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Iyengar: Trouble brews in world's largest democracy

The Bharatiya Janata Party's candidate for prime minister,

The Bharatiya Janata Party's candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi, greets supporters at the BJP's state headquarters in Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, India, on Friday, May 16, 2014. Modi, the top official in Gujarat, will become prime minister as his party heads for a landslide win in the national election, partial results showed Friday. Photo Credit: EPA / Divyakant Solanki

In a troubling indication of things to come, new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is increasingly squashing dissent since he took office on May 26.

Several people have been arrested in different parts of the country after posting anti-Modi comments on Facebook, Twitter and other forums, which is ironic considering that a robust social media strategy was a cornerstone of Modi's overwhelming electoral success.

Following a historic six-week election, India elected Modi as its 15th prime minister on May 16. His Bharatiya Janata Party won 282 of the 545 seats in parliament, the first single-party majority since 1984.

Modi is a highly polarizing figure. On one hand, he is seen as the answer to all of India's economic problems and the antithesis of the previous government's inefficient, corrupt tenure. But the right-wing leanings of his party and his own authoritarian tendencies make several people apprehensive about his position at the helm of the country.

Modi's role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, which took place under his rule as that state's chief minister and resulted in the deaths of nearly 800 Muslims, is a controversy that has never fully dissipated. This is in spite of India's Supreme Court finding him not guilty of accusations that he stood by and allowed communal violence to take place.

When the election results came in on May 16, my friends in the Indian media were more concerned about something else entirely -- the implications for freedom of speech. Modi's totalitarian reputation indicates that dissent against him of any kind will not be tolerated, and the signs during his first month in office are worrying.

A naval engineer who posted anti-Modi comments on Facebook was arrested under suspicion of a "larger game plan to promote communal and social disharmony." An author who posted similar comments on Twitter met a similar fate, and had his account shut down by the police.

This crackdown on dissent isn't limited to public forums. An MBA student was charged with making anti-Modi comments on a instant-messaging service called WhatsApp, as were several students and teachers of two colleges for defamatory depictions of the prime minister in their respective college magazines.

The situation in India should be a cause for concern for the United States, where freedom of speech is a pre-eminent value. Now Modi's U.S. visa -- revoked in 2005 for his perceived role in the Gujarat riots -- has been reinstated, and he is set to visit Washington in September to begin the next chapter in Indo-U.S. relations. The Indian government's attitude toward debate and dissent should definitely be one of the topics of discussion. In a conversation between the world's largest democracy and the world's oldest one, a fundamental democratic ideal cannot be swept under the rug.

Rishi Iyengar is a summer intern for Newsday Opinion. He grew up in Pune, India, and co-founded -- a single-subject website on the Indian election -- during his time at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.


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