1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Press FreedomIndia

Indian police detain students over BBC's Modi documentary

January 25, 2023

New Delhi has banned sharing links and clips to a BBC film about Prime Minister Modi. Now universities are cracking down on students trying to screen it.

Police, some in riot gear, stand near a gate at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, India
Students were confronted by police in riot gear before a planned screening of the BBC's Narendra Modi documentaryImage: Manish Swarup/AP Photo/picture alliance

Indian police arrested several students in New Delhi Wednesday at a screening of a BBC documentary about Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Plain clothes officers as well as scores of tear-gas wielding police in riot gear had gathered at the Indian capital's Jamia Millia Islamia University to prevent the event from taking place. Some students were detained after scuffles with police.

There were similar scenes at other universities this week, as the fight between the Indian government and the UK broadcaster BBC entered its next round. New Delhi is seeking to stop seeking to stop anyone in the country from seeing the two-part documentary, entitled "India: The Modi Question," which looks at the prime minister and his role in Indian politics.

The Modi administration has called the film "propaganda," and has banned it from being streamed or shared on social media. Twitter and YouTube have complied with the order, and universities too are blocking student screenings of the film.

Authorities and several agitated individuals near a bus that was used to haul off arrested protesters
Undercover police were also on hand to arrest several of the students attempting to show the filmImage: Manish Swarup/AP Photo/picture alliance

At the University of Hyderabad, school administrators opened an investigation into a student group that screened the film earlier this week. Members of Modi's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also showed up to protest the film's screening at a university in southern Kerala.

On Tuesday, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi went dark when power and internet were cut off to stop a screening at the student union.

"It was obviously the administration that cut off the power," said student leader Aishe Ghosh. "We are encouraging campuses across the country to hold screenings as an act of resistance against this censorship." Ghosh also claims members of a far-right group injured several students gathered to see the film by hurling bricks at them.  

India's Modi government has poor press freedom record

Such intense pressure has triggered allegations of censorship and attacks on press freedom from Modi's opponents.

Mahua Moitra, a parliamentarian from the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) party, posted a link to the film on her Twitter account with the words: "Good, bad, or ugly — we decide. Govt doesn't tell us what to watch."

"You can ban, you can suppress the press, you can control the institutions, but the truth is the truth. It has a nasty habit of coming out," Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the opposition Indian National Congress (INC) party, told reporters Tuesday.

The nongovernmental organization  Human Rights Watch criticized efforts to ban the film as typical for the Modi administration, which it says has frequently taken harsh measures to quash stories it doesn't like.

Indeed, the incident is not isolated, the organization Reporters Without Border ranked India 150 of 180 nations in its most recent World Press Freedom Index — down eight places over the year. 

The ban on the BBC documentary came after the government proposed giving the Press Information Bureau (PIB), an agency tied to the country's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the power to remove content — including news items — the government deems "fake or false."

Colonialist British propaganda, or simply an unflattering truth?

Released last week in the UK, the two-part film looks at two periods in Modi's political career. Part one investigated the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, where Modi was serving as chief minister. The British broadcaster says the second part of the film focuses on Modi's political track record since being re-elected in 2019.

New Delhi has decried the documentary as having a "colonial mindset," calling it "propaganda" and "anti-India garbage." The BBC, however, says the film was "rigorously researched" and included many different views of Modi and his career, including from people in his own BJP party. 

The Modi administration did not reply to BBC interview requests. "We offered the Indian Government a right to reply to the matters raised in the series — it declined to respond."

India's BJP rejects allegations of Muslim suppression

Modi's Hindu nationalist leanings straining Indian society

The film suggests that Modi, a Hindu nationalist whom critics see as responsible for perceived democratic backsliding in India, did little to quell the violence meted out on Gujarat's Muslims in 2002. More than 1,000 people were killed during three days of unrest in the western state.

A number of activists, victims and journalists interviewed for the film say authorities failed to protect them. Critics say it is evidence of Modi's disregard for India's Muslim population. Though such accusations have dogged Modi for decades, he denies any wrongdoing and has been exonerated twice by the country's Supreme Court.

But the BBC film presents new information gleaned from a British diplomatic investigation of the incident that came to a glaring conclusion, finding that Modi had been "directly responsible" for the "climate of impunity" that reigned during the unrest.

Jack Straw, the UK's foreign secretary at the time, told the BBC the investigation had found that Hindu nationalists were attempting to "purge Muslims from Hindu areas," saying the entire incident bore, "the hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing."

Modi, has been criticized for remaining largely silent on incidents of anti-Muslim violence since being elected as prime minister in 2014, and was temporarily denied visas by the US, UK and EU over the 2002 violence in Gujarat.

According to 20-year-old geography student Liya Shareef, this is in part what motivates students determined to screen the film: "This is the time for Indian youth to put up the truth, which everybody knows ... We know what the prime minister is doing to society.''

India: Tensions between Hindus and Muslims

js/nm (AP, dpa, Reuters)