Indian PM Narendra Modi muzzles criticism, largely silent on coronavirus devastation

Anger mounted in India on Monday after the government ordered Twitter to remove posts critical of its handling of the coronavirus disease pandemic, which has devastated large swaths of the country, NBC news reports.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of downplaying the country’s response to the pandemic. The government’s order was aimed at posts that criticized Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, Twitter said on Lumen, a database that keeps track of government orders for online content.

A Twitter spokesperson confirmed to NBC News that it had partly complied with the government’s request and withheld content in India only.

“India will never forgive PM @narendramodi for underplaying the corona situation in the country and letting so many people die due to mismanagement,” a politician from the state of West Bengal, Moloy Ghatak, wrote on Twitter last week. “At a time when India is going through a health crisis, PM chose to export millions of vaccine to other nations.”

Ghatak’s tweet was among dozens more listed in the government order. Banned posts can be seen outside of India.

The takedown comes as India reported 352,991 new infections Monday, a world record for the fifth straight day that raised the country’s total number of cases past 17 million since the pandemic began. According to Johns Hopkins University, 195,123 people have died from the disease in India, the fourth highest total after the U.S., Brazil and Mexico.

The surge has brought pain and desperation to millions of families across the country, many of whom are using Twitter in a bid to secure hospital beds and ventilators, as hospitals deal with an acute shortage of health care.

In a call Monday with Modi, President Joe Biden pledged America’s support for the people of India who have been affected by the recent surge in infections, according to a readout from the White House.

The United States is providing a range of emergency assistance, including oxygen-related supplies, vaccine materials and therapeutics, the readout said.

In a pair of tweets, Modi described the conversation with Biden as “fruitful” and thanked the president for the support. He said the discussion had underscored the importance of “smooth and efficient” supply chains of vaccine raw materials and medicine.

Modi has remained largely silent about the crisis, while allowing religious festivals and election rallies attended by thousands to continue.

“There are many who are using social media to help those in need. So many lives have been saved,” Rohan Gupta, chairman of social media for opposition party, the Indian National Congress, wrote on Twitter Sunday. “Now [the government] wants to muzzle our last resort to express ourselves in these tough times.”

Twitter said it had reviewed the content the government asked it to remove after receiving a “valid legal request” from the Indian government, a spokesperson said. The law cited by the government is the Informational Technology Act, 2000, which allows authorities to order the blocking of public access to information to protect “sovereignty and integrity of India” and maintain public order.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and Modi’s BJP party did not immediately respond to requests for comment via email and Twitter.

The Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly, told NBC News that the government’s “attempt to silence this criticism is neither proportionate, nor rights respecting.”

“Indians are upset and angry at the state’s failure in preventing these shortages in health care,” Ganguly said.

In January, Twitter blocked dozens of accounts that posted about protests by farmers after the government complained that users were posting content aimed at inciting violence, Reuters reported.

Earlier this year, the government also temporarily blocked internet access on the outskirts of New Delhi, as tens of thousands of farmers camped on the streets demanding the withdrawal of new agriculture laws.

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