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Top US think tank wants WhatsApp, social media cos to oppose Modi 'repression'

By Rajiv Shah
The top United States think tank, Freedom House, based in Washington DC, has sought a series of measures, including from top social media companies like WhatsApp, against the Modi government as retaliation against the alleged crackdown in the country’s only Muslim-majority state Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and the “discriminatory” citizenship amendment law, which has sparked nationwide protests, which are sought to be suppressed by Modi administration.
An article posted on its site, and written by the nonpartisan think tank’s research analyst, Allie Funk, says that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “nearly six years in office have been marred by an increasing nationalist and authoritarian turn”, regretting, despite this, President Donald Trump, on a visit to India on February 24-25, publicly praised Modi as having “worked very hard on religious freedom.”
Asserting that the visit should have been “an opportunity” for the US president to “express” America’s policy of respect for human rights and civil liberties, the think tank says, “There is little suggestion that the conversation significantly challenged the abuses”, insisting, “It is critical that a broad and diverse group of powerful actors in the United States not ignore the Indian government’s turn toward authoritarianism.”
The think tank says, “The United States, Congress, civil society, and the private sector should take the lead and push for India to ease its repression and live up to its position as the world’s largest democracy”, underlining, “Indian authorities have maintained that the situation in Kashmir is an “internal matter”, signaling that foreign governments should remain silent. Such silence, however, could normalize these repressive tactics elsewhere in India.”
Such US silence, the think tank says, would also go a long way to encourage repressive ways “in the rest of the world where populist and far-right leaders are increasing pressure on minority populations”, adding, “Modi’s assault on fundamental freedoms has stretched beyond Kashmir”, calling the citizenship amendment law as going against India’s secular foundation, with those who going against it being met with “serious police violence.”
According to the think tank, “The US has “a moral and a geopolitical interest in checking India’s more repressive policies”, pointing out, “Freedom House research has consistently shown that governments learn from one another, copying repressive policies that appear successful in other countries.”
Warning that “Modi’s actions in Kashmir could be replicated by other governments looking to tighten control over minority regions”, the think tank believes, “If the world’s largest democracy can carry out such a sweeping abrogation of basic rights and face little or no pushback from foreign democratic leaders, it is difficult to see why other governments should fear criticism for similar actions.”
Recalling that Washington has “long held up New Delhi’s democratic, pluralist governance model as an alternative to China’s authoritarianism for other Asian countries, and viewed India as a potential ally in its efforts to hold Beijing accountable for regional aggression and systematic human rights abuses”, the think tank believes, “India remaining a strong democracy is crucial to US efforts to challenge China on a number of fronts.”
US, Congress, civil society, private sector should take lead, push India to ease repression, live up to its position as the world’s largest democracy
Regretting that the American president refused to show “an inclination” to pressure India, but instead praised Modi as “exceptional”, the think tank underlines, “It now falls to other sources of authority in the United States -- policymakers, civil society, and social media companies -- to demand that Indian authorities change course in Kashmir.”
“Congress should publicly and privately push the Indian government to restore full internet service, release those who have been arbitrarily arrested or detained, allow an independent review of security forces’ tactics, and hold those responsible to account”, it says.
No doubt, pressure is building up. Thus, “Some US lawmakers, including a bipartisan group of senators who in September appealed to Trump on the issue, have already expressed an appetite to challenge India’s behavior. Representative Pramila Jayapal also has sponsored the bipartisan House Resolution 745, although not binding, that urges India to reinstate internet access, release those detained, and preserve religious freedom.”
However, the think tank says, more is needed: “In addition to bipartisan congressional pressure, US NGOs should increase their engagement and assist, when possible, Indian civil society groups working to protect internet freedom and human rights.”
It adds, “Regional and international civil society networks can conduct research on and strategize diverse advocacy and litigation responses to rights abuses in Kashmir, as well as provide technical assistance in cases of connectivity restrictions, blocked websites, and targeted surveillance.”
The think tank advises US social media companies, which are key players in India, particularly WhatsApp, which has a huge Indian market, to have “robust partnerships with domestic civil society and work to ensure that Modi’s government cannot abuse their products to undermine free expression and privacy.”
“For starters, US companies should abide by international human rights standards when responding to government censorship requests. In just one example, Twitter withheld accounts sharing news and opinion in Kashmir”, it says, adding, “Similarly, companies should limit the ability of authorities and local police to conduct blanket social media surveillance and deploy targeted spyware across their platforms.”

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