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India and Twitter: Why western media gives Modi a pass and piles on Musk

Twenty-one years after the events in Gujarat, hundreds of millions of Indian Muslims continue to live in constant fear that another pogrom is only a phone call away

In mid-January, the BBC released a damning documentary series about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Modi Question, a two-part series, examined Modi’s ascent to power, his longtime association with the Hindu right-wing in India, and the accusations of his complicity in anti-Muslim pogroms during his time as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002.

Within hours of the first episode’s airing, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government described the film as “propaganda”, and blocked it from being screened in India. Delhi would go on to impose emergency laws to halt public screenings of the film.

The focus on Musk distracted from the systematic erasure of Modi’s victims that lie at the heart of the documentary Delhi had silenced

Naturally, much of the international media’s attention diverted from the findings of the documentary to the intense censorship campaign by the Indian government.

And when it became clear that Elon Musk’s Twitter had also succumbed to Indian government demands to take down tweets and block content featuring the documentary on Twitter, western publications went into a frenzy.

“Elon Musk caves to pressure from India to remove BBC doc critical of Modi,” The Intercept wrote. Another headline in Vice said: “‘Free Speech Absolutist’ Elon Musk Censors BBC Doc Critical of India’s PM on Twitter.”

“Elon Musk’s Twitter faces censorship allegations in India free speech battle,” wrote NBC. The Guardian followed, too, with “Indian ban on BBC Modi film puts Musk’s Twitter ‘free speech’ to the test.”

The Musk angle seemed like a smart way to “introduce” the story to American audiences presumably disinterested in “foreign” affairs.

When Musk took over Twitter he said he had done so in the name of “helping humanity” and bringing “free speech back” to the platform. But now that it was complicit in the censorship saga unfolding in India, the US media was eager to point out the tech leader’s hypocrisy.

Even if they bothered to mention that Musk was neither the first nor the only one to have cooperated with Modi in silencing his critics, the singular focus on him was misleading. No one, besides his supporters, had believed he would protect free speech.

In other words, that Musk had not lived up to his promise was not actually the news it was made out to be. And the media made no attempt to move the story beyond him.

This angle distracted from the systematic erasure of Modi’s victims that lie at the heart of the documentary Delhi had silenced in favor of embarrassing the tech giant at the center of a culture war.

In truth, the Modi government had scored a lowkey PR coup.

Missing the urgent story

The first episode of the BBC documentary series, broadcast on 17 January, hinged mostly on the extraordinary revelations of a previously unreleased report written by British diplomats about the Gujarat massacre that left more than a thousand people dead.

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The report noted that there had been “widespread and systematic rape of Muslim women” and that “the aim was to purge Muslims from Hindu areas”. It added that the pogroms had purportedly taken place as retribution for an attack on Hindu pilgrims in Godhra days earlier blamed on Muslims. The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Hindu nationalist organisation, had planned the massacre in advance.

The report concluded that the “systematic campaign of violence has all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing”.

The second episode, which aired on 24 January, focused on Modi’s second term in power and his government’s extraordinary policies that continue to drive India towards a full-blown Hindu majoritarian state.

It examines the anxiety faced by Muslims, the crackdown on the media, and the dismantling of civil society. The damning episode is quite thorough in covering the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that effectively rendered Muslims as second-class citizens and as outsiders to the Hindu nation.

However, it mostly glosses over the revocation of Article 370, which saw Indian-occupied Kashmir lose its semi-autonomous status. It further platforms several Hindu nationalists as a means to explain Modi’s policies and offer “balance”, while struggling to describe Modi’s ethnonationalist measures as anything other than “controversial”.

BBC India office raided
Following a raid by Indian authorities weeks after the release of the Modi documentary series, a security guard stands outside of the BBC office in Mumbai, India, on 14 February 2023 (Reuters)


But even with its shortcomings, the documentary is incriminating. A cursory viewing is enough to know that something has gone very, very wrong in India. Ironically, the way the western media dealt with the documentary seemed to uplift the conclusion of the documentary itself: that the western world has no interest in confronting India’s Hindu nationalist surge.

In the US, where the mainstream media count themselves as part of the resistance against Donald Trump-like authoritarianism and fascism in the US and abroad, they neglected to ask even the most basic questions as they piled on Musk.

None of these publications asked why no resolution condemning Indian human rights violations seem to be making their way to the House floor

The media made no effort to ask if there would be consequences in the US Congress for Modi. Nor did they ponder if other such reports on the Gujarat massacre existed in the State Department or the British foreign office that may implicate Modi further. Few mentioned that Modi had been banned in 2005 from travelling to the US under a little known religious freedom law until it was lifted by President Barack Obama in 2014.

And even fewer bothered to explain that the US government didn’t merely lift the travel restrictions when he became prime minister, but that successive administrations serenaded and invited him to work under the US sphere of influence.

“Narendra and I visited the memorial to Dr Martin Luther King Jr. We reflected on the teachings of King and Gandhi and how the diversity of backgrounds and faiths in our countries is a strength we have to protect,” Obama wrote on Modi’s first trip to Washington as PM.

