BBC's Narendra Modi documentary sparks fears of campus violence in India

The government is blocking links to the programme but some left-wing students are planning screenings

The Indian government has described the BBC programme about Prime Minister Narendra Modi as propaganda. Reuters
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The authorities at a top Delhi university are on alert amid fears of violence after it banned the screening of a BBC documentary about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Part two of the documentary, India: The Modi Question, will be aired in the UK on Tuesday, a week after part one was shown.

The programme examines Mr Modi’s role as the chief minister of Gujarat when deadly sectarian riots rocked the western state in 2002, killing nearly 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Although not aired in India, it was immediately denounced as propaganda by the Indian government, which issued a nationwide ban last week after the first episode created a social media storm.

Some student unions at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University organised a screening of the documentary on Tuesday evening, but the administration said that the “unauthorised” showing could disturb harmony on campus.

The university has a long history of violence between left and right-wing students. These clashes have often snowballed into national controversies.

The administration warned students of “strict disciplinary action” if there was any defiance, but the Students' Federation of India, one of the largest left-wing college unions, said it would organise the screening on campuses across the country.

A group of students at Hyderabad Central University screened the documentary on Sunday. The college's administration sought a report about the showing.

The Indian government has slammed the hour-long documentary, saying it is a "propaganda piece" and exhibits "colonial intoxication". It invoked emergency powers to block it as well as directing YouTube and Twitter to take down links to the show.

The BBC claims it accessed classified British government documents that held Mr Modi culpable for the 2002 violence. The rioting began after 59 Hindu pilgrims were killed by a Muslim mob that set fire to a train coach in the state's Godhra city.

It showed an interview with an unidentified former diplomat, who was part of the British High Commission investigating the sectarian violence that led to the killing of at least five British citizens.

"Violence planned, possibly months in advance, and politically motivated. Aim was to purge Muslims from Hindu areas. Led by VHP (Hindu extremist organisation), under the protection of the state government. Reconciliation impossible while Modi remains Chief Minister,” an excerpt from the classified document read.

The BBC has defended the show and said that “the documentary was rigorously researched according to the highest editorial standards”.

It also sparked a debate in the British Parliament with an opposition Labour Party MP demanding that UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak comment on the claims in the BBC show.

“Of course, we do not tolerate persecution anywhere, but I am not sure that I agree at all with the characterisation that the honourable gentleman has put forward,” Mr Sunak told MPs.

But the widespread crackdown on the documentary in India has again raised concerns about growing curbs on freedom of speech under the Hindu right-wing government that has been accused of stifling democratic freedoms since it came to power in 2014.

"By banning #BBCDocumentary both Part 1 & 2, India has in itself made it into an international story. In my view a strategically foolish decision,” Saba Naqvi, a senior journalist, said on Twitter.

Several opposition politicians have since been sharing substitute links to download the documentary.

Mahua Moitra, a firebrand leader from Trinamool Congress, who has been criticising the government's move on the documentary and in general, shared a new link on Twitter on Tuesday.

“Here’s a new link that works. Good, bad, or ugly - we decide. Government doesn’t tell us what to watch. #BanCensorship,” Ms Moitra said.

She claimed that the government had removed another link that she shared earlier.

Hollywood actor John Cusack, who had earlier shared the link to the documentary on Twitter, on Tuesday said that he received a message from the microblogging site that on request of the Indian government, his post was withheld.

“Wonder why the Indian government is so concerned with me sharing a BBC News story? Maybe they don’t like the news programs reporting? Part two airs tomorrow,” Mr Cusack said.

The internet Archive, a US-based repository of webpage archives and media uploads by users around the world, had reportedly taken down the documentary.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday that he was not aware of the documentary but was familiar with "the shared values that enact the United States and India as two thriving and vibrant democracies".

The US denied Mr Modi a visa in 2005 under a law that bans foreigners “who have committed particularly severe violations of religious freedom”.

Mr Modi faced a diplomatic boycott by UK officials in the same year. This changed in 2012 and he was nominated as the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate in 2013.

Updated: January 24, 2023, 11:50 AM