NEW DELHI – Days after India blocked a BBC documentary that examines Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role during 2002 anti-Muslim riots and banned people from sharing it online, authorities were scrambling to halt screenings of the program at colleges and restrict clips of it on social media, a move that has been decried by critics as an assault on press freedom.
The two-part documentary “India: The Modi Question” has not been broadcast in India by the BBC, but India’s federal government blocked it over the weekend and banned people from sharing clips on social media, citing emergency powers under its information technology laws. Twitter and YouTube complied with the request and removed many links to the documentary.
The ban set off a wave of criticism from opposition parties and rights groups that slammed it as an attack against press freedom. It also drew more attention to the documentary, sparking scores of social media users to share clips of the movie on WhatsApp, Telegram and Twitter.
Press freedom in India has declined in recent years and the country fell eight places, to 150 out of 180 countries, in last year’s Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. It accuses Modi’s government of silencing criticism on social media, particularly on Twitter.
Senior leaders of the governing party have denied this, even as Modi's government has regularly pressured Twitter to restrict or ban content it deems critical of the prime minister or his party. Last year, it threatened to arrest Twitter staff in the country over their refusal to ban accounts run by critics after implementing sweeping new regulations for technology and social media companies.
Meanwhile, the ban prompted critics of Twitter to accuse the company of censorship.
Twitter CEO Elon Musk tweeted back to one such accusation “First I've heard. It is not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter worldwide overnight, while still running Tesla and SpaceX, among other things."
The ban on the BBC documentary comes after a proposal from the government to give its Press Information Bureau and other “fact-checking” agencies powers to take down news deemed “fake or false” from digital platforms. The Editors Guild of India urged the government to withdraw the proposal, saying such a change would be akin to censorship.
On Wednesday, tensions over the issue flared in the Indian capital, New Delhi, where a student group at Jamia Millia University said it planned to screen the banned documentary. That prompted dozens of police equipped with tear gas and riot gear to gather outside campus gates.
Police, some in plain clothes, scuffled with protesting students and detained at least half a dozen, who were taken away in a van.
“This is the time for Indian youth to put up the truth which everybody knows. We know what the prime minister is doing to the society,” said Liya Shareef, 20, a geography student and member of the student group Fraternity Movement.
Jawaharlal Nehru University in the capital cut off power and the internet on its campus on Tuesday before the documentary was scheduled to be screened by a students' union. Authorities said it would disturb peace on campus, but students nonetheless watched the documentary on their laptops and mobile phones after sharing it on messaging services such as Telegram and WhatsApp.
The documentary has caused a storm at other Indian universities too.
Authorities at the University of Hyderabad, in India’s south, began a probe after a student group showed the banned documentary earlier this week. In the southern state of Kerala, workers from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party held demonstrations on Tuesday after some student groups affiliated with rival political parties defied the ban and screened the program.
The first part of the documentary, released last week by the BBC for its U.K. audiences, revives the most controversial episode of Modi’s political career when he was the chief minister of western Gujarat state in 2002, when more than 1,000 people were killed in anti-Muslim riots.
Modi has denied allegations that authorities under his watch allowed and even encouraged the bloodshed, and the Supreme Court said it found no evidence to prosecute him. Last year, it dismissed a petition filed by a Muslim victim questioning Modi's exoneration.
The first part of the BBC documentary relies on interviews with victims of the riots, journalists and rights activists, who say Modi looked the other way during the riots. It cites, for the first time, a secret British diplomatic investigation that concluded Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity.”
The movie includes testimony from then-British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that the British investigation found the violence by Hindu nationalists aimed to “purge Muslims from Hindu areas” and had all the “hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing.”
Suspicions that Modi quietly supported the riots led the U.S., U.K. and E.U. to deny him a visa, a move that has since been reversed.
India’s Foreign Ministry last week called the documentary a “propaganda piece designed to push a particularly discredited narrative” that lacks objectivity, and slammed it for “bias” and “a continuing colonial mindset.” Kanchan Gupta, a senior adviser in the government’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, denounced it as “anti-India garbage.”
The BBC in a statement said the documentary was “rigorously researched” and involved a wide range of voices and opinions.
“We offered the Indian Government a right to reply to the matters raised in the series — it declined to respond,” the statement said.
The second part of the documentary, released Tuesday in the U.K., “examines the track record of Narendra Modi’s government following his re-election in 2019,” according to the film’s description on the BBC website.
In recent years, India’s Muslim minority has been at the receiving end of violence from Hindu nationalists emboldened by a prime minister who has said little about such attacks since he was first elected in 2014.
Human Rights Watch said the ban on the documentary reflects a broader crackdown on minorities under the Modi government, which the rights group said has frequently invoked draconian laws to muzzle criticism.
“You can ban, you can suppress the press, you can control the institutions … but the truth is the truth. It has a nasty habit of coming out,” Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the opposition Congress party, told reporters Tuesday.
Mahua Moitra, a lawmaker from the Trinamool Congress political party, on Tuesday tweeted a new link to the documentary after a previous one was taken down. “Good, bad, or ugly — we decide. Govt doesn’t tell us what to watch,” Moitra said in her tweet.