by Nesane Nakanthiran
On January 17, the BBC aired a documentary detailing the rise of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and it closely connected the political figure to the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the Western state of Gujarat, which constituted one of the worst outbreaks of religious violence in recent Indian history. Subsequently, the Indian government imposed an emergency law which banned the documentary and any of its screenings—even in universities. Unsurprisingly, heavy policing and brutal arrests took place across several campuses as students began protesting against the ban.
As leader of the Hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s largest right-wing party, PM Modi has been haunted for decades due to his inaction and complicity throughout the riots, although he still refuses to take proportionate accountability.
In fact, this was not his first time using the emergency law, nor his first time facing allegations of violating human rights. International human rights organizations and advocates have long been calling upon European leaders to address Modi’s “growing abuses and discriminatory policies” (Molander 2022). For example, BJP-led states have seen increasing illegal demolitions of Muslim properties, while Indian authorities have seen a heavy crackdown on students, journalists, civil society, human rights activists, and others who prove either critical towards the state or work to defend human rights amongst vulnerable communities (Molander 2022). Indeed, PM Modi even sanctions the increased use of intrusive technologies, such as Israeli-produced spyware, to curtail human rights and freedom of expression —a decision which proves unsurprising from the BJP leader.
The 2002 anti-Muslim riots took place in response to the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. Local citizens had blamed the 59 deaths on Gujarat’s Muslims, which led to instances of religious violence claiming over 1,000 lives. At the time, Modi was the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, and thus, Muslim criticisms against the current Indian PM are substantial. Furthermore, police are accused of standing by while Modi faced such criticisms, perhaps even supporting Hindu extremists throughout the riots. Specifically, the documentary highlights an “unpublished report from the U.K. Foreign Office that claims Modi was ‘directly responsible’ for the ‘climate of impunity’ that enabled the violence” (Syed 2023), despite the leader’s supporters citing a 2013 Supreme Court ruling “insufficient evidence to prosecute.”
PM Modi is not alone in facing immense backlash for his use of censorship. By invoking emergency laws on Twitter and YouTube, Twitter CEO and self-proclaimed saviour of free speech, Elon Musk, has come under criticism for carrying out acts which proved contradictory to his public campaign against censorship throughout his Twitter takeover. To be clear, emergency laws extend government censorship over social media companies, which would explain how Twitter and YouTube had their hands tied. Yet, this does not diminish the Indian government’s violations against democracy, free speech, and human rights—rather, it only further substantiates the dangers of granting unchecked authority over media to a powerful few.
Currently, the emergency law remains enforced across Twitter and YouTube, and Indian police continue to crack down on illegal screenings of the documentary.
Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. 2023. “India invokes emergency laws to ban BBC Modi documentary.” The Guardian, January 23, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jan/23/india-emergency-laws-to-ban-bbc-narendra-modi-documentary
Hussain, Murtaza and Ryan Grim. 2023. “Elon Musk Caves to Pressure from India to Remove BBC Doc Critical of Modi.” The Intercept, January 24, 2023. https://theintercept.com/2023/01/24/twitter-elon-musk-modi-india-bbc/
Molander, Måns. 2022. “European Leaders Should Raise Human Rights Concerns with Modi.” Human Rights Watch, May 3, 2022. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/05/03/european-leaders-should-raise-human-rights-concerns-modi
Syed, Armani. 2023. “India Banned a BBC Documentary Critical of Modi. Here’s How People Are Watching Anyway.” Time, January 26, 2023. https://time.com/6250480/bbc-modi-documentary-skirting-censors/