New Delhi

Misconceived and Meritless

Why were emergency powers used in India to ban the BBC documentary film ‘The Modi Question,’ based on classified reports regarding the 2002 Gujarat Riots?

By Meriam Sabih | March 2023

Questions are being raised about India’s press freedom after it banned a BBC documentary critical of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two part documentary called “The Modi Question” questions Prime Minister Modi’s “troubled relationship” with the nation’s Muslim minority and whether he could have done more to prevent the violence against Muslims during the 2002 Gujarat Riots during which he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat. More than 1,000 people were killed in the communal riots. The documentary is based on newly-released classified reports that were obtained in a probe by the British foreign office regarding the riots. UK residents were also killed during the clashes.

The documentary describes a “climate of impunity” that existed and led to the riots and contains interviews of those on both sides including those that hold Prime Minister Modi “directly responsible” for the deaths of hundreds of Muslims as well as other politicians from his own party who defend the current Prime Minister and relate the 2012 Supreme Court ruling that there was insufficient evidence to hold him responsible. There is an interview with Narendra Modi himself also.

Emergency powers were enacted by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting under the Information Technology rules 2021, on account that the documentary may affect relations with other foreign nations. Arindam Bagchi, a spokesperson from the foreign ministry of India, pushed back at a press conference stating that the documentary is a “propaganda piece” that is part of a “colonial mindset” and questioned the agenda behind it.

Furthermore, just three weeks after the documentary was banned, the BBC in India was slammed with a tax evasion investigation. During the days-long investigation some journalists also had their phones and computers confiscated. Bobby Ghosh, former editor of Hindustan Times, said in The Washington Post this is an intimidation tactic used by the government to clamp down on press freedom. Amnesty International, among other rights groups, also fired back that it was “a blatant affront” to freedom of expression.

They are not alone in that assessment. Siddharth Varadarajan, the Wire’s Founding Editor, said to CNN, “If you look at television channels and the big papers, what you get is a very sanitized version of what’s happening…India’s democracy is frankly on life support.”

The BJP is the largest political party in the country, with over 50 million members. The representatives of the BJP are seen in the aftermath of the ban making statements that there is space for all “as long as there is no hidden agenda.” A liberal democracy is a democracy where criticism of the government and questions about the government’s actions are both accepted and encouraged. Is the world’s largest democracy instead of advocating for free press, including that which may be critical of the government, moving towards becoming an illiberal democracy where press freedoms are curtailed and media groups like the BBC are threatened?

Why were emergency powers used to ban the film? The Internet Freedom Foundation of India has asked for an explanation for the ban and transparency of the issue. In today’s age, with the availability of Netflix and YouTube worldwide is banning a solution? The Congress Party, student groups, and others defied the ban and shared links to the documentary on social media or held private screenings. Yet YouTube and Twitter which both adhere to local laws of countries complied with the ban. Twitter removed posts made sharing the banned documentary.

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