NEW DELHI: Days after India blocked a BBC documentary that examines Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role during 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat state and banned people from sharing it online, authorities were scrambling to halt screenings of the programme at colleges and restrict clips of it on social media.
The move to block the film, which questions Mr Modi's leadership at that time as then chief minister of the state, has been decried by critics as an assault on press freedom.
The two-part documentary India: The Modi Question has not been broadcast in India by the BBC, but India’s federal government blocked it over the weekend and banned people from sharing clips on social media.
The government has cited emergency powers under its information technology laws, and Twitter and YouTube have complied with the request, removing many links to the documentary.
According to The Guardian, emergency laws brought in by the Modi government just two years ago were used to enforce the ban.
Posts from about 50 Twitter accounts were removed, with activists, politicians and even Hollywood actors, including John Cusack, among those affected, as well as an unspecified number of YouTube channels. Widely shared clips of the documentary also quickly disappeared from Indian social media.
This is not the first time the Modi government has used the 2021 information technology rules to censor online content critical of the administration, The Guardian reported.
However, the ban has set off a wave of criticism from opposition parties and human rights groups, slamming it as an attack against press freedom.
It has also drawn more attention to the documentary, sparking scores of social media users to share clips of the movie on WhatsApp, Telegram and Twitter. Indian students have also vowed to hold more screenings of the film.
Press freedom in India has declined in recent years and the country fell eight places, to 150 out of 180 countries, in last year’s Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
The non-profit organisation accuses Modi’s government of silencing criticism on social media, particularly on Twitter.
Senior leaders of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party have denied this, even as Modi's government has regularly pressured Twitter to restrict or ban content it deems critical of the prime minister or his party.
Last year, it threatened to arrest Twitter staff in the country over their refusal to ban accounts run by critics after implementing sweeping new regulations for technology and social media companies.
Meanwhile, the ban has prompted critics of Twitter to accuse the company of censorship.
Twitter CEO Musk tweeted back to one such accusation, saying: “First I've heard. It is not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter worldwide overnight, while still running Tesla and SpaceX, among other things."
However, the action taken over the BBC documentary is among the most high-profile use of the IT legislation and sheds light on the fragile and fractious place that social media companies such as Twitter now occupy in India.
It also directly pits Musk to be a "free speech absolutist" against increasingly authoritarian laws governing India’s online sphere.
Widely criticised by human rights groups and digital activists, the 2021 IT rules give Modi's government the power to remove any content it deems to threaten “the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India”.
Even before the passing of the legislation, legal demands made by his government to remove content from Twitter increased by 48,000 per cent between 2014 and 2020, The Guardian reported, citing analysis of the company’s transparency reports.
Many have cited Twitter and YouTube's compliance with the online censorship of the documentary as an example of how social media companies are helping to further erode freedom of speech in India, in order to appease the Modi government and not compromise access to the vast and increasingly digital-savvy Indian population.
There are more than 40 million Twitter users in India, making it their third largest market after Japan and the US.
“This use of an emergency law as a censorship mechanism is a very worrying development but it’s far from the first time this has happened,” Prateek Waghre, the policy director at the advocacy group the Internet Freedom Foundation in India, told The Guardian.
According to a statement to India's parliament in July, action was taken against 94 YouTube channels, 19 social media accounts and 747 URLs on the government’s request since the IT rules were passed.
The ban on the BBC documentary comes after a proposal from the government to give its Press Information Bureau and other fact-checking agencies powers to take down news deemed “fake or false” from digital platforms.
The Editors Guild of India has urged the government to withdraw the proposal, saying such a change would be akin to censorship.
On Wednesday (Jan 25), tensions over the issue flared in the Indian capital of New Delhi where a student group at Jamia Millia University said it planned to screen the banned documentary.
That prompted dozens of police equipped with tear gas and riot gear to gather outside campus gates.
Police, some in plain clothes, scuffled with protesting students and detained at least half a dozen people, who were later taken away in a van.
“This is the time for Indian youth to put up the truth which everybody knows. We know what the prime minister is doing to the society,” said Liya Shareef, 20, a geography student and member of the student group Fraternity Movement.
New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University cut off power and the internet on its campus on Tuesday before the documentary was scheduled to be screened by a students union.
Authorities said the screening would disturb the peace on campus, but students nonetheless watched the documentary on their laptops and mobile phones after sharing it on messaging services such as Telegram and WhatsApp.
The documentary has caused a storm at other Indian universities too.
Authorities at the University of Hyderabad began a probe after a student group showed the banned documentary earlier this week.
In the southern state of Kerala, workers from the Bharatiya Janata Party held demonstrations on Tuesday after some student groups affiliated with rival political parties defied the ban and screened the programme.
The first part of the documentary, released last week by the BBC for its British audience, revives the most controversial episode of Modi’s political career when he was the chief minister of Gujarat state in 2002, when more than 1,000 people were killed in anti-Muslim riots.
Modi has denied allegations that authorities under his watch allowed and even encouraged the bloodshed, and the Supreme Court said it found no evidence to prosecute him.
Last year, it dismissed a petition filed by a Muslim victim questioning Modi's exoneration.
The first part of the BBC documentary relies on interviews with victims of the riots, journalists and human rights activists, who say Modi looked the other way during the riots.
It cites, for the first time, a secret British diplomatic investigation that concluded Modi was "directly responsible" for the "climate of impunity".
The movie includes testimony from then-British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that the British investigation found the violence by Hindu nationalists aimed to "purge Muslims from Hindu areas" and had all the "hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing".
Suspicions that Modi quietly supported the riots led the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union to deny him a visa, a move that has since been reversed.
India’s Foreign Ministry last week called the documentary a “propaganda piece designed to push a particularly discredited narrative” that lacks objectivity, and slammed it for “bias” and "a continuing colonial mindset".
Kanchan Gupta, a senior adviser in the government’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, also denounced it as "anti-India garbage".
The BBC in a statement said the documentary was "rigorously researched" and involved a wide range of voices and opinions.
“We offered the Indian Government a right to reply to the matters raised in the series - it declined to respond,” a statement by the broadcaster read.
The second part of the documentary, released on Tuesday in the UK, "examines the track record of Narendra Modi’s government following his re-election in 2019", according to the film’s description on the BBC website.
In recent years, India’s Muslim minority has been at the receiving end of violence from Hindu nationalists emboldened by a prime minister who has said little about such attacks since he was first elected in 2014.
Human Rights Watch said the ban on the documentary reflects a broader crackdown on minorities under the Modi government, which the human rights group said has frequently invoked draconian laws to muzzle criticism.
“You can ban, you can suppress the press, you can control the institutions … but the truth is the truth. It has a nasty habit of coming out,” Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the opposition Congress party, told reporters on Tuesday.
Mahua Moitra, a lawmaker from the Trinamool Congress political party, on Tuesday tweeted a new link to the documentary after a previous one was taken down.
“Good, bad, or ugly - we decide. Govt doesn’t tell us what to watch,” Moitra said in her tweet.