Screening of BBC Documentary: Students’ Defiance Makes Headlines Across the Globe

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On Wednesday, the screening of the documentary at several campuses was disrupted by a power and Internet outage and intimidation allegedly by the activists of the ABVP, the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)

Team Clarion   

NEW DELHI – The screening of the BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots – despite a ban from the government and concerted gagging attempts by the universities – has made headlines across the world.

Students from several universities across the country vowed to continue to show the documentary, media reports said.

On Wednesday, the screening of the documentary at several campuses was disrupted by a power cut and Internet outage and intimidation allegedly by the activists from the ABVP, the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).  

This action against students – and their defiance – has been reported by the international publications including the New York Times, NPR, CBS News, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Fortune, South China Morning Post, Independent, NBC News, Slate and BBC itself.

The BBC has said the documentary was “rigorously researched” and involved a wide range of voices and opinions, including responses from people in the BJP.

The first episode of the BBC‘s documentary series India: The Modi Question holds the prime minister and his party responsible for the targeted violence against Muslims in 2002. It also cites a previously unreported UK government report which held Modi directly responsible.

The second episode of the two-part BBC series was released in London on Wednesday night while students in Indian universities, especially in Delhi, Kerala and Hyderabad, also planned to screen it on Thursday.

The Students’ Federation of India (SFI) plans to show the documentary, “India: The Modi Question”, in every Indian state, its general secretary was quoted as saying on Wednesday.

More than a dozen students were detained by police at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) on Wednesday ahead of the screening.

“They won’t stop the voice of dissent,” said Mayukh Biswas, general secretary of the SFI, the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

A warning was issued by the JMI on Tuesday against the SFI‘s scheduled screening of the BBC documentary on Wednesday evening.

Police then detained several students there for an hour ahead of the screening.

The Delhi Police did not immediately confirm if students were detained but said there was heavy deployment of police and security forces in riot control gear at JMI.

The deployment was “to maintain law and order” both because of the screening and the Republic Day, police said.

The university had seen violent clashes in December 2019 between protesters, including students, and the police over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

On Tuesday, hundreds of JNU students watched the BBC documentary on mobile phones and laptops after power was cut on the campus, said student leader Aishe Ghosh.

The university had threatened disciplinary action if the documentary was screened.

“It was obviousl that the administration would cut off the power,” Ghosh said. “We are encouraging campuses across the country to hold screenings as an act of resistance against this censorship,” Ghosh added.

Ghosh also alleged that ABVP members threw bricks at students waiting to watch the documentary which hurt several people. They had complained with the police.

There was no immediate response from the Delhi Police to the claim made by the Left-backed students’ body on Thursday.

The Indian government ordered YouTube and Twitter to remove video links to the documentary, and many university administrations have been denying students the permission to screen the film and taking action against those who do. However, students have argued that the documentary showcases an important event in India’s history – particularly so because Modi is now the prime minister.

Students in the universities of Kerala and Hyderabad have screened the documentary. The University of Hyderabad administration has ordered a probe into the incident.

A report in the Washington Post said: “The film had already been banned, the social media posts censored. Now, the students huddled without light or electricity around glowing smartphones to watch what their government had deemed to be subversive foreign propaganda. China? No. They were in India, ostensibly the world’s largest democracy, and watching the BBC.” 

“All told, the remarkable steps taken by the government seemed to reinforce a central point of the BBC series: that the world’s largest democracy was sliding into authoritarianism under Modi, who rose to national power in 2014 and won reelection in 2019 on a Hindu nationalist platform,” the newspaper continued.

Fortune and NPR carried an Associated Press report that placed this particular ban in the context of the Indian government’s other recent actions: “Modi government has regularly pressured Twitter to restrict or ban content it deems critical of the prime minister or his party. Last year, it threatened to arrest Twitter staff in the country over their refusal to ban accounts run by critics after implementing sweeping new regulations for technology and social media companies.”

Slate talked about how censorship in Modi’s India had reached an “alarming new level”. “Modern-day Indian democracy has no compunction about mass censorship. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has weakened the country’s once robust press, persecuting adversarial reporters and independent outlets. Though such hostility has become so pervasive as to become old news itself, the government’s latest attack on free speech and journalism has been greeted with widespread alarm — and for good reason,” the Slate article notes. 

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