Later, Trump invited Modi to enjoy the spoils of the Israeli normalisation deals, known as the Abraham Accords. And when the administration swung back to Democratic leadership, President Joe Biden invited India to joint the West Asian Bloc, or “I2U2” gathering (India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and United States) designed to build an unflappable political and economic counter to China and further destroy the Palestinian cause.

US hypocrisy

As has been pointed out, both major American parties have welcomed Modi’s India into the corridors of power, underlining the hypocrisy of the US when it comes to the undemocratic practises and authoritarian behaviour of its allies.

Last week, when The Caravan reported that the Indian government appeared to have used a fictitious organisation to lobby the US government on its behalf to win approval for its undemocratic decision to revoke Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, none of the aforementioned western papers bothered to pick up the story.

“The Modi government appears to have taken lobbying efforts in the United States to unprecedented levels. Since coming to power in 2014, it has paid over $10m to lobbying firms through the Indian embassy in Washington DC,” Urvashi Sarkar wrote.

Today, Biden has several Indian Americans, like Amit Jani, a close ally of Modi, and Sunal Shah, whose family has close ties with the overseas branches of the BJP and the RSS, the Hindu para-military organisation, in influential positions in his administration.

Naturally, the US government, too, continues to support Delhi’s bid to be a permanent member on the UN Security Council. Likewise, Indian-American lawmakers like Ro Khanna or Pramila Jayapal, who may have spoken out against developments in India a few years ago, are increasingly silent these days.

Jayapal, who promised she wouldn’t stop calling out human right violations in India, no matter the cost, appeared to do precisely that.

In June 2022, when Representative Ilhan Omar introduced a resolution calling on the State Department “to designate India as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act”, following repeated recommendations by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom for the past three years, both Jayapal and Khanna did not co-sponsor it.

In fact, weeks later, Khanna called on the US government to establish more arms deals with the Hindutva-run Delhi. In 2019, Khanna said that it was the “duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva”, in 2022 actively called on the US government to faciliate more strategic weapons deals with Delhi.

It is odd that none of these publications asked why no resolution condemning Indian human rights violations seem to be making their way to the floor, or why a majority of US lawmakers suddenly appear disinterested in talking about India.

Erasing Gujarat

Twenty-one years after the events in Gujarat, hundreds of millions of Indian Muslims continue to live in constant fear that another pogrom is only a phone call away.

As featured in the BBC documentary, British diplomats concluded that the Gujarat pogrom was given the green light by the Indian political establishment. A majority of those who lost their family members, homes, and limbs, have never received justice.

Meanwhile, the story of Gujarat has become a blueprint for politicians across the country: demonise, criminalise, and pacify the Muslim minority to win votes from the Hindu majority.

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It has become a terrifying existence. Activists are slapped with arbitrary terror charges. Muslim men are subject to intimidation and even lynchings on the street on the mere suspicion of buying beef or dating a Hindu woman.

Homes and mosques belonging to Muslims are regularly demolished on the most fickle of charges, often without judicial oversight. Hate speech is routinely broadcast by mobs as poems and songs over loudspeakers outside mosques and Muslim neighbourhoods.

And all of this has happened with the complicity of American big tech, which has consistently placated Delhi when it came to matters of censorship, including the suspension and banning of users, and restricting the reach of so-called undesirables on social media.

For the past four years, India has held the record for the most government-imposed internet shutdowns. Its civil society has been largely dismantled and operates under immense scrutiny and surveillance.

In Indian-occupied Kashmir, local journalists who refuse to become hagiographers for Modi’s settler-colonial projects find themselves on no-fly lists. Meanwhile, foreign journalists are rarely given permission to report from the region.

And human rights activists, like Khurram Parvaz, who was recently awarded the highly prestigious Martin Ennals human rights prize for courage, remain in jail.

Hateful rhetoric

The situation only seems to be getting worse. Over the last few months, the level of hateful rhetoric has escalated to such an extent that even the documentary, released just weeks ago, feels dated.

Today, India’s democratic status barely exists in the imagination of western capitals. Yet they keeping giving India a pass

For example, in the midst of a bitter winter, Indian authorities began evicting Kashmiris from their homes, businesses and farmlands under the pretext of an anti-encroachment drive against “illegal” structures.

Amnesty International, which was forced out of India in 2020, raised the alarm over these forced evictions, calling them a “gross violation of human rights”. These details matter as India has transformed into a proto-fascist state in which censorship is both the order and the method of the state.

This week, Indian tax agents raided the offices of the BBC in New Delhi. The raid is the standard modus operandi used to intimidate activists or media organisations, highlighting once again that western media’s focus on Musk was both overstated and a distraction.

If these outlets refuse to focus on the urgent story, then they are no different than the Indian government erasing its victims.

Today, India’s democratic status barely exists in the imagination of western capitals. Yet, they keeping giving India a pass. And that is the real story.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

| Senior Reporter
Azad Essa is a senior reporter for Middle East Eye based in New York City. He worked for Al Jazeera English between 2010-2018 covering southern and central Africa for the network. He is the author of ‘Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel’ (Pluto Press, Feb 2023)

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India and Twitter: Why western media gives Modi a pass and piles on Musk | Middle East Eye

Azad Essa