In September 2020, the Narendra Modi-led government faced arguably its biggest challenge since coming to power in 2014. The three farm laws proposed by the Centre sparked a large-scale farmers' protest which was global news for several months.
During the 16-month-long protest, while the government tried to pacify the farmers through several means, it vehemently opposed those criticising the Centre and supporting the farmers.
The list of those who drew the government's ire included journalists, Opposition leaders, activists, cultural groups, and even ordinary citizens. In their case, the Centre's bite turned out to be worse than its bark.
And that's where Twitter played a massive role.
Despite the farmers protest having ended over two years ago, and seemingly becoming a thing of the past, former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said on Monday, 12 June, that he faced "pressure" from the Indian government during the protests in 2021.
Dorsey, who served as the CEO of Twitter from 2015 to 2021, alleged in an interview with YouTube channel Breaking Point on Monday that the Indian government had "threatened" to shut down the website in the country and "raid the offices of its employees" if it did not toe the line and block tweets of "particular journalists that were critical of the government."
"India is a country that had many requests around the farmers’ protest, around particular journalists that were critical of the government. It manifested in ways such as, ‘We will shut Twitter down in India’ - which is a very large market for us, ‘We will raid the homes of your employees’ – which they did, ‘We will shut down your offices’ – if you don’t follow suit. And this is India, a democratic country. Turkey is very similar."Jack Dorsey, former Twitter CEO
What Went Down Between the Centre & Twitter During Farmers Protest?
On 1 February 2021 – when the farmers protest was at its peak – Twitter withheld as many as 250 accounts for allegedly tweeting against the Central government over the latter's handling of the protests.
The accounts that were blocked include several prominent ones, including those belonging to Kisan Ekta Morcha, The Caravan, CPI(M) leader Md Salim, Manik Goyal, and Tractor2twitr. The action was taken after the Indian government reportedly sent legal content takedown requests to the platform.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) had directed Twitter to block accounts which the government claimed were using the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide and making "fake, intimidatory and provocative tweets" on 30 January 2021.
The action had come close on the heels of clashes between the Delhi Police and farmers on Republic Day in 2021. However, many of the accounts were restored by Twitter hours later, citing "insufficient justification."
Twitter later received a slap on the wrist from the government, with the IT Ministry warning the platform of legal consequences for not complying with the takedown orders issued under the IT Act.
The Centre also said that Twitter is free to do business in India but it must respect local laws.
"In India, we value freedom and we value criticism because it is part of our democracy. But freedom of expression is not absolute and it is subject to reasonable restrictions," the Centre had said in a statement in February 2021.
It also criticised the microblogging site for "the manner in which Twitter has unwillingly, grudgingly and with great delay complied with the substantial parts of the order."
However, Twitter drew a line in the sand.
In a blog post, the company said that it would not take action against accounts that belonged to media organisations, journalists, activists or politicians, arguing that they did not believe that the orders to block them were consistent with Indian laws.
"Because we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law, and, in keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians."Twitter's statement
The pinnacle of tensions between the Centre and Twitter was, however, reached on 25 May 2021 – when the company's offices in Delhi and Gurugram were "visited" by officials from the Delhi Police’s Special Cell, which operates under the aegis of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs.
The company was served a notice over the labelling of tweets by Bharatiya Janata Party national spokesperson Sambit Patra and some other leaders of the ruling party as "manipulated media."
The tweet by Patra on 20 May 2021 had alleged the use of a "toolkit" used by the Congress during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to defame PM Modi. The police had asked Twitter to provide information on the material they had on the basis of which they had concluded so.
Later in June 2021, Twitter was ordered to 'geo-restrict' four accounts – California Sikh Youth Alliance, hip-hop artist L-Fresh the Lion, and singers Jazzy B and Tarandeep Guraya.
Geo-restriction means that the IP addresses of such accounts are restricted and that they can be accessed only outside the country.
As per TechCrunch, all four accounts had protested against New Delhi’s agriculture reforms and some had posted tweets that criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi directly.
In the same month, several tweets alleging a decline in press freedom in India, were removed in response to a legal demand by MEITY. The withheld accounts included those of journalist Rana Ayyub, members of the Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Pakistani government officials.
A number of Sikh-run Twitter accounts, which were extremely active during the farmers' protest, were also withheld shortly after the government banned late Punjabi singer Sidhu Moose Wala's song SYL on YouTube in June 2021.
Govt Slams Dorsey's Allegations
Meanwhile, the Centre has not taken Dorsey's latest damning allegations lying down.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Union minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology, said that Dorsey's statements were an "outright lie" and that he was attempting to "brush out that very dubious period of twitters history."
"Twitter under Dorsey and his team were in repeated and continuous violations of India law. As a matter of fact, they were in non-compliance with law repeatedly from 2020 to 2022 and it was only June 2022 when they finally complied. No one went to jail nor was Twitter 'shutdown'."Union MoS Rajeev Chandrashekhar
Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur seconded Chandrashekhar's rebuttal, saying that Dorsey "woke up after years of sleep and wants to cover up his misdeeds."
However, Opposition parties targeted the government with fresh ammunition over the controversy.
While Congress Rajya Sabha MP Randeep Singh Surjewala demanded answers from the government, Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray told news agency ANI: "I have seen how the democracy of the country and freedom are under threat and how democracy is being strangulated behind the curtain. This makes it clear."
Politician and lawyer Kapil Sibal said that there is "no reason to doubt Dorsey's comments."
"First of all, I would like to know, why would Jack Dorsey make such a statement? Rajeev Chandrasekhar says that this is a lie. Why would he tell a lie? There is no reason for Jack Dorsey to tell a lie that they threatened Twitter when the protests were going on, that they would shut their offices and raid the then Twitter employees...There is every reason for others to tell a lie because they can't accept this."Former Congress leader Kapil Sibal
Further, an independent journalist whose Twitter account was withheld during the farmers protest spoke out after Dorsey's allegations.
Sandeep Singh, who goes by the username @PunYaab, said, "In January, 2021, My Twitter account had 42 million impressions. After that there were several restriction put on my account. In the name of sensitive content, Twitter did not show my tweets to many people. People who used to search for (my) account got this warning (image below)."
(With inputs from ANI.)