Over the past week, a BBC documentary chronicling the career of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sparked controversy in India. Left and progressive forces, including student organizations, have been holding screenings of the documentary. Meanwhile, the government has been going all out to block its viewing in India.
On Tuesday, January 24, New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a leading academic institution in India, was plunged into darkness due to a power blackout and the internet was cut off. The power outage was reported just as students were gathering for a screening of a BBC documentary titled “India: The Modi Question,” organized by the JNU Students’ Union. Students across several universities in India have been organizing screenings of the series over the past week, defying repression from the authorities.
Released last week, the two-part documentary traces the political trajectory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, including his association with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a far-right Hindu nationalist organization, his rise through the now ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and, crucially, his response to the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat as the State’s chief minister. The riots that took place in Gujarat 21 years ago saw the killing of more than 1,000 people over three days (according to official reports), an overwhelming majority of whom were Muslim. Another 2,500 people were injured.
Left and progressive forces in India have always accused Modi of being complicit in the riots even as courts have punished functionaries of the BJP and RSS-affiliated organizations but have not held him personally responsible. A new revelation by the BBC documentary was a previously “restricted” report of an inquiry by the UK government into the Gujarat violence. The report notes that the violence was “planned, possibly in advance, and politically motivated,” with the aim “to purge Muslims from Hindu areas.”
“The attack on the train at Godhra [in which around 60 Hindus were killed] on 27 February provided the pretext. If it had not occurred, another one would have been found,” the document reads.
It adds that the violence was led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a “Hindu extremist organization, under the protection of the state Government.” According to the report, the extent of the violence was “much greater than reported with at least 2,000 people killed” and “widespread and systematic rape of Muslim women, sometimes by police.” Around 138,000 people were displaced and forced to live across 70 refugee camps, of whom almost 100,000 were Muslim. There was also the systematic targeting of Muslim businesses. the report said.
Calling the carnage a “systematic campaign of violence” by Hindu extremist groups, the report claims that it had “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.” “Chief Minister Narendra Modi is directly responsible,” the report adds.
The BBC documentary comes months after the Supreme Court of India rejected a plea filed by Zakia Jafri, the spouse of former Member of Parliament Ehsan Jafri who was killed during the 2002 riot, challenging the clean chit given to Modi and others by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) against allegations of a larger conspiracy in the violence.
The response from the Indian government to the documentary was immediate, with the foreign ministry dismissing it as a “propaganda piece.” The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) ordered Twitter and YouTube to remove links to the documentary, and both platforms swiftly complied. MIB senior adviser Kanchan Gupta confirmed on Twitter that the government had invoked emergency powers granted under Rule 16 of the Information Technology Rules.
Multiple news reports suggest that @MIB_India has ordered social media platforms to take down versions of a #BBCDocumentary titled “India: The Modi Question”.
The ministry has reportedly exercised emergency censorship powers under Rule 16 of the IT Rules, 2021.
— Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) (@internetfreedom) January 21, 2023
The second episode of the documentary, which aired in the UK on January 24, looked more closely at Modi’s time in power since first winning the national elections in 2014. Among the issues examined include the growing cases of lynchings against Muslims with the rise of “cow vigilantism”, the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019 under which Jammu and Kashmir had been granted a special status, and the mass protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the sectarian violence that took place in Delhi during that period in 2020.
A day before the documentary’s first episode was set to be screened at JNU, the administration had warned students against the event, claiming that “such an unauthorized activity might disturb the peace and harmony on campus.” On January 24, just minutes before the screening was to begin, the electricity was cut.
While the union government’s education ministry claimed that JNU had reported “massive power failure” on Tuesday, this was deemed highly unusual. Students alleged that power and internet had been cut off deliberately to stop the screening. Despite the lingering threats, students watched the documentary on laptops and phones.
According to a ground report by Newsclick, as the blackout continued, stones were suddenly hurled at the crowd. Several students as well as the JNUSU stated that the attack was initiated by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student organization affiliated to the RSS, which is the parent organization of the ruling BJP. Many students were left injured, following which hundreds marched to the nearby police station to register a complaint.
