Joti Kaur Rekhi: Sikhs Censored Online As India Introduces Draconian Internet Content Regulations

A growing list of prominent Sikh-led websites and social media accounts are restricted in India after the country’s new media rules went into effect on May 26

Joti Kaur Rekhi
July 19, 2021 | 7 min. read | Original Reporting

A growing list of prominent Sikh-led websites and social media accounts are restricted in India after the country’s new media rules went into effect on May 26.          

Sikh Siyasat’s Facebook page was restricted in India on July 6. The media portal has been publishing Punjabi and Sikh-centric news and analysis since 2006 and had close to 250,000 Facebook page likes, most of whom were based in India

When searching for the page, users in India see a notice that reads, in part, “You’re unable to view this content because local laws restrict our ability to show it.” According to its editor, Parmjeet Singh, this comes after each of its three websites was blocked in India as well.

Rambling of a Sikh’s Instagram page was restricted from partaking in activity on the social media platform on July 8, followed by the England-based National Sikh Youth Federation’s Twitter account being withheld on Jul. 10. Neither of the accounts’ owners received any formal notice from the platforms.

Individuals have also been targeted - Jazzy B’s Twitter account was restricted on June 8. He has been outspoken in favor of the Farmers’ Protests and about the 1984 Sikh Genocide.

The various actions taken by each platform follow India’s new Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules of 2021. The new regulations were introduced in late Feb. 2021 and require social media and news platforms to remove content considered “unlawful” within 36 hours of notice or court order.

They further mandate tech firms to identify first originators of content to the government, including topics relating to the sovereignty and integrity of India, its security, and explicit materials.

While WhatsApp has sued the Indian government, citing privacy concerns, other platforms like Twitter relented after some initial pushback

Apar Gupta, Executive Director of the India-based Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) said his organization was closely monitoring the takedown of hundreds of Twitter accounts during the Farmers Protest, some of which were restored.

“The IT rules are completely undemocratic,” Gupta said. “Democracy is not a form of homogenized support for a particular political or social philosophy. It is noisy. It is allowing people a distinct level of individual identity or group identity.”

The Indian government began drafting the rules before COVID-19 drove scores of new users to various social media outlets and video-streaming platforms. In a press release, the central government said draft rules were put in the public domain in 2018. They took comments and counter comments from more than 200 individuals, civil society, industry associations, organizations.

Gupta said his organization participated in public consultation, but suggestions were disregarded. Instead, the laws were expanded upon to include digital news platforms and online streaming services.

“The nature of the regulations over these services is extremely stringent and gives excessive executive control and oversight,” Gupta said. “It changes the fundamental character of the internet, [including] how it is perceived [and] what its interactions are with every ordinary internet user.”

Each social media firm also must fill the newly created roles of a grievance officer, compliance officer, and a nodal contact person to be available to law enforcement 24/7. Each position must be filled by an Indian resident.

The Modi government said the IT rules will benefit users and give them a chance to be heard if restrictive action is taken.

In a press release, the creation of the role of a Grievance Officer is touted to: “empower the users by mandating the intermediaries, including social media intermediaries, to establish a grievance redressal mechanism for receiving resolving complaints from the users or victims.”

The Grievance Officer has 24 hours to recognize a complaint and must resolve it within 15 days.

However, Sikh Siyasat Editor, Parmjeet Singh Gazi said he never received any sort of communication from Facebook regarding Sikh Siyasat’s restrictions.

“When I asked them who made the complaint against my website, they said Punjab government,” said Gazi. He said he wasn’t told who specifically initiated the process.

Sikhsiyasat.net was blocked in June 2020. Then Sikhsiyasat.com was blocked in September 2020. The final blow came on July 4, when Sikhsiyasat.info was blocked. The websites vary in content and language.

Gazi said, when he attempted to visit the various websites, he would be faced with different error messages. After consulting with cyber experts, he learned that internet service providers (ISPs) were blocking the Sikh Siyasat websites in India.

He and his team searched through countless emails and found no complaints from the central government or any authorities. They then sent letters to ISPs requesting information.

“Just one ISP replied and told us that they have received directions from the Department of Telecommunications, Government of India,” said Gazi.

He thinks that India has intensified its effort to restrict dissenting voices during the COVID-19 pandemic. He recalls an investigative piece that Sikh Siyasat published debunking what he said were false reports published by the mainstream media about Sikhs spreading the virus.

Gazi, who is an advocate as well, said he was given a notice, followed court procedures, and met with government officials when attempts to restrict its website and Facebook page were ultimately dropped back in 2015.

