On May 26, Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s new Prime Minister after his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory in the country’s general elections. The newly minted Prime Minister Modi has generated great expectations, as well as great trepidation. In some quarters, Modi is seen as a powerful economic reformer who has the drive to kick-start the economy and make much needed improvements to the country’s infrastructure. In others, Modi is notorious for his connection to the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the state of Gujarat, in which at least 1,000 people were killed and around 200,000 people were displaced. Modi was chief minister of Gujarat at the time of the riots. 

The BJP is a hard-line Hindu nationalist party, and Modi’s election has raised concerns—including those eloquently voiced by Salman Rushdie at PEN’s 2014 World Voices Festival—about respect for human rights under his government. Among other issues, numerous reports have emerged of journalists and press outlets coming under pressure for criticizing Modi or the BJP, a troubling indicator for the future of press freedom and free speech in India. 

Both during the run-up to the general election and after the BJP’s victory, print and TV journalists reported feeling pressure from management to refrain from criticizing Modi, and one TV show host was fired after making public comments encouraging people to think before voting for Modi. Supporters of Hindu nationalist groups have allegedly attacked people and damaged property in response to social media postings perceived as insulting or disrespectful. In one horrific incident, Hindu extremists in Maharashtra who were angered by a Facebook post displaying altered pictures of a Hindu warrior and a Hindu political leader allegedly bludgeoned a young Muslim man to death.  BJP supporters have also used social media to attack and threaten journalists who are critical of Modi. Apparently, no comment is too minor to provoke retribution. Nine students in Kerala were recently arrested for publishing a crossword puzzle in their college magazine that connected Modi’s name with the term “son of a bitch” (the puzzle also took aim at other Indian political figures). 

Although Modi’s Minister of Information and Broadcasting promised in May that the government will not interfere with freedom of the press, many are not convinced. Hostility towards anyone offering a critical view of Modi or the BJP has reached such a pitch that on June 7, a coalition of civil society activists and prominent individuals issued a statement calling on Modi to protect free speech and take action against the “continuing atmosphere of intolerance and fear that threatens our democracy.”

Respect for free expression and a vibrant, critical press are cornerstones of any democracy. This wave of attacks on press freedom and free speech may be a foreshadowing of dark days to come under Modi. But the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy also has a chance to surprise his critics and strengthen human rights by making a forceful statement condemning all efforts to censor or otherwise intimidate critics of his government and enforcing the rule of law to hold accountable anyone who does so.