India Declares War on BBC Narendra Modi Documentary

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

The government of India is extremely unhappy with a BBC documentary critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – so unhappy that the government cut power to a university attempting to screen the film and ordered social media giants Twitter and YouTube to block attempts to share it.

Both Twitter and YouTube complied with these censorship requests.

The documentary is called India: The Modi Question. The BBC felt Modi deserved careful scrutiny because India is “seen by the west as an important bulwark against Chinese domination of Asia.”

The first installment of the planned two-part series covered Modi’s rise in Indian politics, including his ties to various Hindu nationalist organizations, and his controversial tenure as chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat.

Gujarat was the scene of violence between Muslims and Hindus in the early 2000s, culminating in the murder of 60 Hindu pilgrims when their train was set on fire. The majority Hindus responded with three days of mob mayhem that killed around one thousand Muslims.

Modi was one of the Indian officials accused of fomenting or condoning the violence. Some of the other accused officials were said to have targeted individual Muslims and their property for violence by handing lists of names and addresses to the mob. Witnesses against Modi claim he indulged the mob because “Hindus should be allowed to vent their anger,” while “Muslims needed to be taught a lesson.”

A decade-long investigation by the Indian Supreme Court – which also rejected allegations that the administration in Gujarat was either criminally negligent or actively encouraged the riots – cleared Modi of any wrongdoing. The Supreme Court’s decision on Modi survived a petition for appeal in 2014, but critics denounce the investigation as a whitewash.

The BBC documentary revealed that an unpublished report from the British Foreign Office held Modi “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” enjoyed by the rioters, and said the events of 2002 had “all the hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing.” 

The documentary cited additional unpublished documents that showed several senior British officials concurring with this analysis, including then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

The Modi administration did not exactly endear itself to its human rights critics by acting swiftly to suppress the BBC project. 

The Indian government denounced the documentary as “vile propaganda” and invoked emergency powers under the 2000 Information Technology Act to ban uploading or linking to the video online. Free speech advocates have long criticized the IT Act for enabling precisely this kind of censorship.

Those advocates were somewhat surprised to see Twitter and YouTube speedily comply with the censorship orders. Twitter evidently deleted at least 50 tweets that linked to the video, even though its new owner, electric vehicle billionaire Elon Musk, is a self-proclaimed advocate for free speech. One of the deleted posts came from a member of the Indian parliament, Revanth Reddy.

“When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law. If the content violates Twitter’s Rules, the content will be removed from the service. If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter Rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only,” a Twitter spokesperson said when asked about the deletions.

YouTube, which removed over 1.7 million videos at India’s request last year, also “complied with the directions” for censorship, according to a senior official with the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

Mahua Moitra, a parliamentarian from the opposition All India Trinamool Congress party, defiantly insisted on Saturday she was not “elected to represent the world’s largest democracy to accept censorship” and tweeted another link to the BBC documentary, inviting her followers to “watch it while you can.”

Moitra’s post was not deleted, but Twitter deactivated the link to the documentary with a vague reference to its “terms of use.” The BBC insists nothing in its “rigorously researched” documentary violates those terms.

The student union at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi tried to screen India: The Modi Question on Thursday but school administrators blocked the attempt by cutting power and Internet service to the campus. 

“There are about 300 people streaming the documentary now in campus on their phones since the power went out about half an hour before the screening,” an eyewitness on campus reported.

The university claimed the loss of power and Internet service was purely coincidental but stressed that if students do not refrain from screening the documentary, “strict disciplinary action may be initiated.”

Protests broke out at universities in the southern state of Kerala and the northern city of Chandigarh on Tuesday when screenings were interrupted. 

Police detained 13 students at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi on Wednesday for attempting to show the documentary. School officials blamed the students for attempting to “disturb the discipline of the university” by creating a “ruckus on the street.”


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