South Asia Brief

News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia, a region home to one-fourth of the world’s population. Delivered Thursday.

Why Twitter Is Taking India to Court

The government’s crackdown on dissent puts it on a collision course with Big Tech.

Kugelman-Michael-foreign-policy-columnist13
Kugelman-Michael-foreign-policy-columnist13
Michael Kugelman
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
Young people look down at their phones.
Young people look down at their phones.
Indian youth look at their phones in Mumbai on Nov. 10, 2019. Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Twitter sues India’s government, a controversial Indian political party faces a revolt, Sri Lanka and the IMF in stalemate, and an impressive new infrastructure project in Bangladesh.

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Twitter sues India’s government, a controversial Indian political party faces a revolt, Sri Lanka and the IMF in stalemate, and an impressive new infrastructure project in Bangladesh.

If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


Deepening Tensions Between New Delhi and Big Tech

On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Twitter has asked an Indian court in Bengaluru to overturn orders by the Indian government to remove content on its platform. In recent months, New Delhi has instructed Twitter to expunge content on some accounts critical of or otherwise problematic for New Delhi—such as those that support an independent state for Sikhs, provide information about anti-government protests, or criticize New Delhi’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Reuters, late last month India’s IT ministry threatened criminal proceedings against Twitter if it didn’t comply. Twitter complied, to avoid losing liability exemptions, but has now filed a petition seeking judicial support.

People familiar with the filing told Foreign Policy that it argues the blocking orders go against India’s Information Technology Act—because they do not give notice to account owners, and they target material that doesn’t meet the law’s criteria for what can be blocked. (Namely, that the material is “political speech, criticism, and newsworthy content.”) The brief also argues that some blocking orders are disproportionate measures that violate Twitter users’ constitutional rights. New Delhi insists its orders are all within Indian law.

Twitter’s decision to take the Indian government to court is just the latest example of tensions between Big Tech and New Delhi. With new government rules prompting other major U.S. tech firms to take legal action against India as well, and with New Delhi ramping up crackdowns on online content and dissent on the whole, the spat is unlikely to end soon.

In recent years, the government has not only called for some content and accounts to be removed and shut down but also set new rules requiring social media company executives in India to help carry out these orders, threatening jail time for those that don’t. It has also reserved the right to demand access to the names of the individuals who initiate private chats.

This move prompted the private messaging service WhatsApp to sue New Delhi last year. “Requiring messaging apps to ‘trace’ chats is the equivalent of asking us to keep a fingerprint of every single message sent on WhatsApp,” the company said at the time. WhatsApp, which uses encryption technology, said this move “fundamentally undermines people’s rights to privacy.” The case is pending.

Meanwhile, as part of a wider crackdown on dissent, India is intensifying its efforts to surveil and police online content. For the last four years, according to digital rights activists, no country has disrupted or blocked internet access more than India. Last week, Mohammed Zubair, a senior staffer with the fact-check group AltNews, which debunks fake news posted by pro-government accounts, was arrested for a four-year-old tweet.

This is playing out in a country that detained the highest number of journalists last year “since at least 1992,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Last weekend, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Kashmiri photojournalist was prevented from leaving the country for a trip abroad with no explanation given.

U.S. tech firms face a conundrum. They want to champion privacy and speech rights in India, but they also need to maintain access to the critical Indian market. There are nearly 500 million WhatsApp users in India—by far the most of any country. Only the United States and Japan boast more than India’s nearly 24 million Twitter users.

Consequently, to this point, Twitter has walked a tightrope. It has given in to some demands, including placing permanent blocks on more than 500 accounts in February 2021 alone. In recent days, it withheld tweets from dissident journalists, opposition politicians, and even Pakistani government accounts. But it has also pushed back, including by marking some tweets by ruling party members as “manipulated media”—which prompted Indian police to visit Twitter’s offices—and now by suing the government.

Ultimately, Twitter and other major tech firms, much like foreign governments, aim to balance their principled concerns about Indian tech policies with the need to safeguard commercial ties with New Delhi. Which means overlooking a lot—including the irony that India, last month, joined the G-7 countries in signing a statement calling for protections of “freedom of expression and opinion online and offline.”


What We’re Following

U.S. pushes Taliban on rights. A senior interagency delegation from the U.S. State Department, Treasury Department, and Agency for International Development met with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar, on June 29 and 30. According to a State Department readout, women’s rights in Afghanistan were a “central focus” of the meeting—a frequent U.S. talking point in high-level engagements with the Taliban, and rightly so.

In recent weeks, the Taliban have reneged on a promise to allow older girls to go back to school and imposed new restrictions on women’s movement, and they give no indication of changing course. On Friday, reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada reportedly made a rare public appearance to speak at a Taliban conference with 3,000 participants, all men. Tellingly, he warned that outsiders “should not give us their orders, [it] is our system and we have our own decisions.”

U.S. officials are at risk of finding themselves in a definition-of-insanity moment: repeatedly pushing the Taliban to improve women’s rights even though the group has continuously refused. The Taliban are unlikely to change their fundamental ideology, especially with the group’s most hard-line leaders holding the regime’s top positions.

