The BBC documentary aired on January 17 and charts Modi’s political rise through the ranks of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and becoming chief minister of the western state of Gujarat. It focuses on the 2002 Gujarat riots—one of the worst plagues of religious violence in India’s recent history—that took place while he was Chief Minister of Gujarat. After a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set on fire and 59 people were killed, grieving citizens blamed Muslims. Revenge attacks led to over 1,000 deaths. Several Hindi movies are made on this subject. Thousands of articles were published and many books were written on the same saga. Till now there was no outrage but one documentary after the image makeover of Modi has hassled the entire government and his supporters.
The documentary highlighted an unpublished report from the U.K. Foreign Office that claims Modi was “primarily responsible” for the riots in Gujarat that permitted the violence. Modi denies accusations of personal responsibility for the riots, and his supporters cite a 2013 Supreme Court ruling of there being insufficient evidence to prosecute him. Modi’s blind supporters and his set of lap media channels are hell bent on condemning the BBC.
The ban on documentaries has attracted far more attention to the documentary than would have been otherwise possible. Many social media users have shared clips on WhatsApp, Telegram, and Twitter, with students screening the documentary on campus. While the screening at JNU was interrupted by a power cut, students reportedly handed out QR codes for people to scan so they could stream the film on their mobile phones or laptops.
The BJP-led Central government had recently censored the politically touchy news production in purported “national interest”. The second (and final) episode of the BBC documentary series India: The Modi Question was aired in the UK on BBC Two last night. It says that it inspects “the troubled relationship” between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India’s Muslim minority, after Modi was re-elected in 2019 with an increased majority over his government’s mandate in 2014. Last week, India’s federal government described the two-part documentary India: The Modi Question as “propaganda” and invoked an emergency law to block it on YouTube and Twitter.
Thursday’s screening comes a day after New Delhi police, clad in riot gear and equipped with tear gas, arrested nearly a dozen students at Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) University ahead of a planned screening. Police have not confirmed the number of detainees and they are being prevented from meeting lawyers, an activist wrote on Twitter.Authorities at the University of Hyderabad are also investigating a screening of the documentary on Saturday. On Tuesday evening, students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi said that power and internet had been cut at the campus in a bid to prevent them from screening the documentary. According to the BBC, there was a heavy police presence at the JNU campus and a group of 20-30 people threw stones at students.
The contentious screenings drew strident condemnation from BJP leadership. In an open letter to Vijayan, BJP State president K. Surendran said the documentary merely regurgitated baseless allegations dismissed as false by the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, the BJP found a lone voice of support in Anil K. Antony, KPCC digital media chief and son of veteran Congress leader A.K. Antony. He tweeted that the BBC’s views undermined India’s sovereignty.
Congress and CPI(M) aspire to use the documentary to spotlight BJP’s attempts to shut out dissenters from public discourse by stifling free speech. CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and the party’s State secretary M. V. Govindan has lent support to the public viewings of the BBC documentary. The Congress and CPI(M) also hope to galvanise public opinion against the BJP ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in 2024 by using the BBC documentary as an agitprop to push damning questions about the Gujarat riots again into the forefront of Kerala’s political discourse. The CPI(M) and the Congress have seized on the BBC documentary to propagandise the BJP’s alleged attempts at “social silencing and systematic depluralising of India’s secular polity.
The government had denounced and banned the first part of the documentary, which aired last week in the U.K. and described a British government report that held Prime Minister Modi , then Chief Minister of Gujarat, responsible for the 2002 Gujarat riots. The government criticised the program, saying it lacked objectivity, reflected a “continuing colonial mindset” and was “propaganda”. The second part, which aired on BBC Two at 9 P.M. local time, starts with a repeat of introductory scenes shown in the first part. The series then moves to August 5, 2019, and the changes to the legal status of Jammu and Kashmir (i.e., the abrogation of Article 370). It shows scenes of what are described as protests in Jammu and Kashmir, followed by a discussion on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, and the riots in Delhi in 2020. The episode includes footage of security forces beating bleeding semi-conscious protestors who are being forced to sing the national anthem, even as they plead that they are “Bharatvasis” (Indians). The second part also includes interviews with protestors, families that have been detained under the NRC and the kin of those who died allegedly at the hands of the police during the Delhi violence of 2020. There are also scenes from Modi’s rally in Ahmedabad with then U.S. President Donald Trump in February 2020.