JNUSU President Aishe Ghosh told the Washington Post that “the pushback from university campuses was a sign that India was ‘still breathing [as] a democracy’.”
The next day, on January 25, the Delhi Police announced that they had arrested four student activists after a unit of the left-wing Students’ Federation of India (SFI) at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi announced that it would screen the documentary.
University authorities warned against the event, stating that no permission had been sought, and threatened disciplinary action. According to the authorities, measures were being taken “to prevent people/organizations having a vested interest to destroy the peaceful academic atmosphere of the university.”
The Rapid Action Force, the anti-riot unit of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), under the Ministry of Home Affairs, was deployed at the university on Wednesday just as students were gathering to protest the arrests. The internet was also cut off. The Press Trust of India (PTI) reported that 70 students had been detained by the police.
Leaders of @Fraternity_movt and @SFI_CEC were detained by the police Over BBC Film Screening at Jamia#BBCDocumentary pic.twitter.com/uH2q1qUKyM
— Ahmed Kasim (@Kassuism) January 25, 2023
While a majority of students were released by the evening, SFI stated on January 26 that 13 students, including four of its members, were still in detention. Meanwhile, later that day, the organization was able to successfully hold a screening of the documentary at the University of Hyderabad in the State of Telengana, with over 400 students in attendance.
.@SfiHcu organised the screening of the BBC documentary at University of Hyderabad campus on Thursday.@TheSouthfirst pic.twitter.com/UIlqc2MH1b
— Sumit Jha (@sumitjha__) January 26, 2023
SFI had also held screenings at several educational institutions in the State of Kerala, including at the Cochin University of Science and Technology and Government Law College, on January 24. The Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), a left-wing youth organization, also held a screening in the city of Thiruvananthapuram, as did the Youth Congress affiliated with the opposition Indian National Congress party.
Meanwhile, things have remained tense in the national capital. On Friday, January 27, students at Ambedkar University reported that electricity had been cut off at the campus ahead of a screening scheduled by SFI. They added that the cloth used to screen the documentary had been removed by the administration. Students added that ABVP members had also tried to cause disruption by playing religious music.
As students approached the main gate of the campus in protest, it was closed by the administration, while police were present on the premises. There were also reports that students’ bags were checked at the gate. However, SFI later confirmed that people had successfully watched the documentary on their personal devices.
Shortly after, it was reported that the police had started detaining students in the North Campus of Delhi University ahead of two screenings had been planned for Friday—one at 4 pm by the INC-affiliated National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), and another at 5 pm by the Bhim Army Student Federation, affiliated to the Ambedkarite organization Bhim Army.
By 5 pm, Section 144 of India’s Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPc), which prohibits the assembly of three or more people, was imposed in the university’s Faculty of Arts, where the second screening was to take place. As students tried to screen the documentary in the premises, security guards rushed in and began detaining them.
It was reported that students detained by the police from the North Campus were released a few hours later. More screenings of the documentary were organized by students in other parts of the country, including in Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, over the weekend. Meanwhile, it was reported that 11 students had been suspended for “indiscipline” at the Central University of Rajasthan after they had allegedly gathered to watch the documentary, prompting condemnation.
The Supreme Court of India has now agreed to hear two petitions challenging the ban on the documentary. The first, filed by Advocate M L Sharma, seeks to overturn the “malafide, arbitrary, and unconstitutional” decision by the MIB to block the documentary.
The plea asks whether the central government can invoke emergency powers in the absence of an Emergency being declared by the President under Article 352 of the constitution. The petition has also called for an examination of the documentary, and for proper action to be taken “against the accused persons who were responsible,” or directly or indirectly involved in the 2002 pogrom.
The second petition challenging the ban was filed by rights activist Prashant Bhushan, journalist N Ram, and Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra, arguing that the central government’s decision violates the right to free speech, right to information, and freedom of the press.
The plea also raises questions about the central government’s decision to invoke emergency powers under the IT rules, stating: “criticism of the Government or its policies does not tantamount to violating sovereignty and integrity.” The Court has listed both petitions for Monday, February 6.