Students from Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of India’s leading liberal institutions, gathered on Tuesday night to screen a new BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But university officials had other plans.
They quickly closed the front gates of the New Delhi campus and turned off the power in the winter cold so students could sit and watch the program on laptops and cellphones while their faces lit up under a blank projection screen. Then, just minutes into the tour, which the students held despite an order from the public university, they were attacked by a smaller group of masked men throwing stones.
“You will close one screen and we will open hundreds,” said Aishe Ghosh, one of the participating student activists.
The documentary India: The Modi Question focuses on Mr. Modi’s role during the Hindu-Muslim riots that swept through the state of Gujarat in 2002 when he was the prime minister. The murder of a group of Hindu pilgrims at a train station sparked a wave of mob violence that killed about 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, and uprooted perhaps 150,000.
Critics of Mr Modi at the time accused him of paving the way for the carnage, or at least turning a blind eye to it. In the BBC special, an unnamed British official wrote that the massacres bore “the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing” of Gujarat’s Muslim minority, and the documentary reveals that a 2002 British inquiry found Mr Modi “directly responsible”.
The Modi Question was not broadcast anywhere in India. But questions about whether Mr Modi was involved in the 2002 riots remain thorny for the national government and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which point to investigations that have acquitted him. Arindam Bagchi, a spokesman for the State Department, denounced the documentary, saying it was “designed to advance a certain discredited narrative” and betrayed a “colonial mindset”.
But the government did not stop at criticizing the documentary. It has also taken steps to make insight into India more difficult, the latest encroachment on the free flow of information by the state machine, which carefully cultivates the image of India’s most powerful leader in generations.
Without officially banning the documentary, the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, in cooperation with the site’s parent company Alphabet, has blocked segments of “The Modi Question” from appearing on YouTube. The ministry took these measures as part of a series of “IT rules” passed in 2021 that allow it to suppress virtually all information that appears online.
Such measures are unusual but not unprecedented – in 2015 the government blocked another BBC documentary, India’s Daughter, about a notorious rape and murder in New Delhi. (YouTube has since made it visible.)
Twitter was more resilient to content being blocked by orders from the Indian government, but it also blocked posts linking to footage from The Modi Question.
However, digital content is slippery. By using VPNs and trading flash drives and the like, enterprising Indians could get their hands on the documentation fairly easily.
At the southernmost tip of India, left-wing student groups in the state of Kerala have announced they will hold wild screenings of the documentary. Local BJP leaders said it was tantamount to “treason” and urged Kerala’s prime minister to stop it. However, Kerala’s communist government is often hostile to the right-wing central government, and the attacks on the documentary seemed to attract attention rather than make it disappear.
The BBC broadside comes at a sensitive time for Mr Modi’s government. Thursday is India’s Republic Day, traditionally marked by a military parade and diplomatic grandeur. Egyptian President-turned-General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a strongman who dashed hopes for democracy raised during the Arab Spring, will be the guest of honor this year. India is also making a major diplomatic push as it prepares to host the G20 summit later this year.
Mr Modi’s defenders question why the Gujarat unrest is now being raised after 21 years. After the riots, Mr Modi’s rise within the BJP and national politics was temporarily thwarted, and the United States denied him an entry visa under an underutilized law protecting religious freedom. That order was overturned by President Barack Obama in 2014 when Mr Modi became prime minister.
At this point, the rehabilitation of Mr. Modi’s image in India was almost complete. In 2012, an investigative team appointed by the country’s Supreme Court recommended that he be cleared of all charges, and in July 2022 the court upheld that verdict. Most related cases and even convictions of others have been dropped or overturned, usually for lack of evidence.
Most of the story told in the BBC documentary would be known to Indians who followed the news in 2002. But some inflammatory new aspects have been brought to light, including the previously unreported British inquiry that found “Narendra Modi is directly responsible” for the mass killings. Jack Straw, then British Foreign Secretary, told investigators at the time that the incident was “a particularly egregious example of political involvement to prevent the police from doing their job, which was to protect both communities, the Hindu and the Muslim protection”.
The BBC said in a statement last week that the documentary was “rigorously researched to the highest editorial standards”.
The US administration, which hopes to position India as a strategic partner in its rivalries with Russia and China, signaled it did not want to become involved in the controversy. Ned Price, a spokesman for the State Department, told reporters that he was unfamiliar with the substance of the “Modi question” but that he was “very familiar with the shared values that represent the US and India as two thriving and vibrant democracies.” “.
The Gujarat nightmare may be 21 years old, but in India the wheels of justice can grind slowly. In the town of Vadodara on Tuesday, 22 Hindu men were acquitted of charges of killing 17 Muslims in the days of the frenzy in 2002. Eight of the 22 accused had died in the meantime.