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

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

China? No. They were in India, ostensibly the world’s largest democracy, watching the BBC.

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

Indian officials, invoking emergency powers, ordered clips from the documentary to be censored on social media platforms including YouTube and Twitter. The Foreign Office spokesman criticized the BBC production as “propaganda material” made with a “colonial mindset”. A junior minister from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said watching the film was tantamount to “treason”.

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On Tuesday night, authorities cut power to the student union hall at New Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in an attempt to prevent the film from being screened, a move that only provoked unruly students across the country to try to organize more viewings.

When students from another college in the Indian capital – Jamia Millia Islamia University – announced their own plans on Wednesday to watch the film, Delhi police swooped in to detain the organizers. Rows of riot police armed with tear gas were also dispatched to the campus, according to witnesses and smartphone photos they shared.

Overall, the remarkable steps taken by the government appeared to reinforce the central point of the BBC series: that the world’s largest democracy is sliding towards authoritarianism under Modi, who rose to national power in 2014 and won re-election in 2019. a Hindu nationalist platform.

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Raman Jeet Singh Cheema, Asia-Pacific policy director for digital rights group Access Now, said the episode should “bring more attention” to the “dangerous situation” of the erosion of civil liberties in India. The government has become “far more effective and aggressive” in blocking content at times of national political controversy, he said.

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

In its documentary, the BBC uncovered British diplomatic cables from 2002 that likened the spate of murders, rapes and home demolitions to “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in Gujarat. British officials also concluded that the mob violence was pre-planned by Hindu nationalist groups “under the protection of the state government” and further suggested that Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that led to its outbreak, according to the documentary .

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While the film reveals the existence of the diplomatic cables for the first time, it does not make any ground-breaking accusations against the Indian leader. For two decades, Modi has been dogged by criticism that he allowed the riots to rage, and in 2013 a panel of India’s Supreme Court ruled there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him.

In 2005, the State Department denied Modi a U.S. visa because of his alleged role in the riots — though he was later welcomed by successive U.S. administrations that saw him as a pillar of U.S. foreign policy in Asia.

Modi has consistently denied any wrongdoing over his handling of the 2002 events.

The documentary was broadcast last week only in Britain but not in India, but the Modi government’s response was swift and furious.

Indian foreign ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi attacked the BBC for producing “propaganda material designed to push a particular discredited narrative”. He accused the broadcaster of promoting a political agenda and “perpetuating a colonial mindset”.

An adviser to India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Kanchan Gupta, also announced that that 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-India garbage masquerading as ‘documentary’ on YouTube and tweets sharing links to the BBC documentary are blocked under India’s sovereign laws and rules,” Gupta said in a tweet. He added that both YouTube and Twitter, which was recently acquired by Elon Musk, have complied with the orders.

In a statement, the BBC said the documentary had been “thoroughly researched” and the Indian government declined to offer comment on the piece.

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Until the weekend, Indians could only share the film on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, and watch copies stored in cloud services or on physical flash drives.

On Tuesday evening, students gathered at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi for a highly publicized 9pm show, defying warnings from university administrators to cancel the event or face disciplinary action. Hundreds of students flocked to the student union, only to be thwarted 30 minutes before the scheduled time when the electricity was cut, plunging the hall into darkness, said Anaga Pradeep, a PhD student in political science.

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

Shortly after, the 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 damaged power line, according to local media.

By Wednesday, student groups from Kerala in southern India to West Bengal in the east announced plans to stage viewings. At Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, administrators suspended all unauthorized gatherings after police detained several students for plans to screen the documentary, local media reported.

Aishe Ghosh, leader of the JNU students’ union, said the pushback from campuses showed that India was “still breathing [as] democracy.”

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

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

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