Did the police “raid” the Twitter office as several Indian media outlets reported or did they only pay a “visit” as claimed by Delhi Police PRO Chinmoy Biswal to enquire “who was the right person to serve a notice”? If that was the intention, was it necessary to send 10 policemen in three cars, all wearing prominent ‘Special Cell’ uniforms, to Gurgaon and another team to Mehrauli around 7.40 pm as a daily had reported?
In any case, whoever advised Delhi Police to pay a “visit” to the Twitter office in New Delhi on May 24 to coincide with our external affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s first visit to US after Joe Biden became President should be complimented for the brilliant timing. Not to be forgotten is the December 2018 incident when Jaishankar had refused a meeting with the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, objecting to the presence of a leading US Congresswoman who is now chairperson of an important Congressional Committee and a more emphatic votary of human rights.
The police “visit” came after the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEIT)’s strong communication to Twitter on May 21 registering its objection to labelling in a matter already pending before a law enforcement agency. It asked Twitter to “remove the tag” as it would interfere with the police investigation. In its editorial on May 25, a prominent Indian daily called this directive “arbitrary censorship” and not legal as the IT Act empowered the government only to regulate content, not order the removal of a label. It went on to claim that “the Government of India is willing to go to any lengths to empower BJP functionaries to tarnish political opponents and misinform the public”.
Also, the stern affidavit from MEIT on May 26 calling WhatsApp’s move to approach the Supreme Court for review of the IT Rules 2021 as an act of “defiance” will also be of interest during Jaishankar’s discussions. This is because Biden’s Democrat administration and the BJP-led Indian government are not on the same page on the subjects of free expression and human rights.
Even without this, Jaishankar’s calendar would have been full to explain his government’s position to his interlocutors on various subjects. Apart from bilateral or multilateral issues, this would include New Delhi’s Covid management in the background of unprecedented adverse international publicity on alleged mishandling of oxygen and vaccine supplies resulting in record number of deaths, superimposed with ghastly visuals of bodies floating in the Ganga.
On May 25, Wall Street Journal made a connection between freedom of expression and poor Covid management: “Authorities’ latest move in confronting US tech companies comes as government is under fire for its handling of the pandemic.” It alleged that the “police action comes as India has been taking steps to exert control over US tech firms in the country”. It said that the police “visit” was in the background of Twitter appending tweets by BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra and others as ‘Manipulated Media’, a rule they started last year and enforced even in respect of a video of Biden “circulated by one of then-President Trump’s top aides”.
This incident and also the arrest of four prominent TMC leaders, including two ministers, by the CBI on May 17 for involvement in a six-year-old sting bribery operation called Narada, so soon after the BJP’s humiliating electoral defeat on May 2, would indicate that the ruling party at the Centre would continue to use pliant central agencies to further its political agenda. Journalist Mathew Samuel, who had organised the sting operation, accused the CBI of being partial in investigation as TMC defectors Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari were spared from arrests. This partial investigation by the CBI was also frowned upon by the Supreme Court on May 25. A prominent daily reported: “The Bench questioned the partial approach of the Bureau in arresting a set of persons named in the FIR while sparing another set of TMC leaders who have now defected to the BJP.”
(The writer is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. Views are personal.)