The Bharatiya Janata Party government in India is trying to suppress a BBC documentary on Modi


NEW DELHI – The film has already been banned, and its social media posts have been censored. Now, students without lights or electricity have gathered around glowing smartphones to watch what their government considers subversive foreign propaganda.

China? No, they were in India, ostensibly the largest democracy in the world, and they were watching the BBC.

Over the past week, the Indian government has embarked on an extraordinary campaign to stop its citizens from watching a new BBC documentary that explores Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in deadly 2002 riots that killed more than 1,000 people – most of them Muslims. .

Indian officials, invoking emergency powers, ordered clips from the documentary on social media platforms including YouTube and Twitter to be censored. A Foreign Office spokesperson criticized the BBC production as a “propaganda piece” made with a “colonial mentality”. A state minister from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party declared that watching the film amounted to “treason”.

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And on Tuesday night, authorities cut electricity to the Students’ Union Hall at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in a bid to prevent the film from being shown – a move that has students across the country defying to try to host more viewings.

When students at another college in the Indian capital — Jamia Islamia University — announced their own plans on Wednesday to see the film, Delhi police swooped in to arrest the organizers. Lines of riot police armed with tear gas were also dispatched to campus, according to witnesses and smartphone photos they shared.

Finally, the government’s impressive steps seem to reinforce a central point in the BBC series: that the world’s largest democracy has been sliding into authoritarianism under Modi, who rose to national power in 2014 and won re-election in 2019 on a Hindu nationalist platform. .

Raman Jeet Singh Cheema, Asia Pacific policy director for digital rights group Access Now, said the episode should “pay more attention” to the “grave situation” of eroding civil liberties in India. He said the government has become “more active and aggressive” in blocking content during moments of national political debate.

“How is it acceptable for India, as a democracy, to demand such a large amount of web censorship in the country?” Shima said. “You have to look at this incident as part of a cumulative wave of censorship.”

The controversy began on January 17, when the BBC aired the first part of its two-part documentary, “India: The Modi Question”.

In the hour-long first part, the BBC focused on the Indian leader’s early career and rise through the influential Hindu nationalist organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It focused on his tenure as president of Gujarat, a state that erupted into violence in 2002 after 59 Hindu pilgrims were killed in a train fire. The murders were blamed on the Muslim perpetrators, and the Hindu mob responded by resenting the Muslim communities.

In its documentary, the BBC revealed British diplomatic cables from 2002 that likened the bout of killings, rape and house destruction to the “ethnic cleansing” of Gujarat’s Muslims. British officials also concluded that the mob violence was pre-planned by Hindu nationalist groups “under the protection of the state government” and further noted that Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that led to it, according to the documentary. .

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And while the film revealed the existence of the diplomatic cables for the first time, it made no groundbreaking allegations against the Indian leader. For two decades Modi has delayed criticism that he has allowed riots to flare up, and in 2013 India’s Supreme Court bench ruled there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him.

In 2005, the State Department denied Modi a US visa over his alleged role in the riots – though he was later welcomed by successive US administrations who viewed him as a mainstay of US foreign policy in Asia.

Modi has consistently denied any wrongdoing in connection with his handling of the events of 2002.

The documentary only aired last week in Britain and not in India, but the Modi government’s response has been swift and sharp.

India’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi, criticized the BBC for producing “a propaganda piece aimed at promoting a certain discredited narrative”. He accused the broadcaster of maintaining a political agenda and a “persistent colonial mentality”.

Kanchan Gupta, advisor to India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, also announced that the ministry has issued a directive under the 2021 Act to censor all social media posts that publish the documentary.

In a tweet, Gupta said, “Videos sharing BBC global propaganda and anti-India rubbish, disguised as ‘documentary’ on YouTube, and tweets sharing links to BBC documentary, are banned under India’s sovereign laws and rules.” He added that both YouTube and Twitter, which were recently acquired by Elon Musk, have complied with the orders.

The BBC said in a statement that its documentary had been “rigorously researched” and the Indian government declined to comment on the piece.

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By the end of the week, only Indians could share the film on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, and watch copies stored on cloud services or on physical thumb drives.

On Tuesday evening, students gathered at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi for a widely publicized 9pm performance, defying warnings from university officials to cancel the event or face disciplinary action. Hundreds of students flocked to the Student Union, only to be thwarted 30 minutes ahead of schedule when the electricity went out, plunging the hall into darkness, said Anaga Pradeep, a doctoral student in political science.

Instead of watching the documentary on a projector, they shared links to download the film to their phones to watch as a group, she said.

Shortly thereafter, Pradeep said, the students were attacked by members of the youth wing of the Hindu nationalist group RSS. Local media said university officials blamed the outage on a faulty electrical line.

By Wednesday, student groups from Kerala in southern India to West Bengal in the east had announced their plans to host scenes. At the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, local media reported that officials stopped all unauthorized gatherings after several students were detained by police over planning to screen the documentary.

Ayesha Ghosh, president of the JNU Students’ Union, said the retreat from the campus showed that India “is still breathing [as] democracy.”

“What’s the problem if a large number of Indians watch it?” Ghosh said by phone on Wednesday from inside a subway station where she had been hiding to avoid arrest.

“They will see through the publicity if it is there,” she said. “What we’re getting is more and more censorship.”

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