“This all started after [COVID-19]. In 2015, they presented me with a notice, they gave me an opportunity to be heard and they accepted my arguments. Press freedom is more suppressed during COVID. This is a phenomenon all over the world. India is no exception to it. Rather, it’s on the lead side,”      Gazi said. “The most reasonable thing is if you find a particular thing to be objectionable you can block that thing, why block the whole website?”

While Gupta is not involved with the restrictions on Sikh Siyasat, he compared it to a case for a website the IFF is providing legal assistance to, which also faced similar action from the central government.

Overall, Gupta said the outcome is terrible for all three stakeholders.      

According to the IFF, Twitter officials have received 6,000 takedown orders so far in 2021, compared to 3,600 for all of 2019. They said the Dept. of Telecommunications informed them that it has issued 3,725 website blocks from 2020-21. 

According to Twitter’s Transparency report from  Jul. 14, the Indian government submitted 25 percent of global information requests from July to December 2020, surpassing the former leader, America, by three percent.

Shamsher Singh, the co-founder of the National Sikh Youth Federation, learned its Twitter account was restricted in India after people from there sent him screenshots of the notice that came up when they attempted to view its feed on July 10.

Singh said the account was probably withheld not because of any one tweet, but rather its overall messaging of a sovereign Sikh state, Khalistan. He said the NSYF account faced similar restrictions after it tweeted about the Nishan Sahib raised at Lal Kila in late January 2021.

“The Indian government is very explicit on [who]they target...I feel a lot of the times, especially within the Sikh community, there’s a big reluctance to say we’re being silenced when we talk about Khalistan, when we talk about our self-determination, when we challenge the authority of India and we push back against the demonization of our liberation movement. That just lends to the environment, emboldens India, and contributes to the silencing,” he said.

Such posts are interpreted under Indian law to hinder the sovereignty and integrity of the country.

“They’re not even following whatever limited process that they have, it’s just an outright ban. So, you don’t have a chance to appeal. You don’t have a chance to question what the material was that they found objectionable,” Singh said.

Gupta said these rules are targeting certain communities and similar actions were taken against environmental and Citizenship Amendment/National Register of Citizens protestors.

“Yes, [certain Sikh organizations and people] are being targeted, but so are several other groups. The targeting to them is not selective and restrictive. [This] is happening because the Sikh community has become the most visible marker of the Farmers’ Protest, which is core legislative business of the current central government.”

Ramblings of a Sikh, which boasts nearly 12,000 followers have faced similar actions on Instagram. Amar Singh Panesar, who curates the historic content, said the Instagram account was restricted on July 8.

When he reached out to Facebook support, Panesar was told his Instagram account was restricted due to a “random security check.” He had recently published a post about Indira Gandhi and her Sikh bodyguard. “I don’t think I’m deliberately being censored as such by the social media companies; however, I am sure there are individuals who keep an eye on the page and report certain posts,” said Panesar.

The IT rules require the monthly publishing of a compliance report which entails complaints received, actions taken on them, and content removed by each social media company.

“I feel sorry for anyone inside India that has to deal with these laws because ultimately the social media companies will have to comply internally. I’m in an extremely privileged position to be sat in the UK and enjoy the laws and freedoms that come with it,” said Panesar.

The press release used to unveil the new IT Rules reads, “India is the world’s largest open Internet society and the Government welcomes social media companies to operate in India, do business and also earn profits. However, they will have to be accountable to the Constitution and laws of India.”

Gupta believes accountability to the Constitution does not equate to accountability to the people.

“The decisions of big tech are self-serving towards shareholder interests. Big tech operates as a business and while it has social impacts, it is not owning up to its social obligations or providing for that public square,” said Gupta.

Singh sees a silver lining in that Twitter is not using a blanket censorship.

“They’re censoring content that they deem is objectionable to India in India, which in itself is an indictment of Indian public discourse. There’s content in the rest of the world that’s ok, but in India it’s deemed a violation of law.”

Left with no clear course of action, each Sikh who has been restricted online in some way said while it is disheartening, they will not let it stop them from advocating for Sikh causes.

“We’re just going to carry on, the way we are. For us, social media isn’t everything, it’s more about the community for us,” Singh said.

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Joti Kaur recently obtained her MSc in International Public Policy from UCL in London. Her research focused on the disappearances and extrajudicial executions that occurred in Punjab following the Sikh Genocide of 1984. Prior to returning to school, she worked as a local television reporter for five years. Advocating for others has always been at the core of her work. She remains a voice for the voiceless. You can find Joti on Twitter at @jotikrekhi


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