An Indian law-enforcement agency asked Twitter this week to delete a post by a Canadian Sikh advocacy group, an unusual move by a foreign power that has sparked allegations of attempted international censorship.
India claimed the tweet by the World Sikh Organization (WSO) — discussing what the group calls a “genocide” of Sikhs in 1984 — violated that country’s laws, the social-media company said in an email to the WSO.
Twitter’s legal department said it was notifying the organization in the interests of transparency, but was not taking any action “at this time.” Meanwhile, it advised the WSO to consider protecting its interests by seeking legal counsel, challenging India’s request in court or even voluntarily deleting the content, if appropriate.
The Ottawa-based Sikh group said the incident was “a perfect example of India criminalizing dissent.”
In fact, it alleged in a report this summer New Delhi has launched a crackdown on social media posts perceived as supporting the cause of Khalistan — a separate Sikh homeland. Even the term #Sikh was for a while blocked on Facebook and Instagram because of a cyber attack, the WSO says.
Today, we received notice from Twitter notifying us that our tweet remembering the Sikh genocide & the sacrifice of Khalra allegedly violates Indian law(s).— WSO (@WorldSikhOrg) September 15, 2020
A perfect example of India criminalizing dissent, including for stating well accepted facts.#NeverForget1984 #KhalraWeek pic.twitter.com/npYCwVTOwg
“They’re saying if you engage in this topic on social media, we will silence you and you will face the consequences,” said Balpreet Singh, the organization’s legal advisor. “Obviously, this is not going to work here in Canada. We are protected by freedom of speech.”
He said he hopes Indian leaders change their approach because “this sort of repression never has good outcomes. If you try and silence people this way, it often has the opposite effect.”
A representative of the Indian high commission in Ottawa said it appears the request to Twitter came from India and the mission could not respond until it has consulted with the appropriate authorities there.
Global Affairs Canada was unable to comment by deadline Tuesday.
Issues of censorship aside, the incident also underscores India’s irritation with a Khalistani movement that’s largely directed by diaspora Sikhs in countries like Canada, and competing views of the bloody events of 1984.
The tweet singled out by Indian police was one of four dispatched by the WSO in June to commemorate that history, beginning with the Indian army’s storming of the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, Sikhs’ most sacred site.
India says the highly contentious raid was launched to dislodge Khalistani militants who had barricaded themselves inside the complex, and that about 600 people were killed.
Sikhs say the toll was much higher, and the WSO tweet in June mentions nothing about the militants, asserting only that the assault killed “thousands of innocent Sikhs” gathered for a religious celebration. Sikh activists also insist the raid was meant more as an attack on their faith then an operation to flush out guerillas.
The assault was followed by Prime Minister Indira Ghandi’s assassination at the hands of two of her Sikh bodyguards. The bloodshed then worsened, as rampaging Hindu Indians, encouraged by some leaders of the ruling Congress Party, murdered thousands of innocent Sikhs in New Delhi and elsewhere.
The historical debate doesn’t end there. Many Sikhs term the massacre a genocide, but Indian authorities, and some independent experts on the phenomenon, say those undeniably horrible events don’t meet the definition.
In 1985, Sikh terrorists blew up an Air India flight carrying hundreds of Canadians, this country’s worst terrorist incident.
The specific tweet addressed by India talks of genocide and “abduction, torture and extra-judicial killing” of Sikhs and refers to Jaswant Singh Khalra , a human-rights activist who was himself abducted and murdered by Indian police in 1995.
Singh suggested that India is afraid that Sikh youth in the country are beginning to learn about and believe in the Khalistani movement, using social media to peacefully express their support.