India’s Ban on BBC Doc Sheds Light on Press Freedom
Maria Tavernini 10 February 2023

India’s ruling Bhratiya Janata Party (BJP) has blocked a BBC documentary, which questions  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots in 2002, under his tenure as Chief ;inister of the state. The right-wing government has used emergency powers under the information technology laws – which gives the government power to remove any content considered threatening to “the unity, integrity, defense, security or sovereignty of India” – to ban the airing of the two-episode documentary “The Modi Question”. Moreover, it has ordered Elon Musk’s Twitter to take down more than 50 tweets linking to the documentary while it also instructed YouTube to block any video uploads.

The documentary, which tracks the rise of Modi through the ranks of the party, his appointment as Chief Minister of Gujarat and his role in the riots, was labelled as a “propaganda piece” and the British broadcaster was accused of promoting a “colonial mindset”. The issue is likely to spark tensions between the two countries, only months after Rishi Sunak, a politician of Indian descent, has sworn in as UK’s prime minister and is aiming to improve the UK’s relations wiht India. When questioned, Sunak gave a mild reply and avoided attributing any responsibility to the Indian PM for the carnage that caused over one thousand dead in three days, mainly among the Muslim community.

A screening of the documentary was planned at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of the country’s leading universities, but the authorities promptly shut power and internet lines to the students’ union that had organized the event. According to the reports, stones were thrown at students gathered to watch the film. Other screenings were planned in other universities all over the country, while journalists and activists kept on sharing clips and links to the BBC documentary circumventing the government ban.

Delhi Police detained dozens of students who were protesting at Jamia Millia Islamia University for the arrest of four activists over the screening of the recriminated documentary. Heavy police deployment was reported outside the campus in the Indian capital last January 25th (a day before the celebrations for Republic Day) with personnel armed with tear gas at the gate. Yet, banning the BBC documentary only increased the interest in the film which, “examines the tensions between India’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority and explores the politics of Modi in relation to those tensions” as stated by the broadcaster. Responding to critics, the BBC also added that the film is “rigorously researched according to highest editorial standards”.

In the first episode, the documentary reconstructs the events around the 2002 Gujarat riots while tracing back to the rise of Narendra Modi, an unknown militant with the Hindu nationalist paramilitary volunteer organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Modi was the recently appointed chief minister of the western state of Gujarat when a train loaded with Hindu devotees was set ablaze in the city of Godhra. The culprits of the arson, in which 59 people – mainly Hindu pilgrims – died, were never ascertained, but the state’s Muslim population was blamed. The event triggered a wave of sectarian violence unseen in modern India.

As soon as the news of the Godhra fire spread, Hindu fanatics began to attack Muslim neighborhoods. It is estimated that over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed and dozens of women were raped in the three-day communal violence. The Gujarat riots went down in history as one of the worst religious massacres in India, making Gujarat – Modi’s home state – one of India’s most religiously polarized states. Modi, who was banned fro receiving a US visa, continued to govern the state despite the criticism around his role in the riots, which sparked international condemnation.

A Hindu mob waves swords at an opposing Muslim mob during street battles in Bapunagr 01 March 2002 in Ahmedabad (photo by Sebastian D’Souza/AFP)

The BBC documentary indicts Modi, citing a secret British diplomatic investigation that concluded that Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” which allowed the violence to spread unabated with the police turning a blind eye on the riots. The Supreme Court of India appointed a special team with the task of investigating Modi’s role in the violence but, last year it concluded that it could not find any evidence that would permit it to prosecute the then-chief minister. Modi rose to national power in 2014 as a prime minister and won re-election in 2019 under a divisive Hindu-nationalist agenda.

The second episode of the documentary, aired a week after the first one, focuses on his tenure as a prime minister. Since then, Modi’s BJP and other right-wing groups have intensified their Hindu supremacist project with a number of laws and actions targeting the Muslim community, the country’s biggest religious minority. “The BJP’s ideology of Hindu primacy has infiltrated the justice system and the media, empowering party supporters to threaten, harass, and attack religious minorities, particularly Muslims, with impunity”, wrote Human Rights Watch’s South Asia Director, Meenakshi Ganguly.

The decision to block the documentary only made the its point stronger: India is rapidly sliding into authoritarianism under Modi, with his government rejecting any criticism. Civil and religious liberties are being heavily restricted under the current administration who is pursuing a violent Hindu-first agenda. “We continue to highlight the importance of democratic principles, such as freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, as human rights that contribute to the strengthening of our democracies”, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price commented.

The documentary row came amid an “increasingly challenging environment” for media and freedom of the press under the Modi government, with journalists and media subjected to widespread harassment. Last year, India fell to 150th place in the press freedom index (out of 180 countries); the worst position the country has ever recorded. Besides journalists being chased, harassed, imprisoned and even murdered for simply doing their job, also the media landscape – once vibrant and free – is changing rapidly under the current administration. Only days ago, journalist Sreenivasan Jain, anchorman of two well-known programs on NDTV, announced that he had resigned from the news outlet.

Jain’s step back is only the last in a row of successive resignations within the NDTV family, a network known for the independence of its investigations, often critical of the government. At the end of November last year, renowned journalist Ravish Kumar  resigned from his post as  senior executive editor, a decision that came a day after NDTV founders, Prannoy and Radhika Roy, resigned from  RRPR (Radhika Roy Prannoy Roy) Private Limited, the promoter company of NDTV, after the Adani Group’s takeover. A number of the network’s prominent journalists also resigned in the following months.

The Adani Group, owned by billionaire Gautam Adani, India’s richest man who rapidly ascended to become world’s third wealthiest as of December 2022, recently became the single largest shareholder in New Delhi Television Ltd (NDTV) after first buying the RRPR Private Limited and then acquiring more shares on the open market. NDTV’s takeover by the ports-to-energy conglomerate have rightly raised fears about freedom of the press in the country. Adani’s business and Modi’s BJP are tightly linked. The Indian corporate sector scene is dominated by a number of family-controlled conglomerates with close links to the ruling party.

In these days, there is much talk about Adani in India and abroad. In a report issued on January 24th after 2 years of investigation, short seller Hindenburg Research accused Adani’s conglomerate of engaging in stock price manipulation and fraud in its accountings. Adani, who also hails from Gujarat, called the report a “calculated attack on India” and rejected the accusations of manipulating his worth on the share market and using off shore shell companies in tax havens. The group released a 413-pages response to Hindenburg’s report, which the US-based short seller deemed as “bloated” and “obfuscated by nationalism”. While for the first days after the report was released NDTV avoided covering the story, Delhi editions of The Indian Express, The Hindu and The Times of India carried full front-page ads from the Adani group whose stock plummeted over the past week with market losses of over US$ 100 billion. This is the state of press freedom in India.


Cover Photo: People watch the BBC documentary “India: The Modi Question”, on a screen installed at the Marine Drive junction under the direction of the district Congress committee, in Kochi on January 24, 2023 (photo by Arun CHANDRABOSE/AFP).

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