,” Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said yesterday afternoon, detailing the federal government discussions over shipping excess ventilators to aid the nation’s overrun healthcare system, which is dealing with more than 2800 deaths per day.

Fronting the media on Sunday, Modi admitted the explosive resurgence of Covid-19 was a result of India becoming too complacent after stamping out the first wave in 2020. He urged the public to get vaccinated, advising they only get updates from “authentic sources” and not bite at any “rumours”.

“I urge people not to fall prey to any rumour about vaccines. You must be aware the government of India has sent free vaccines to the State governments,” Modi stated.

“The free vaccination programme of the government of India will continue. I urge the State governments to utilise this scheme and ensure that maximum people have been vaccinated.”

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks over the restriction of public freedoms following the outbreak. Reports reveal the current administration is censoring political speech online to stem potential anti-lockdown sentiment.

The New York Times revealed that more than 100 posts from civilians criticising the government’s handling of the latest outbreak have been removed from the internet. Authorities reportedly pressured social media companies, with Twitter falling in line and deleting dozens of dissident posts on request.

Employees in India face harsh punishments including jail time for ignoring government requests to suppress political debate on their platforms.

The recent sweep came two months after the country announced new social media laws, forcing companies to hand over the name of the original sender of any message deemed “mischievous” and threatening to the sovereignty of India.

Nikhil Pahwa, editor of Indian tech publication Medianama, criticised the new reforms, saying they granted the government “disproportional” power over the public under the guise of national security.

“These are laws that are meant to control speech and give the government disproportional power over citizens,” Pahwa said via the ABC. “I strongly hope these rules will be challenged in the Supreme Court.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party already has a concerning history of squashing dissent, notably seen in the government’s violent reaction to recent “anti-farmer” legislation protests in late 2020. Unions claim the new laws are “gradually leading to the deterioration and ultimately end” of India’s established agricultural industry, organising an estimated 250 million workers to go on strike on November 26.

The government ordered police in various states to attack protesters using water cannons, batons, and tear gas to prevent the farmer unions from entering the nation’s capital. More than 250 protestors have been reported dead as a result of the government pushback.

Last year, NDTV’s Hindi news channel was cut off mid-broadcast following an order from India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Out of nowhere, Modi’s government blocked the channel from airing content for two days over its coverage of mob attacks on Muslims in New Delhi. The order claimed the station was “too critical toward Delhi Police and R.S.S.”

“It was shocking the central government took such a decision,” R. Subhash, editor at Media One, said in regards to the station’s blackout. “It was an attack on the freedom of the press.”

Professor of history at Princeton University Gyan Prakash said the recent crackdown on free speech was “damaging to whatever remains of democracy in India”.

Freedom House, a Washington DC based company that tracks countries’ internet freedom, says India is slipping down the rankings with a “partly free” score of 51/100 . In comparison, the UK has a 78/100 rating, Australia 76/100with China (10), Iran (15) and Syria (17) sitting at the bottom of the list. There is no data available for New Zealand.

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