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“Free-Speech Absolutist” Musk Is Abetting Modi’s Suppression of Voices in India

Blocking our organizations’ X accounts in India is another sign of the Indian government’s attempts to stifle dissent.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets with Elon Musk in New York City on June 20, 2023.

Imagine waking up one morning to find out that the voice of your organization has been silenced. More uncanny is the fact that this suppression happened in the United States, a place we hold close to our hearts and where we believed, until recently, that free speech was valued.

But that’s exactly what happened to us, Rasheed Ahmed of the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) and Sunita Viswanath of Hindus for Human Rights (HFHR), on the morning of October 14. Our organizations’ X accounts had been blocked in India, a disturbing sign of the Indian government’s escalating attempts to stifle dissent wherever it arises. It took two days for us to learn that X had removed it, complying with a request filed by the Indian government made under the “Information Technology Act of 2000” — a capricious, ever-expanding Indian law which has already been used to silence scores of critical voices in India.

Safely removed from the overt and often violent persecution which many activists in India must contend with, our U.S.-based human rights organizations had come to rely on X in our work of connecting activists and shedding light on the Indian government’s human rights violations.

The Indian government and X have significantly hindered our efforts at engaging in meaningful advocacy. Having eliminated direct messaging between the IAMC and our more than 150,000 Indian followers and having blocked our posts from millions more readers abroad, X and the Indian government have severed the international dialogue that has informed our advocacy in Washington. HFHR has faced similar challenges, losing its ability to reach and interact with supporters worldwide. These actions collectively signal our targeting in an escalating global campaign of political repression, a campaign that is emblematic of India’s increasingly authoritarian government, which aims to stifle diverse international dialogues and suppress dissenting voices.

The Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist regime, has increasingly resorted to extreme measures to silence dissent. These range from its alleged assassination of Canadian resident Hardeep Singh Nijjar and attempted assassination of U.S. resident Gurpatwant Singh, to raiding the offices of international media like the BBC and petitioning the removal of overseas accounts of political critics. These actions, along with orchestrated intimidation campaigns against foreign academics and journalists, send a clear message of their intent to suppress any critical voice, regardless of geographical boundaries.

This strategy of silencing criticism has extended into the digital realm, with X CEO Elon Musk’s platform playing a pivotal role in the Indian government’s transnational repression. At the Indian government’s behest, Musk’s platform deleted hundreds of posts sharing a BBC documentary exposing Prime Minister Modi’s role in a 2002 anti-Muslim massacre that unofficial estimates indicate may have claimed as many as 2,000 lives.

Barring international audiences from evidence of Modi’s crimes against humanity, self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” Musk said X “doesn’t have a choice” but to adhere to India’s regulations and censorship demands.

But Musk’s decision to abide by local regulations has global consequences. His organization’s capitulation to India’s censorship requests contributes to a global chilling effect felt across North America, where so many Indian and Kashmiri Americans I know fear criticizing the Modi regime.

“Whenever I call my family members [in Kashmir], … we don’t talk about anything. I don’t even ask [my friends or colleagues] any questions because so many journalists and human rights defenders have gotten detained. We know that social media is heavily, heavily being surveilled,” said one U.S.-based Kashmiri academic in a recent Freedom House report on transnational repression. High-profile figures like the world-famous poet Rupi Kaur and Canadian Parliament member Jagmeet Singh have had their X accounts withheld in India.

Meanwhile, throughout India, social media platforms are weaponized by Hindu nationalist paramilitary organizations to spread propaganda and coordinate attacks, sometimes killings of hundreds of Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities in India.

Under Musk’s leadership, X has reinstated vicious anti-Muslim accounts, while simultaneously gutting X’s capacity to regulate hate speech, closing two of three offices in India, and cutting Indian X staff from 200 to 12 employees.

With India producing 55 percent of the world’s anti-Muslim hate speech, Musk’s mass firings could not come at a worse time. Without staff to address the waves of anti-minority vitriol produced daily in India, violent speech will continue to wreak havoc on Muslim lives while instilling fear in those living abroad.

Indeed it already is, with Indians producing a tidal wave of Islamophobic misinformation on Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza and fanning anti-Muslim violence in Leicester, England, through countless incendiary and false posts on social media.

In spite of Modi’s well-established role in prior hate crimes (crimes for which he was banned from entering the U.S. from 2005-2014), and in spite of the Indian government’s intimidation and harassment of India’s X employees, Musk seems to have a special affinity for India’s prime minister.

“I am a fan of Modi,” Musk stated in an interview after the Indian prime minister had begun his U.S. tour in June. Musk’s growing business interests in India — which include plans for a new Tesla electric vehicle plant — may account for his praise of a leader opposed by 70 U.S. congress members, who released a letter in June that sharply criticized his human rights record.

The actions of X and its owner should not be taken lightly. Musk’s complicity in the Indian government’s transnational censorship is stifling the free speech of the U.S. public.

For the sake of our organizations and the numerous Indian religious minorities we represent and work in alliance with, many of whom have sought sanctuary in the U.S. to freely express their views, Musk should uphold the First Amendment freedoms he professes to support. He should restore the accounts of all critics suspended by his platform at the behest of the Indian government. This action is not just about our organizations; it’s a matter of protecting the voices and rights of a diverse and global community that relies on platforms like his to speak truth to power.

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