India invokes emergency laws to ban BBC Modi documentary
Md Nazrul: Government accused of ‘censorship’ over ban on film about PM’s role in violence during 2002 Gujarat riots The Indian government has invoked emergency laws to block a BBC documentary examining the role of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, during riots in the western state of Gujarat in 2002. Controversy has erupted in India over the first episode of the two-part programme, India: The Modi Question, which tracked his rise through the ranks of the Bharatiya Janata party and his appointment as chief minister of Gujarat.
The BBC also uncovered memos showing that Modi’s conduct was criticised at the time by western diplomats and the British government, including in a government report which found that the riots had “all the hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing”.
Modi has been haunted for decades by allegations of complicity in the violence that took place during the Gujarat riots, which broke out after 59 Hindu pilgrims died on a train that had been set on fire. The fire was blamed on the state’s Muslim population. Almost 1,000 Muslims died in violence across the state. Police were accused of standing by and Modi of not doing enough to protect the minority community from the Hindu mobs and even tacitly supporting the Hindu extremists. He has denied accusations he failed to stop the rioting and in 2013 a supreme court panel said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him. The first episode of the documentary was broadcast in the UK on Tuesday last week. It has not aired in India but its content – including unauthorised video clips – have been circulating on social media. It prompted a vehement response from the Modi government, which has described the documentary as “a propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative”.
“The bias and lack of objectivity and frankly continuing colonial mindset are blatantly visible,” said Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson for the foreign affairs ministry. The documentary was also criticised in a joint statement by more than 300 former judges, bureaucrats and prominent figures who accused the BBC of pushing a British imperialist agenda and “setting itself up as both judge and jury to resurrect Hindu-Muslim tensions”. It was also raised in the UK parliament, where the Labour MP Imran Hussain challenged the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, over the British government’s alleged knowledge of Modi’s role during in the violence. “I am not sure that I agree at all with the characterisation,” responded Sunak.
Over the weekend, India’s ministry of information and broadcasting issued directions banning any clips from the episode being shared under legislation introduced in 2021 that allow for the “blocking of information in case of emergency”. Kanchan Gupta, an adviser at the ministry, said the government had ordered Twitter and YouTube to take down dozens of accounts that had been airing clips of the Modi documentary on the basis that it was “undermining the sovereignty and integrity of India” and “making unsubstantiated allegations”. “Videos sharing BBC World hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage, disguised as ‘documentary’ on YouTube, and tweets sharing links to the BBC documentary have been blocked under India’s sovereign laws and rules,” Gupta said in a tweet.
The BBC has said in a statement that its documentary was “rigorously researched according to highest editorial standards”. The decision to block the documentary comes amid an increasingly challenging environment for media and freedom of the press under the Modi government, with critical journalists and media subjected to state and judicial harassment. Last year, India slipped eight places in the press freedom index to 150 out of 180 counties, its worst position on record.