The Indian government last week launched an extraordinary campaign to prevent its citizens from watching a new documentary by the British broadcaster that investigates Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in a deadly 2002 riot that saw more than 1,000 people – mostly Muslims – killed. .
Indian officials, invoking emergency powers, ordered clips of the documentary to be censored on social media, including YouTube and Twitter. The Foreign Office spokesman criticized the BBC production as a “propaganda piece” made with a “colonial mentality”. One deputy minister from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) declared that watching the film amounted to “treason”.
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On Tuesday evening, authorities cut power to the student union hall at New Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in an attempt to prevent the film from being screened – a move that only prompted defiant students across the country to try to host more viewings.
When students from another college in the Indian capital – Jamia Millia Islamia University – announced their own plans on Wednesday to watch the film, Delhi police stepped in to detain the organizers. Rows of riot police armed with tear gas were also dispatched to the campus, according to witnesses and smartphone photos they shared.
Overall, the remarkable steps taken by the government seemed to reinforce a central point of the BBC series: that the world’s largest democracy has slipped into authoritarianism under Modi, who rose to national power in 2014 and won re-election in 2019 on a Hindu nationalist platform. .
Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia-Pacific policy director of digital rights group Access Now, said the episode should “bring more attention” to the “dangerous situation” of eroding civil liberties in India. The government has become “much more effective and aggressive” in blocking content during moments of national political debate, he said.
“How is it acceptable for India, as a democracy, to order so much internet censorship in the country?” Chima said. “You have to look at this incident as part of a cumulative wave of censorship.”
The controversy began on 17 January when the BBC aired the first part of its two-part documentary, ‘India: The Modi Question’.
In the hour-long first segment, the BBC focused on the early career and his rise of the Indian leader through the influential Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It focused on his tenure as leader of Gujarat, a state that exploded into violence in 2002 after the murder of 59 Hindu pilgrims in a train fire. The killings were blamed on Muslim perpetrators, and Hindu mobs retaliated by rampaging through Muslim communities.
In its documentary, the BBC uncovered British diplomatic cables from 2002 which compared the paroxysm of murder, rape and destruction of homes to “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 suggested that Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that led to its outbreak, according to the document. movie .
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While the film revealed the existence of the diplomatic cables for the first time, it did not level any stunning allegations against the Indian leader. For two decades, Modi has been dogged by criticism that he allowed the riots to rage, and it was in 2013 that an Indian Supreme Court panel ruled there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him.
In 2005, the State Department denied Modi a US visa because of his alleged role in the riots – although he was later welcomed by successive US administrations who saw him as a linchpin of American foreign policy in Asia.
Modi has consistently denied any wrongdoing related to his handling of the 2002 events.
The documentary was broadcast last week only in the UK and not in India, but the Modi government’s response was swift and furious.
Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Arindam Bagchi attacked the BBC for producing a “propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative.” He accused the broadcaster of maintaining a political agenda and a “perpetual colonial mentality”.
An adviser to India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Kanchan Gupta, also announced that the ministry had issued a directive under a 2021 law to censor all social media posts sharing the documentary.
“Videos sharing BBC World hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage, disguised as a ‘documentary’ on YouTube, and tweets sharing links to the BBC documentary were blocked under India’s sovereign laws and rules,” Gupta said in a tweet. He added that both YouTube and Twitter, which was recently acquired by Elon Musk, complied with the orders.
In a statement, the BBC said its documentary had been “rigorously investigated” and the Indian government declined to offer comment for the piece.
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Before the weekend, Indians could only 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 New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University for a widely publicized 9pm show, defying warnings from university administrators to cancel the event or face disciplinary action. Hundreds of students flocked to the student union, only to be thwarted 30 minutes before the scheduled time when the electricity was cut, plunging the hall into darkness, said Anagha Pradeep, a doctoral student in political science.
Instead of watching the documentary on a projector, they shared links to download the film on their phones to watch as a group, she said.
Soon after that, students were attacked by members of the youth wing of the RSS Hindu nationalist group, Pradeep said. University administrators blamed the power outage on a faulty power line, according to local media.
By Wednesday, student groups from Kerala in southern India to West Bengal in the east had announced their plans to hold vigils. At Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, administrators stopped all unauthorized gatherings after police arrested several students for planning to screen the documentary, local outlets reported.
Aishe Ghosh, the leader of the JNU student union, said the pushback from campuses showed that India is “still breathing. [as] democracy.”
“What’s the problem if a large number of Indians see it?” Ghosh said by phone on Wednesday from inside a metro station where she was hiding to avoid arrest.
“They will see through the propaganda if it’s there,” she said. “What we get is more and more censorship.”