NEW DELHI (TBEN) — Days after India blocked a TBEN documentary exploring Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role during anti-Muslim riots in 2002 and banned people from sharing it online, authorities on Wednesday sought to stop the film’s screenings at colleges and universities and restricting her clips on social media, a move that critics have denounced as an attack on press freedom.
Jawaharlal Nehru University in the capital, New Delhi, on Tuesday shut down power and internet on campus before the documentary was to be shown by a student union, saying it would disturb peace on campus. The students nevertheless watched the documentary on their laptops and mobile phones after sharing it on messaging services such as Telegram and WhatsApp.
The documentary has also caused a stir at other Indian universities.
Authorities at the University of Hyderabad, in southern India, have launched an investigation after a group of students screened the banned documentary earlier this week. In the southern state of Kerala, workers from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party staged demonstrations on Tuesday after some student groups affiliated with rival political parties defied the ban and screened the film.
The two-part documentary “India: The Modi Question” has not been broadcast in India by the TBEN, but the Indian federal government blocked it over the weekend and banned people from sharing clips on social media, citing emergency powers under its information technology laws. Twitter and YouTube complied with the request, removing many links to the documentary.
The first part of the documentary, released to the British public last week by the TBEN, relives the most controversial episode of Modi’s political career when he was prime minister of the western state of Gujarat in 2002. more than 1,000 people were killed.
The riots have long haunted Modi over allegations that authorities under his watch allowed and even encouraged the bloodshed. Modi has denied the allegations and the Supreme Court has said it has found no evidence to prosecute him. Last year, the country’s highest court rejected a petition filed by a Muslim victim calling into question Modi’s acquittal.
The first part of the TBEN documentary is based on interviews with riot victims, 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 inquiry that concluded that Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity”.
The documentary features the testimony of then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who says the British inquiry found that the violence by Hindu nationalists was aimed at “expelling Muslims from Hindu areas” and that it had all “characteristics of ethnic cleansing”.
Suspicions that Modi was quietly supporting the riots led the US, UK and EU to deny him a visa, a step 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 condemned it for “bias” and “a persistent colonial mindset”. Kanchan Gupta, a senior adviser in the government’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, denounced it as “anti-Indian rubbish”.
The TBEN said in a statement that the documentary had been “rigorously researched” and involved a wide range of voices and opinions.
“We have granted the Government of India the right to comment on the matters raised in the series – it declined to comment,” the statement said.
The second part of the documentary, released in the UK on Tuesday, “examines the record of Narendra Modi’s government following his 2019 re-election,” according to the film’s description on the TBEN website.
In recent years, India’s Muslim minority has been subjected to violence by Hindu nationalists, encouraged by a prime minister who has largely ignored such attacks since taking office in 2014.
The ban has sparked a wave of criticism from opposition parties and rights groups who denounced it as an attack on press freedom. It also drew more attention to the documentary, leading dozens of social media users to share clips on WhatsApp, Telegram and Twitter.
“You can ban, you can suppress the press, you can control the institutions…but the truth is the truth. It has a bad habit of coming out,” Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the opposition Congress party, told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday.
Mahua Moitra, a legislator from the Trinamool Congress political party, tweeted a new link on Tuesday after a previous one was deleted. “Good, bad or ugly – we decide. The government doesn’t tell us what to look at,” Moitra said in her tweet, which was still online Wednesday morning.
Human Rights Watch said the ban reflected a broader crackdown on minorities under the Modi government, which the human rights group says has often invoked draconian laws to muffle criticism.
Critics say press freedom in India has declined in recent years, with the country falling eight places, ranking 150 out of 180 countries, in last year’s Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. It accuses the Modi government of silencing criticism on social media, particularly Twitter, a charge senior leaders of the ruling party have denied.
The Modi government has regularly pressured Twitter to restrict or ban content it deems critical of the prime minister or his party. Last year, the country threatened to arrest Twitter staff for their refusal to ban critics’ accounts after introducing sweeping new rules for technology and social media companies.
The ban on the TBEN documentary comes after a government proposal to give its Press Information Office and other fact-checking agencies the power to remove news deemed “fake or untrue” from digital platforms.
The Editors Guild of India urged the government to withdraw the proposal, saying such a change would be akin to censorship.