India Banned My Twitter Account For Affirming Civil Liberties in Punjab
Modi regime mass bans international critics of its draconian policies
For the past 17 years, I’ve been researching, writing, and speaking about human rights in South Asia, with a particular emphasis on India, but it was a benign thread about the need to uphold basic civil liberties in the northwestern state of Punjab that finally got my Twitter account banned in India on, apparently, 20 March 2023.
Among the regions in India where human rights situations are a particular concern, Punjab has repeatedly topped the list over several decades. It all began, in earnest, in the mid-1980s.
In June 1984, allegedly in order to subdue a movement which the then government of India perceived as radical, a full-scale military invasion was launched against the Golden Temple — the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. Thousands of Sikh civilians died in the invasion and related State-led violence. In November 1984, after Sikh bodyguards of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi assassinated her (an act of vigilante violence which I have personally denounced), thousands more Sikhs were slaughtered over several days.
That was the 1984 Sikh Genocide.
Subsequently, a militancy cropped up in Punjab. Some disaffected Sikhs took up arms. Along the way, the governments of Punjab and India cracked down brutally, indiscriminately arresting thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of Sikhs (especially youth and often off the books) and executing many of them in custody before secretly cremating their bodies to hide the evidence of the mass atrocities.
Fast forward to today.
The party that held national power at the time has been replaced by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a radical Hindu supremacist party which demands that Sikhs accept that they are merely a sub-sect of Hinduism, which denies the identity of Sikhi as the world’s fifth largest religion, and which seeks their forcible assimilation into the so-called “Hindu fold.” The BJP, while pursuing the assimilation of Sikhs, also wants to eliminate Indian Christians and Muslims, whom it views as “foreign” to India, “internal threats” to the nation, and “traitors.”
In late 2020, the BJP administration passed several laws intended to, supposedly, “reform” the agricultural system in India. A massive, year-long protest was launched with Sikhs, who disproportionately serve as the country’s farmers, spearheading the movement. Although the BJP ultimately caved to protests in December 2021 by repealing the despised farm laws, along the way it constantly attempted to smear all Sikh critics of its policies as anti-national separatists.
In a land where Sikhs are increasingly feeling alienated and oppressed, separatist sentiment has, however, found real appeal among some of the community’s youth. After a long period of being denounced as “separatists” simply for opposing particular State policies, a segment of the community now seems to feel that, if this is how they are treated for being peaceful critics, then they will pursue separatism.
Acknowledging this is simply a statement of fact, not an endorsement of the sentiment, and yet even facts appear to be banned under the current Indian regime. Moreover, affirming the civil liberties even of that vast majority of citizens who are not separatists seems to have become similarly taboo in today’s India.
On 18 March 2023, the Punjab Police launched an operation to arrest Amritpal Singh. A new and increasingly vocal voice demanding “Khalistan” (a separate Sikh state), Amritpal and many of his followers allegedly instigated a February 2023 invasion of a Punjabi police station to free one of his arrested aides. After inexplicably waiting a month to seek Amritpal’s arrest, the government of Punjab decided to initiate a blanket blackout of mobile internet and a ban on assembly for all 27 million Punjabis as they pursued their suspect — a ban which has now lasted at least three days.
Enter the withholding of my Twitter account in India. On the same day that civil liberties were suspended across the whole of Punjab, I posted commentary about the situation on Twitter.
Perhaps most notably, I said that Amritpal should be arrested. While this is a controversial perspective among many Sikhs who support Amritpal’s views, I stand by it. As I noted, supporting his arrest is not an affirmation of either his guilt or innocence, but simply upholding the judicial process of any democratic society.
“If Amritpal Singh is suspected of a crime, then (just as in any free and fair justice system) he should be arrested, given access to an attorney, tried, and, if proven guilty, convicted,” I wrote. “Instead, however, Punjab’s government has used him as an excuse to deny basic liberties to all.” As I further argued:
“Whatever your opinion of Amritpal Singh, a man about whom I know very little, the mass crackdown on basic civil liberties in Punjab is a totalitarian nightmare. Internet and mobile service banned, assembly banned, media censorship. From Kashmir to Punjab, where is the Azadi [freedom]?”
