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India’s BJP government tries to suppress BBC documentary on Modi

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NEW DELHI – The film had already been banned, social media posts censored. Now students huddled without light or electricity around glowing smartphones to watch what their government had deemed subversive foreign propaganda.

China? No. They were in India, apparently the largest democracy in the world, watching the BBC.

Over the past week, the Indian government has launched an extraordinary campaign to prevent its citizens from viewing a new documentary from the British broadcaster which explores Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in a deadly 2002 riot that saw more than 1,000 people – mostly Muslims – killed.

Indian authorities, citing emergency powers, ordered censorship of clips of the documentary on social media platforms including YouTube and Twitter. The Foreign Office spokesman blasted the BBC production as a “propaganda piece” made with a “colonial mindset”. A junior minister in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has said watching the film amounts to “treason”.

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On Tuesday night, authorities cut off the electricity to the Student Union Hall at New Delhi’s prestigious Jawarharlal Nehru University in an attempt to prevent the film from being screened – a move that only prompted defiant students to across the country trying to organize more viewings.

When students from another college in the Indian capital – Jamia Millia Islamia University – announced plans to view the film on Wednesday, Delhi police moved in to arrest the organisers. Ranks of riot police armed with tear gas were also dispatched to campus, according to witnesses and smartphone photos they shared.

Altogether, the government’s remarkable steps seemed to reinforce a central point of the BBC series: that the world’s biggest democracy was sliding towards authoritarianism under Modi, who came to national power in 2014 and won re-election in 2019 on a Hindu nationalist platform. .

Raman Jit Singh Chima, director of Asia-Pacific policy at digital rights group Access Now, said the episode should “give more attention” to the “dangerous situation” of eroding civil liberties in India. . The government has become “much more efficient and aggressive” in blocking content during times of national political controversy, he said.

“How is it acceptable for India, as a democracy, to order such web censorship in the country?” chima said. “You should view 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 first hour-long segment, the BBC focused on the Indian leader’s early career and his rise within the influential Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. He has focused on his tenure as head of Gujarat, a state that erupted in violence in 2002 following the killing of 59 Hindu pilgrims in a train fire. The killings were blamed on the Muslim perpetrators and Hindu mobs retaliated by rampaging through Muslim communities.

In its documentary, the BBC uncovered British diplomatic cables from 2002 that compared the paroxysm of murder, rape and destruction of homes to an “ethnic cleansing” of Gujarat Muslims. British officials also concluded that the mob violence had been planned in advance by Hindu nationalist groups “under the protection of the state government” and further suggested that Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” which led to its outbreak, according to the documentary. .

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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 was dogged by criticism that he let the riots rage on, and it was in 2013 that a panel of India’s Supreme Court ruled there was not enough evidence to pursue it.

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 US foreign policy in Asia.

Modi has always denied any wrongdoing related to his handling of the events of 2002.

The documentary aired last week only in Britain and not India, but the response from the Modi government was swift and vehement.

Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi lambasted the BBC for producing “a propaganda piece designed to promote a particular discredited narrative”. He accused the broadcaster of maintaining a political agenda and a “continuing colonial mindset”.

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 hostile BBC World propaganda and anti-Indian rubbish, disguised as a ‘documentary’ on YouTube, and tweets sharing links to the BBC documentary have been blocked under sovereign laws and rules of the India,” Gupta said in a tweet. He added that YouTube and Twitter, recently acquired by Elon Musk, complied with orders.

In a statement, the BBC said its documentary had been “rigorously researched” and the Indian government declined to comment on the story.

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On weekends, Indians could only share the film on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, and watch copies stored on cloud services or on physical keys.

On Tuesday evening, students gathered at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi for a widely advertised 9 p.m. screening, defying warnings from university administrators to cancel the event or face disciplinary action. Hundreds of students flocked to the student union, only to be foiled 30 minutes before the scheduled time when the electricity went out, plunging the hall into darkness, said Anagha Pradeep, a doctoral student in political science.

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

Soon after, students were attacked by members of the youth wing of the Hindu nationalist group RSS, Pradeep said. University administrators blamed the power outage on a faulty power line, according to local media.

On Wednesday, groups of students from Kerala in southern India to West Bengal in the east announced plans to hold viewings. At Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, administrators stopped all unauthorized gatherings after police arrested several students for planning to screen the documentary, local media reported.

Aishe Ghosh, the leader of the student union JNU, said the setback on campuses showed that India was “still breathing [as] a democracy “.

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

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

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