NEW DELHI (AP) — Days after India blocked a BBC documentary that examines Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots and banned people from sharing it online, authorities are scrambling to stop screenings of the program at colleges and universities and restrict clips on social media, a move criticized by critics as an attack on press freedom.
Tensions escalated in the capital, New Delhi, on Wednesday at Jamia Millia University, where a group of students said they planned to screen the banned documentary, prompting dozens of police officers equipped with tear gas and riot gear to assemble outside the campus gates.
Police, some in plainclothes, clashed with protesting students and arrested at least half a dozen, who were taken away in a van.
“Now is the time for Indian youth to expose the truth that everyone knows. We know what the prime minister is doing to society,” said Liya Shareef, 20, a geography student and member of the student group Fraternity Movement.
The capital’s Jawaharlal Nehru University cut electricity and internet on its campus on Tuesday before the documentary was screened by a student union. Authorities said it would disrupt 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 also caused a storm in other Indian universities.
Authorities at the University of Hyderabad in southern India have launched an investigation after a group of students showed the banned documentary earlier this week. In the southern state of Kerala, workers from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party staged protests on Tuesday after some student groups affiliated with rival political parties defied the ban and filtered the curriculum.
The two-part documentary “India: The Modi Question” was not aired in India by the BBC, but the Indian federal government blocked it over the weekend and banned people from sharing clips on the social networks, invoking emergency powers under its information technology laws. Twitter and YouTube complied with the request and removed many links to the documentary.
The first part of the programme, released last week by the BBC for its UK audience, brings to life the most controversial episode of Modi’s political career when he was chief minister of West Gujarat state in 2002. He focuses on the anti-Muslim riots in which over 1,000 people were killed.
The riots have long plagued Modi over allegations that authorities under his leadership have allowed and even encouraged bloodshed. Modi has denied the charges and the Supreme Court said it found no evidence to prosecute him. Last year, the country’s highest court dismissed a petition filed by a Muslim victim challenging Modi’s exoneration.
The first part of the BBC documentary draws on interviews with riot victims, journalists and rights activists, who say Modi looked the other way during the riots. It cites, for the first time, a secret British diplomatic inquiry which concluded that Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity”.
The documentary includes testimony from then-British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who says the British investigation found that violence by Hindu nationalists was aimed at “purge Muslims from Hindu areas” and that it had all the “characteristics of ethnic cleansing”.
Suspicions that Modi was quietly supporting the riots led the US, UK and EU to deny him a visa, a decision that has since been reversed.
India’s Foreign Ministry last week called the documentary a “piece of propaganda designed to promote a particularly discredited narrative” that lacks objectivity, and criticized it for “bias” and “a mindset persistent colonial”. Kanchan Gupta, a senior adviser in the government’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, denounced it as “anti-India trash”.
The BBC, in a statement, said the documentary had been “rigorously researched” and involved a wide range of voices and opinions.
“We have offered the Indian government the right to respond to questions raised in the series – it has declined to respond,” the statement read.
The second part of the documentary, which aired in the UK on Tuesday, “examines the record of Narendra Modi’s government after his re-election in 2019”, according to the description of the film on the BBC website.
In recent years, India’s Muslim minority has been the target of violence from Hindu nationalists, emboldened by a prime minister who has remained silent on such attacks since first elected in 2014.
The ban sparked a wave of criticism from opposition parties and rights groups who called it an attack on press freedom. He also drew more attention to the documentary, prompting dozens of social media users to share clips on WhatsApp, Telegram and Twitter.
“You can ban, you can repress the press, you can control institutions… but the truth is the truth. He has a bad habit of coming out,” Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday.
Mahua Moitra, a lawmaker with the Trinamool Congress political party, tweeted a new link to the documentary on Tuesday after a previous one was deleted. “Good, bad or ugly – we decide. The government doesn’t tell us what to watch,” Moitra said in his tweet, which was still live Wednesday morning.
Human Rights Watch said the ban reflected a broader crackdown on minorities under the Modi government, which the rights group said frequently invoked draconian laws to muzzle critics.
Critics say press freedom in India has declined in recent years and the country has fallen eight places, to 150 out of 180 countries, in last year’s press freedom index published by Reporters without borders. He accuses Modi’s government of silencing critics on social media, particularly on Twitter, a charge denied by senior ruling party leaders.
Modi’s government has regularly lobbied Twitter to restrict or ban content it deems critical of the prime minister or his party. Last year, he threatened to arrest Twitter staff in the country for refusing to ban accounts run by critics after sweeping new regulations were implemented for tech and social media companies.
The BBC documentary’s ban comes after a government proposal to give its Press Information Office and other ‘fact-checking’ agencies the power to remove information found to be ‘false or untrue’ from digital platforms.
The Editors Guild of India urged the government to withdraw the proposal, saying such a change would amount to censorship.