Additionally, Washington lacks leverage to compel the Taliban to change. There is no more U.S. troop presence to use as a bargaining chip, and legal and political barriers at home make it difficult for U.S. officials to dangle formal recognition and financial aid to the Taliban regime as inducements for change. Given the priority that Washington accords to Afghan women’s rights, it will justifiably keep pushing the issue with the Taliban. But how it does so may need a rethink.

India’s Shiv Sena in crisis. One of India’s most powerful and controversial regional political parties faces a major crisis. Shiv Sena has long been a dominant political player in Maharashtra, the richest state in India and also its second-most-populous and third-largest by area. But in recent weeks, many of its lawmakers turned against the party, accusing it of betraying its ideological roots.

Last week, Uddhav Thackeray, the Maharashtra chief minister and son of the party’s founder, resigned from his post. He has been replaced by Eknath Shinde, a leader of the rebel lawmakers. Shinde has effectively vowed to take the mantle of leadership away from the Thackeray family; he says he will petition India’s Election Commission to acquire the party’s name and official symbol.

In the past, Shiv Sena was accused of orchestrating attacks on Indian Muslims (its leaders have sometimes apologized for such attacks), and it has consistently taken a hard line against Pakistan, including forcing the cancellation of public appearances by Pakistani artists and politicians in India. It has previously partnered with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Maharashtra, but in more recent years it has been in a coalition with more moderate parties, which the rebels believe has caused it to veer away from its traditional ideology. Experts believe the BJP helped peel the rebels away; the BJP will now rule Maharashtra in a coalition with Shinde’s faction.

The Thackerays have become the latest political dynasty in South Asia—following ones in India, Pakistan, and most recently Sri Lanka—to find themselves on the defensive. But dynasties in the region are resilient, suggesting the Thackerays will find a way to recover from—or at least survive—this major blow to their power.

Sri Lanka’s IMF talks falter. Ten days of critical negotiations between Sri Lanka’s government and the International Monetary Fund ended last Thursday with no agreement on a new bailout package for the free-falling Sri Lankan economy. The country is suffering through its worst economic crisis since independence, with record-low foreign exchange levels and acute fuel and food shortages. Saddled with $51 billion in foreign debt, Sri Lanka’s economy is expected to contract by up to 6-7 percent this year.

The IMF vows to continue talks. However, Colombo itself admits the road to an agreement isn’t straightforward. On Tuesday, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe—who has been strikingly blunt in his public messaging about the difficulties of economic recovery since taking office in May—told lawmakers that talks will be more difficult than they have been in previous negotiations with the IMF. That’s because in the past, Sri Lanka entered negotiations as a “developing country,” but today it’s a “bankrupt country.”

He noted that because of its bankrupt status, Colombo must first get a new debt sustainability plan approved by the IMF before there can be final talks on a bailout plan.


Under the Radar

In late June, Bangladesh’s government inaugurated the Padma Bridge, a majestic structure that stretches nearly four miles over the Padma River and features a four-lane highway on its upper level and a railway beneath. What also stands out about the bridge is its financing: Its nearly $4 billion price tag was completely funded by the Bangladeshi state.

Foreign donors including the World Bank had initially offered support, but they backed out after concerns about corruption. Bangladeshi officials have predictably projected the bridge as a positive story of self-reliance and perseverance. The bridge, however, did benefit from the technical assistance of a Chinese engineering company.

Above all, the bridge highlights Bangladesh’s remarkable progress with development in recent years. Once one of the most poorly performing economics in the region, it is now one of South Asia’s biggest growth stories. Many have pointed to its macroeconomic growth fueled by a strong textile sector and the economic empowerment of women, and infrastructure is another indicator of success.

Bangladesh will soon be able to brag about not one but two major mega-infrastructure feats. The Bangabandhu Tunnel, which is also receiving Chinese technical support, will be the first underwater tunnel in South Asia. According to tunnel officials, construction is nearly 90 percent complete. This tunnel and the Padma Bridge bring infrastructure but also connectivity to Bangladesh—both of which are in short supply in South Asia.


Regional Voices

Climate expert Hisham Mundol argues in the Hindustan Times that the West fails to understand India’s climate choices: “The climate crisis is caused by actions of the past. This recognition is at the heart of India’s demands for funding for green transitions and climate justice. India and other emerging economies do not want to pay the price for the damage they did not cause.”

Aijaz A. Nizamani, writing in Dawn, calls on his fellow farmers in Pakistan to advocate for better agricultural policies. “While the whole country stands to lose when a policy fails,” he says, “when a policy fails, in the case of freshwater and irrigation, the farmers are the first to feel the effects; it is they who should demand better services.”

Columnist Avasna Pandey discusses in the Kathmandu Post the controversy in Nepal after Ram Kumari Jhakri, a female government official, cried while announcing her resignation: “The fact of the matter is that humans are full of emotions and it is perfectly fine for a woman to cry in public, no matter whether she is a commoner or an outgoing minister of urban development.”

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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