Indian students clash over BBC's Narendra Modi documentary

Scores of left-wing student unions had organised its public screening at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi

People watch the documentary in Kochi on Tuesday. AFP
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Rival students clashed on the campus of India’s leading university where authorities cut off electricity after a ban on the screening a BBC documentary on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was ignored.

The two-part India: The Modi Question examines Mr Modi’s role as the chief minister of Gujarat when deadly sectarian riots rocked the western state in 2002, killing about 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.

It was immediately denounced as propaganda by the Indian government and banned from its online circulation after its first episode was aired in the UK on BBC Two, creating a social media storm.

Student unions which organised a public screening of the documentary at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University on Tuesday evening were denied permission by an administration that said the “unauthorised” screening could disturb harmony on the campus.

Dozens of students gathered around the main office on Tuesday evening for a screening through a projector before the administration cut off internet and electricity to the entire campus.

They regrouped near a cafeteria inside the campus and played the documentary on their phones and laptops, but allegedly came under attack from members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, and were pelted with stones.

“Students were watching the documentary on their phones and police were present in civvies. Suddenly, the police and security officers started vacating the place. We suspected something wrong would happen and immediately after they left, a group of ABVP students started pelting stones,” N Sai Balaji, former president of the student's union, told a local language news channel.

Hundreds of students later marched to the nearby police station to register a complaint against the attackers.

"We filed a complaint and the police assured us they will be immediately looking into the incident. We gave the names and details of all the persons involved. As of now, we are calling off the protest. We will also file a complaint at the JNU Proctor office,” Aishe Ghosh, the president of the JNU student's union, said.

Tensions were also high in capital Thiruvananthapuram in southern Kerala state where members of the youth wing of the BJP tried to disrupt the public screenings organised by the Students' Federation of India, one of the largest left-wing college unions police scrambled to control the situation.

BJP workers marched to screening sites, some hurling sticks and stones at police, which used water cannons to disperse crowds.

The Indian government last week invoked emergency powers to block it as well as directing YouTube and Twitter to take down links to the show.

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.

Several journalists, human rights activists and opposition politicians shared substitute links to download the documentary.

The second part of the documentary was aired in the UK on Tuesday evening.

It focused on the Modi government’s relationship with Indian Muslims as well as communal tensions in the country since 2014, including graphic videos and images of a 2017 lynching in Jharkhand.

It also discusses the BJP’s unprecedented victory in 2019 with a stronger mandate that resulted in scrapping of Article 370 that gave special powers to the India’s only Muslim majority autonomous region of Jammu and Kashmir.

It also focuses on the months-long protests over Citizenship Amendment Bill that allowed Indian citizenship to persecuted religious minorities except Muslims from neighbouring Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and the National Register for Citizenship, the proposed exercise that would require everyone in India to prove their nationality.

Updated: January 25, 2023, 7:49 AM