“This is not an endorsement of Amritpal Singh, about whom I hadn’t even heard until yesterday, but a denunciation of a governmental system which strips away the civil liberties of everyone in its efforts to arrest a single person. This is not justice. It’s a witch hunt.
“Freedoms of speech, of assembly, of press, of communication, and more are inalienable rights which reign supreme in any democratic nation. No situation justifies suspending them. Ever, anywhere, at all.
“It’s important to remember that arresting Amritpal Singh is not wrong even if he is innocent. ‘False arrest’ only occurs if there’s no probable cause to suspect commission of a crime. That’s what trials are for: examining evidence to determine guilt or innocence.
“What is wrong is to throw out a giant net and start willy-nilly mass arresting anyone and everyone. What is especially wrong is to subject an entire citizenry to denial of basic civil liberties (especially on an extended or indefinite basis) in the dubious name of ‘security.’”
Arrest the suspect but don’t strip away the civil liberties of every citizen in order to do it was, essentially, my argument. Within approximately 36 hours of posting this, however, I discovered that my Twitter account had been banned in India.
Twitter, which has responded to three or four past demands by the Indian government to withhold various individual Tweets of mine which it disliked, has always previously sent me a notification from Twitter Legal informing me of the complaint and the withholding of the Tweet. In this case, the only notification I got was from large numbers of my Indian followers on Twitter tagging me to inform me that my account is blocked.
I am far from the only one.
Twitter accounts banned in India over the past day include those of Indian and Western politicians as well as various prominent journalists.
These include, for instance, the account of Jagmeet Singh, a Canadian Member of Parliament (MP) who leads the country’s New Democratic Party. Indian MP Simranjit Singh Mann, president of Punajab’s Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) political party. Canadian Sikh poet Rupi Kaur. Canadian Sikh journalist Gurpreet Singh Sahota. Indian Sikh human right lawyer Jaspal Singh Manjhpur. Indian Express journalist Kamalpreet Singh Brar. Punjabi journalist Gagandeep Singh. And many, many more.
The total number of accounts suspended in India is unknown at this time, but this follows a pattern of the Indian government attempting to silence even the most benign of its critics.
In February 2021, Twitter withheld hundreds of accounts from access by Indians, most of which were linked to reporting on the Farmers Protest. These included masses of mainstream journalistic accounts which were not Sikh-owned and definitely had nothing to with the Khalistan movement. A number of the blocked accounts were owned by non-Sikh Indian politicians.
Ongoing censorship of critics of the BJP regime goes far beyond those raising Sikh-related issues.
In January, after the BBC released a documentary highlighting Narendra Modi’s role — before he became the BJP’s Prime Minister of India — in a 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom, Modi’s regime banned it before subsequently raiding BBC India’s offices over several days. In October 2020, the Modi regime froze the bank accounts of Amnesty International India, forcing the group to end its operations; in April 2022, the regime then arbitrarily banned Amnesty India’s chair, Aakar Patel, from leaving the country. These are but a couple of recent examples.
This is how the critics are treated. But what of the hatemongerss? Over the past year or two, a host of Hindu supremacist demagogues — often in company of BJP politicians — have repeatedly spoken at conferences of hundreds or even thousands where they distributed weapons, urged people to socially boycott religious minorities, and led the audience in oath-taking ceremonies for the creation of an exclusively Hindu nation and the slaughter of minorities. No action, in essence, has been taken against them.
In many ways, the “culture of impunity” currently tolerating this kind of hate — hate which, ultimately, always translates to violence — can trace its origins back to the 1984 Sikh Genocide. In the modern age of the Republic of India, impunity for the 1984 Sikh Genocide set the stage for the mass oppression of all Indian minorities by a supremacist movement which, if justice had been pursued at the time, probably would have never managed to rise to power.
