Following government directives, on 14 January, Facebook blocked Atheist Republic’s page in India. On 11 October 2020, Twitter had suspended the account of its founder Armin Navabi. Atheist Republic is one of the largest online groups of non-believers worldwide, with a website and a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Trying to access the organisation’s Facebook page from India yields the message that it is not available or that the link may be broken. Atheist Republic shot to prominence when Navabi, an Iranian-Canadian who has renounced religion, released an image of the Hindu deity Kali in September 2020, which right-wing groups considered provocative. Following the incident there was a torrent of targeted online attacks against Navabi and technology platforms like Facebook, which were seen as instrumental in disseminating the image.
Facebook confirmed to me that Atheist Republic had been blocked at the government’s behest. “In compliance with a direction of the Government, we have restricted access to the page https://www.facebook.com/AtheistRepublic in India,” a Facebook spokesperson told me by email. The contents of the government directive are not yet clear. According to Facebook’s transparency rules, if something is reported as violating local law, and yet does not go against community standards, the social network retains the right to restrict that content on Facebook and Instagram. Restricting a page effectively means blocking it from all viewers. Susanna McIntrye, the president and CEO of Atheist Republic, sent me screenshots of a correspondence with Twitter that suggests that the suspension of Navabi’s account followed a request by Indian law enforcement. McIntyre’s twitter account has also been suspended.
After the release of the image, on 4 September 2020, Vinod Bansal, the spokesperson of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—filed a complaint with the Delhi and Mumbai police against Twitter for allowing the dissemination of “derogatory comments.” Kangana Ranaut—a Bollywood actor known to hound critics of the Indian government online—attacked Navabi and his mother on Twitter. Vineet Jindal, a Delhi-based lawyer, filed two lawsuits in response to Navabi’s actions. A writ petition filed in the Supreme Court in October in response to the image sought directions to regulate social-media platforms and hold Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram responsible for spreading hate speech. Another writ petition was filed in January and made Facebook India and the department of telecommunications—under the ministry of communications—respondents. It asked for a permanent injunction restraining Facebook from publishing, broadcasting, distributing or disseminating derogatory or defamatory material. It is following the second suit that Facebook seems to have blocked the page in India.
Atheist Republic describes itself as a community of “godless heathens” who share their views and help each other express their atheism. “We are atheists and proud of it,” their Facebook page states. “We will not apologize for what we do and don’t believe. We will not rename ourselves to hide from hatred. And we will not stay isolated in fear of being demonized when united. We can’t stay silent while witnessing cruelty and injustice, because we are not just atheists- we are atheists that care.” The Atheist Republic page on Facebook has 2.35 million followers while their Twitter handle has 1,30,000 followers.
McIntyre said in an email that their Facebook page was blocked in India on 14 January 2021. Jindal’s petition mentioned that while the Kali image was the main reason behind pursuing the matter legally, rumours that circulated on social media leading to anti-Muslim violence also showed the necessity of reigning in tech platforms. The examples of violence sparked by rumours included the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots and a 2014 incident in western Maharashtra where morphed images of medieval Hindu kings led to a right-wing Hindu organisations rioting.