Why Did Facebook and Instagram Ban #Sikh on the Anniversary of an Infamous Massacre?

Screenshot from @Sikh2Inspire via Twitter.

In June of 1984, the Indian Army, under direct orders from then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, invaded the Golden Temple complex. The attack was well-planned as it came during the martyrdom anniversary of Guru Arjan when thousands of Sikhs were planning to make a pilgrimage to the city of Amritsar and the gurdwara. On June 3rd, 1984, the Sikh-dominated state of Punjab was cut off from the rest of the world as a total media blackout and suspension of all methods of communications was enforced. Thousands of Sikhs lost their lives as the battle for Amritsar continued for several days. 

Throughout the entire process, the media served as the mouthpiece of the government. Communications scholar, Saifuddin Ahmed, notes that “since the beginning of the problems in Punjab, the government had strict control on the media and imposed heavy censorship. The Indian government acted as a strict visible gatekeeper… which projected a one-sided, carefully selected perspective.” So years later, when social media provided an unmediated platform, Sikhs eagerly joined to share their voices. Every year on the anniversary of the June 1984 attacks, thousands of Sikhs use social media to educate individuals about the truth behind the atrocities that occurred and the ongoing oppression at the hands of the Indian government against religious minorities. 

This year, on June 3, thirty-six years to the day since India cut off Punjab from the rest of the world, Sikhs discovered that Facebook and Instagram had banned the #Sikh hashtag and began hiding posts that included it. @Sikh2Inspire first brought the issue to light on the morning of June 3, tweetingThe blocking of #Sikh by @instagram at a time when #Sikhs are remembering the atrocities of 1984. We ask you @instagram what the reason for this blocking is, to suppress the truth?” 

Facebook’s warning, titled “Keeping Our Community Safe,” read: “Posts with #sikh are currently hidden here. Some content in those posts goes against our Community Standards.” Instagram for its part informed users that its ban was due to “unusual activity that may not meet Instagram’s Community Guidelines.” An entire community, one that is already marginalized, had been banned from using #Sikh on the anniversary of an atrocity whose accomplice was the silencing of the community’s voice. 

On May 29th, just days before #Sikh was censored, Mark Zuckerberg had defended his refusal to take action against Trump’s postsone of which quoted a segregationist police chief that “when the looting starts the shooting starts”and concluded with “I disagree strongly with how the President spoke about this, but I believe people should be able to see this for themselves, because ultimately accountability for those in positions of power can only happen when their speech is scrutinized out in the open.” 

The irony was noted by many, including Canadian poet, Rupi Kaur, who tweeted “the hypocrisy of @facebook’s approach to free speech: zuckerberg says fb’s principles prohibit him from blocking trump as he incites violence & hate. meanwhile as sikhs raise their voice to mark the injustices of 1984: sikh hashtags are blocked. @instagramcomms do better.”

Every June, during the anniversary of Operation Blue Star and the Indian Army’s attack on the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, Sikhs across the world share photos and posts on social media to not only educate those unaware of the incidents, but to hold those in positions of power accountable. The very same platform that Zuckerberg preached would hold the powers-that-be accountable had silenced the voices of an entire community during a painful time. The ban was ultimately lifted by Instagram and Facebook roughly 8 hours after it was discovered as the Sikh community kept pushing for answers. 

Despite the removal of the ban, Sikh community leaders and organizations are speaking with Facebook and Instagram to uncover the reason behind it; why #Sikh goes against community guidelines and why an entire hashtagnot just individualswas banned. On their Facebook page, United Sikhs wrote that they were:

“distressed and appalled that the hashtag #Sikh was blocked on Instagram and Facebook. The timing of this censoring by Facebook is suspicious as the hashtag in question has been taken down when the world is expressing solidarity on the 36th anniversary of the June 1984 Sikh Genocide.” 

Although both social media platforms have a history of banning hashtags, unlike Instagram, there’s no way to access which hashtags have been banned by Facebook. And while the story is still unfolding, it’s suspicious, as United Sikhs noted, that this happened during the anniversary of the Indian government’s June 1984 attack on the Sikhs’ holiest shrine. 

The government of India has a history of censoring communities and dialogues surrounding state-sponsored violence against religious minorities. And, while they silence the voices of dissent, government officials and Hindu nationalists have, like so many governments with authoritarian tendencies, used the media to reinforce their ideologies and justify their actions. The one-sided narrative on the atrocities of 1984 was beginning to unravel as the Sikh community has raised awareness through social media, which is why it seems so unlikely that these bans are merely coincidental. 

Instagram stated that they will take necessary steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again, but the Sikh community is still waiting for more definitive answers as to why #Sikh was banned in the first place and how exactly it violated community guidelines. Through updates on Twitter, Instagram explained that the hashtags were “mistakenly blocked on March 7th following a report that was inaccurately reviewed by our teams.” But since when has an entire religious community’s posts violated community guidelines? And how is it that one report had the power to silence an entire community?

Also, consider that, since 2015, when Zuckerberg hosted a town hall meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Facebook has shared an intimate connection with India, which happens to be the largest market for Facebook outside of the United States. Many Sikhs in the diaspora have, in fact, been concerned about this relationship for some time as Modi, who was complicit in the 2002 Gujarat riots and embraces a Hindu nationalist agenda, continues the systemic oppression against religious minorities in India. 

Did this relationship result in #Sikh being banned as part of a larger Hindu nationalist agenda to silence Sikh voices? The timing of the action and Facebook’s relationship with Indiaalong with the history Sikhs have with the Indian governmentmakes it difficult to believe that this was merely a coincidence, rather than a deliberate attempt to suppress the voice of an entire religious community. 

Facebook and Instagram have allowed hate speech and other questionable posts to continue for yearsnotoriously so in recent daysbut banning an entire community raises serious concerns and deserves an adequate response from the leaders of these powerful platforms. Sadly, to this point, efforts to learn more have been met with nothing but silence; a sound that Sikhs recall only too well.