In its 2009 annual report on India, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) noted that, in practice, “India’s democratic institutions charged with upholding the rule of law, most notably state and central judiciaries and police, lack capacity and have emerged as unwilling or unable to consistently seek redress for victims of religiously-motivated violence or to challenge cultures of impunity in areas with a history of communal tensions.” USCIRF linked this culture of impunity directly to 1984.
“The failure to provide justice to religious minorities targeted in violent riots in India is not a new development, and has helped foster a climate of impunity,” reported USCIRF. “In 1984, anti-Sikh riots erupted in Delhi…. Over 4 days, nearly 3,000 Sikhs were killed, allegedly with the support of Congress Party officials. Few perpetrators were ever held accountable, and only years after the fact.”
USCIRF went on to explain: “In the late 1990s, there was a marked increase in violent attacks among members of religious communities, particularly Muslims and Christians, throughout India, including incidents of killings, torture, rape, and destruction of property. Perpetrators were rarely held responsible.” In 1992, the Hindu supremacist movement instigated the mob destruction of a 16th-century mosque and ensuing massacre of up to 2,000 Muslims. “Few have been successfully prosecuted,” noted USCIRF.
Later, the Nazi-inspired Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — the parent organization of the BJP — and many of its subsidiaries launched a pogrom against Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002. “Court convictions since the Gujarat riots have been minimal,” concluded USCIRF. Again, in 2008, they launched another pogrom, this time against Christians. Reporting on the 2008 incident, USCIRF stated: “Mass arrests following the riots did not translate into the actual filing of cases, exacerbating the existing culture of impunity.”
While my journalism, over the past four or five years, has been almost exclusively focused on the issue of the rise of Hindu nationalism in India and its international support base, there are certainly other human rights concerns within the country. Rights violations have occurred on many occasions before the rise of the BJP, and not all of them are purely the fault of that party. Some of this violence was by BJP affiliates at times when the party did not hold national power, but plenty of other incidents were perpetrated by different political parties or ideological groups.
However, general impunity for the worst of those past atrocities — whichever party was responsible for perpetrating the violence — laid the groundword for giving the current BJP regime license to engage in unchecked oppression today.
What is happening right now in Punjab, though it is a state which is not currently ruled by the BJP, is absolutely occurring with the approval of the BJP-ruled national government. Meanwhile, Muslims are on the brink of outright genocide, Christians facing rapidly escalating persecution, and now too are Sikhs coming under direct threat by the ideological forces behind the BJP.
Today, the argument by the oppressor is that it’s only targeting those engaged in separatism, vigilantism, or some such. Yet the methods — as we have seen, particularly in 2019 in the northernmost region of Jammu and Kashmir — have invariably been to institute a broad crackdown that treats every single citizen as a criminal and potential threat. This, in human rights terms, is collective punishment.
Ultimately, this collective punishment will almost certainly also include methods such as torture, indefinite detention, and even extrajudicial execution — the fancy “legalese” term for murdering detainees in custody.
Stripping away the civil liberties of all is the totalitarian method the Indian government, particularly under the BJP, has employed and is employing in order to squash any and all dissent against its draconian regime. Meanwhile, peaceful but critical voices — within India or abroad — are being systematically silenced by that regime in the hope that it can perpetrate its atrocities in secrecy. Censorship, as always, remains the tool of greatest necessity for the fascist.
The international community must stand up and cry out against this anti-democratic wave of fascism which is crashing over the once free Republic of India.
Without such an outcry, India will — barring a miracle — soon devolve into total tyranny. While it has been on that path for all nine years of the Modi regime, the situation has only grown worse year over year, leading now up to the present-day situation in Punjab. Yet, rumor has it, the crackdown which began in Punjab a couple of days ago is now expanding beyond the borders of that state.
Security can only be found through liberty. Cry out for Azadi in India.