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As India Tries to Block a Modi Documentary, Students Fight to See It


Students at Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of India’s leading liberal academies, gathered Tuesday night to watch a new BBC documentary about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But university officials had other plans.

They quickly locked the gates to the New Delhi campus and cut off the electricity in the winter cold, leaving the students to watch the program on laptops and mobile phones, their faces glowing under the blank projection screen. Then, just minutes after watching, what the students were holding on orders from the public university, they were attacked by a smaller group of masked men hurling stones.

“They will close one screen, and we will open hundreds of screens,” said Aishe Ghosh, one of the student activists attending.

The documentary, “India: The Question of Modi,” focuses on Mr. Modi’s role in the Hindu-Muslim riots that devastated the state of Gujarat in 2002, when he was prime minister. this state. The murder of a group of Hindu pilgrims at a train station triggered a wave of mob violence in which some 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed and perhaps 150,000. have to leave the homeland.

Modi’s critics at the time accused him of paving the way for the carnage, or at least turning a blind eye. In the BBC special, an unnamed British official wrote that the massacres bore “a sign of ethnic cleansing” against the Muslim minority in Gujarat, and the documentary revealed that a A British investigation in 2002 found Mr. Modi “directly responsible”.

“The Modi Question” was not broadcast anywhere in India. But questions about whether Mr. Modi was complicit in the 2002 riots remain sensitive for the national government and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which has led to investigations that have shed some light. show him. Arindam Bagchi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denounced the documentary, saying it was “designed to promote a particular story discrediting” and betraying “colonial thinking”.

But the government did not stop at criticizing the documentary. It has also taken steps to make it difficult to peer inside India, the latest intervention in the free flow of information by a state apparatus that has been carefully crafted to project the image of its most powerful leader. of India for generations.

Unofficially banning the documentary, India’s Ministry of Information and Communications has blocked segments of the “Modi Question” from appearing on YouTube, in partnership with the site’s parent company, Alphabet. The department took that action under a group of “IT rules” passed in 2021 that would allow the department to block virtually any information that appears online.

Such measures are unusual but not unheard of — in 2015, the government blocked another BBC documentary, “India’s Daughter,” regarding a notorious rape and murder case. language in New Delhi. (YouTube made it viewable.)

Twitter has been more adamant about blocking content at the behest of the Indian government, but it also blocks posts that link to footage from “Questions about Modi.”

Digital content is slick, though. By using VPNs and flash drive deals etc., enterprising Indians were able to access the documentary fairly easily.

In the southernmost tip of India, leftist student groups in the state of Kerala announced that they would be holding pilot screenings of the documentary. Local BJP leaders declared it tantamount to “treason” and called on the Kerala chief minister to stop it. However, Kerala’s Communist government is often hostile to the right-wing central government, and attacks on the documentary seem more likely to draw attention to it than make it disappear.

The BBC’s reporting comes at a sensitive time for Mr. Modi’s government. Thursday is India’s Republic Day, traditionally marked by an epic military and diplomatic parade. Egypt’s general-turned-president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a powerful man who quashed hopes for democracy that emerged during the Arab Spring, will be this year’s guest of honor. India is also engaged in a major diplomatic push as it prepares to host the G20 summit later this year.

Mr. Modi’s defenders question why, after 21 years, unrest in Gujarat is now being brought up. After the riots, Mr. Modi’s rise in the BJP and national politics was temporarily thwarted, and the United States denied him a visa under a little-used law that protects religious freedom. That order was lifted by President Barack Obama in 2014, when Mr. Modi became prime minister.

By then, the restoration of Mr. Modi’s image in India is almost complete. In 2012, an investigative team appointed by the country’s Supreme Court recommended clearing all charges against him, and in July 2022 the court upheld that ruling. Most cases involving and even convictions of others have been dropped or dropped, often due to a lack of evidence.

Most of the story told by the BBC documentary will be familiar to Indians who followed the news in 2002. But some stirring new aspects have come to light, including the investigation. A previously unreported British investigation found that “Narendra Modi was directly responsible” for the mass murder. Jack Straw, then British Foreign Secretary, told investigators at the time that the incident was “a particularly egregious example of engaging in politics to prevent police from doing their job, it is to protect both communities, Hindus and Muslims.”

The BBC said in a statement last week that the documentary has been “rigorously researched to the highest editorial standards”.

The US government, which is hoping to see India as a strategic partner in its competition with Russia and China, has signaled that it does not want to get involved in the controversy. Ned Price, a spokesman for the State Department, told reporters that he was not familiar with the content of the “Modi Question” but that he was “very familiar with the shared values ​​that make the United States and India great.” into two thriving and vibrant democracies.”

The Gujarat nightmare may last 21 years, but in India the wheel of justice can turn slowly. In the city of Vadodara on Tuesday, 22 Hindu men were acquitted of killing 17 Muslims in the days of madness in 2002. Meanwhile, eight of the 22 accused have died.

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