India dispatch: Supreme Court to hear pleas against government ban on BBC Modi documentary Dispatches
© JURIST (Neelabh Bist)
India dispatch: Supreme Court to hear pleas against government ban on BBC Modi documentary

Indian law students are reporting for JURIST on law-related developments in and affecting India. This dispatch is from Vedika Chawla, a second-year student at the National Law University, Delhi. 

Next week the Indian Supreme Court is set to hear a public interest litigation (PIL) as well as a separate plea by advocates in India challenging the ban placed by the central government on a documentary released by BBC. The documentary, titled India: The Modi Question, was released in the form of two episodes on 17 January, 2023 and 24 January, 2023. It explores the circumstances surrounding the 2002 communal riots in the Indian state of Gujarat when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister, as well as the reportedly debatable term that he continues to serve as the Prime Minister of India.

The 2002 riots were a series of incidents of intercommunal violence spread over three days, that were triggered by the burning of a train in Godhra, Gujarat, leading to, inter alia, the death of around 58 Hindu pilgrims or karsevaks. The pilgrims were returning from Ayodhya, the city where the Hindu deity Rama is believed to have been born, after a religious ceremony. The incidents left long-lasting ripples in the form of recurring violence and communal tension all over the country, but especially in the western state of Gujarat. The state saw outbreaks of violence targeted at the minority Muslim population for over a year after the incident.

The documentary released by BBC took India by storm, especially as it discussed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the riots and claimed to tell the story of Modi’s “troubled relationship with India’s Muslims.” The Prime Minister held the position of the Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time of the riots and was accused of being involved in the incident and the following outbreaks. He was subsequently acquitted of criminal conspiracy in February 2012, ten years after the incident in Godhra, a verdict that was confirmed by the Indian Supreme Court in June 2022. The documentary claims that there was an active role of the state executive, led by the then CM Modi, in not preventing or mitigating the violent acts, if not instigating them, and that a secret UK government inquiry had found Modi ‘directly responsible’ for the riots.

The central government of India, strongly criticizing the two-part series and calling it propaganda, restricted circulation of the documentary in India on 21 January 2023, by making use of Rule 16 of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (IT Rules). The provision allows blocking of information in cases of emergency, where “no delay is acceptable.” Intermediaries like YouTube and Twitter were directed to take down any links to or clippings of the documentary. Over 50 posts, including those by political leaders, journalists and advocates, on these platforms containing links to the documentary were taken down.

The documentary received mixed reactions from Indians with the Indian diaspora in the UK coming down heavily on the contents, calling it a ‘witch hunt’ against the Prime Minister. At the same time, the ban was strongly protested by Indian youth, and several Indian university student groups held screenings of the documentary, supposedly circulated through backchannels. Some of these screenings were even cracked down on by the police, resulting in the detention of students. One university saw its power and internet supply being mysteriously cut off before the screening. Meanwhile, the action has even evoked international response, with Germany urging India to uphold press freedom.

Opposition to the ban has additionally taken legal form, with a PIL being filed against the government’s actions. A separate petition has also been filed by advocate Prashant Bhushan and journalist N Ram, raising questions about the constitutionality of the action of invoking emergency provisions, after their posts on Twitter were taken down. Both these petitions are set to be heard by the apex court on 6 February, 2023.

The environment in India is confused, to say the least, with the almost parallel release of a report by US-based Hindenburg Research accusing the Adani Group led by Gautam Adani, India’s richest (and the world’s third richest) man of large-scale fraud. This report and the BBC documentary are both being seen by some as an attack on India as a whole, even reflective of a colonial mindset. However, it is imperative to recognize the importance of curing an information asymmetry, even if it is unpleasant information.

The ban on the documentary reflects poorly on India, and certainly does not sit well with the ever-progressive vision that the current government has attempted to set during tenure. It raises serious concerns about press freedom, especially in the context of the political environment in more disturbed parts of India, such as Kashmir. India has seen repeated attempts at influencing and controlling the media previously, both by individuals or groups looking to pursue personal interests as well as the government. The documentary is perhaps just another instance of a starkly negative response of the Indian government to content that it thinks injurious to the nation, but which, sadly, only goes to highlight its intolerance more than it shows concern for national integrity.

A widened perspective presents an even more interesting analysis. The BBC documentary features an evocative report of incidents, closely paralleling the events spoken of in Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja – the globally acclaimed novel that forced Nasrin to flee from Bangladesh after a fatwa was issued against her. It is perhaps a matter to consider how both the novel and the documentary, accusing the respective governments of failing to protect Hindus in Bangladesh and Muslims in India, were banned soon after their release by those very governments, and how. What remains to be seen, amidst the present confused atmosphere and contrasting opinions in India, is how the Apex Court responds to the proceedings initiated.