India's Hindu Nationalists Are Deploying a Sinister Weapon to Silence Critics

Private outfits that support Modi have taken to harassing journalists and opponents

Two weeks ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned home to celebrate his 20th anniversary in public office after hobnobbing with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris during a visit to the United States. The previous White House occupant had maintained a policy of strategic silence in the face of an alarming decline on Modi’s watch in India’s protections for vulnerable minorities and press freedoms. But there was hope among Indian American activists and others that the Biden administration would break the silence and take Modi to task.

But he barely got a rap on the knuckles.

In the midst of clichés and platitudes about the “special relation” between the world’s oldest democracy and the largest one, all that Harris said to Modi was: “It is imperative (as democracies globally are under threat) that we defend democratic principles and institutions within our countries.”

That would certainly be nice given that India’s press has been extra-stressed since Modi, an avowed Hindu nationalist, became prime minister in 2014. Journalists have been increasingly threatened, harassed, trolled, abused and even killed for doing their jobs. Sedition charges against critics and protesters have risen 28% —in violation of Supreme Court guidelines—since 2014, according to a study by Article 14, an outfit that tracks the deficiencies in the Indian justice system. The country has dropped from an already low score in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom rankings, now standing at a dismal 142 out of 180  compared to 131 in 2011 before Modi.

The day before Modi arrived in the U.S., the Washington Post published a first-person account by Rana Ayyub, an intrepid Indian Muslim journalist known for her relentless exposés of, among other things, the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat when Modi was the chief minister of this western Indian state. Ayyub, who in June was accused by the police of criminal conspiracy for merely re-tweeting a story about a Muslim man being harassed by a Hindu mob, revealed that she was now confronting an entirely new accusation— this time not by the authorities but a private group called the Hindu IT Cell.

The antecedents of this cell are unclear as is its institutional status. But Modi and almost his entire cabinet follow it on social media, Ayyub points out. When it launched its Twitter presence a year ago, it ominously declared: “Hindu haters won't be spared. We repeat we are not going to spare anyone of them ‘legally’. If you want to teach such offenders a lesson for lifetime (sic)  by filing a complaint then do contact our volunteers.”

It wasn’t kidding.

Early September, it filed a First Information Report against Ayyub, accusing her of misusing donations that she had collected through an online platform for Covid relief. (She insists that a hospital to whom she had initially given the funds to build a children’s ward ahead of the third Covid wave refused her money after it came under intense political pressure, forcing her to redirect it to other causes.)

Given India’s notoriously bureaucratic criminal justice system, the FIR was meant to make it easier for ordinary citizens to get the attention of cops. Anyone can walk into a police station and file an FIR. You don’t require a lawyer. The cops are duty bound to register the complaint. But the trouble is that an FIR covers a grab bag of “cognizable offences” that include violent crimes (rape, murder), financial fraud, subversion, sedition, and hate crimes. The last three are vague, ill-defined categories that are particularly susceptible to abuse. An FIR is not a legal complaint, but it commits the police to find out more and see if a full investigation is warranted. If the police determine that the facts of the complaint bear out, it can arrest the accused without a warrant and trigger a criminal prosecution.

Ayyub notes that since the Hindu IT Cell’s FIR against her a month ago, she has “barely written or reported” because all her “energy had gone to battling the latest accusations and clearing my name.” And that is precisely the point.

Nor is she the only target of this FIR warfare by Hindu groups (and state agencies) linked to Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Activists whose views are inconvenient for the regime are increasingly being targeted. The son of a BJP legislator in a small town in central India who belonged to the Hind Rakshak—the protector of the Hindu nation—filed an FIR against Munawwar Faruqi, a Muslim standup comic. Faruqi’s crime? He allegedly insulted Hindu Gods on his YouTube video. He was arrested and denied bail for over a month before the Supreme Court intervened.

In another case, Hindutva activists slapped the Muslim Indian director of Tandav and his colleagues with multiple FIRs in multiple jurisdictions on multiple charges including promoting enmity and outraging religious feelings. Tandav is an Amazon web series that explores the dark side of power-hungry Indian politicians.

The Indian Supreme Court has intervened several times when state authorities have misused the FIR—noting that they cannot use this tool as a weapon to harass citizens and must accord the accused proper due process. But the court hasn’t taken it upon itself to weigh in on citizen-on-citizen harassment and its not clear that it would matter if it did given the increasing brazenness with which law enforcement authorities in cahoots with Hindu extremists are arresting first and answering questions later.

To be fair, repurposing existing statutes—some from colonial era laws against sedition, defamation and hurting religious sentiment—to suppress the media and free speech is not new in Indian politics. All parties decry these tactics while in opposition and use them with gusto when in power.

Even so, the Modi government has taken things to a whole new level.

Consider the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), India’s version of the Patriot Act but worse. It allows for the long detention of suspected terrorists without bail even before the case comes to trial, shifting the burden of proof on the defendant. It has a controversial history and a pathetically low conviction rate and was already roundly abused by the previous Congress government, which enacted the law.

But the Modi government used the law to slap an octogenarian Jesuit priest who doggedly fought all his life for the rights of adivasis—India’s indigenous tribes. It kept him behind bars for over a year for allegedly assisting Maoist terrorists. Even though he was suffering from advanced Parkinson’s and posed zero flight risk, he was repeatedly denied bail— not to mention a sippy cup for water. He died in custody this summer after contracting Covid. His death sparked international outrage but the Modi government has yet to express regret.

Indian journalists, dissenters, activists, artists are feeling far more vulnerable, exposed, and threatened under Modi than any previous regime (with the exception of temporary state of Emergency in 1975 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi formally suspended the Indian constitution). They no longer have to fear just the old weapons: the brute strength of the state or fanatical assassins (who murdered Gauri Lankesh) or fishing expeditions by the politically motivated taxman zealously pursuing minor infractions.

They also now have to worry about private citizens dedicated to the ruling regime hiding behind the Internet and social media striking like snipers from anywhere with their FIRs.

Rebecca Mammen John, one of India’s top criminal lawyers and an outspoken defender of constitutional principles, told the author: “FIRs are registered to address a criminal act and ought not to be used as tools in the hands of powerful vested interests to wreak vengeance on persons or communities for ulterior motives.” Lamenting the assault on this vital constitutional principle, she noted: “The criminalization of the act of protest against unjust laws and the consequent arrest of activists and ordinary Indians is a deeply worrying trend.”

Much of India’s media have already caved and become mere organs of the state. A brave minority heroically soldiers on—but for how long in the face of a ruling regime and its minions determined to crush it is anyone’s guess. It is India’s struggle that its own people must fight. All that outside voices, including that of the U.S. president, can do is publicly recognize what Indians are up against.

Gautham Subramanyam is a researcher and producer of TV documentaries. He divides his time between New Delhi and London.

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A guest post by
Gautham Subramanyam is a researcher and producer of TV documentaries. He divides hus tim se between New Delhi and London.
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