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Censorship, arrests, blackouts. India rushes to block BBC documentary

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NEW DELHI — The film was already banned, social media posts censored. Now the students huddled with no light or electricity around glowing smartphones to watch what their government viewed as subversive foreign propaganda.

China? No. They were in India, ostensibly the largest democracy in the world, watching the BBC.

The Indian government last week embarked on an extraordinary campaign to prevent its citizens from watching a new British broadcaster documentary that examines Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in a deadly 2002 uprising that killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. came to life. .

Indian officials invoked emergency powers and ordered clips from the documentary to be censored on social media platforms, including YouTube and Twitter. The Foreign Office spokesperson denounced the BBC production as a “propaganda piece” made with a “colonial mentality”. A deputy minister of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) declared that watching the film amounted to “betrayal”.

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On Tuesday night, authorities cut power to the student union hall of New Delhi’s prestigious Jawarharlal Nehru University in a bid to prevent the film from being shown – a move that only prompted defiant students across the country to stage more viewings .

When students from another university in the Indian capital – Jamia Millia Islamia University – announced their own plans to watch the film on Wednesday, Delhi police swept in to detain the organizers. Ranks of riot police armed with tear gas were also dispatched to the campus, according to witnesses and smartphone photos they shared.

Taken together, the government’s remarkable moves seemed to reinforce a central point of the BBC series: that the world’s largest democracy was sliding into authoritarianism under Modi, who took national power in 2014 and was re-elected in 2019 on a Hindu nationalist platform. .

Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia-Pacific policy director of digital rights group Access Now, said the episode “should pay more attention” to the “dangerous situation” of the erosion of civil liberties in India. The government has become “much more efficient and aggressive” at blocking content during moments of national political controversy, he said.

“How is it acceptable for India, as a democracy, to order such a large amount of web censorship in the country?” Chima said. “You have to see this incident as part of a cumulative wave of censorship.”

The controversy started on January 17, when the BBC aired the first part of the two-part documentary ‘India: The Modi Question’.

In the first part of an hour, the BBC focused on the early career of the Indian leader and his rise through the influential Hindu nationalist organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It focused on his tenure as leader of Gujarat, a state that erupted in violence in 2002 after the murder of 59 Hindu pilgrims in a train fire. The killings were blamed on Muslim perpetrators, and Hindu gangs retaliated by rampaging through Muslim communities.

In its documentary, the BBC uncovered 2002 British diplomatic telegrams comparing the outbreak of murder, rape and house destruction to an “ethnic cleansing” of Gujarat’s Muslims. British officials also concluded that the mob violence was pre-planned by Hindu nationalist groups “under the patronage of the state government” and further suggested that Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that led to the outbreak, according to the documentary .

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Although the film revealed the existence of the diplomatic cables for the first time, no groundbreaking accusations were leveled against the Indian leader. For two decades, Modi was dogged by criticism that he allowed the riots to continue, and it was in 2013 that a panel of India’s Supreme Court ruled there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him.

In 2005, the State Department denied Modi a US visa over his alleged role in the riots – though he was later welcomed by successive US administrations who saw him as a key figure in US foreign policy in Asia.

Modi has consistently denied any wrongdoing in connection with his handling of the 2002 events.

The documentary aired last week only in Britain and not in India, but the Modi government responded quickly and fiercely.

Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi lashed out at the BBC for producing “a propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative”. He accused the broadcaster of maintaining a political agenda and a “continuous colonial mentality.”

An adviser to India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Kanchan Gupta, also announced that under a 2021 law, that ministry had issued a directive to censor all social media posts sharing the documentary.

“Videos sharing hostile propaganda and anti-Indian rubbish from BBC World disguised as ‘documentary’ on YouTube, and tweets sharing links to the BBC documentary have been blocked under India’s sovereign laws and regulations,” Gupta said in a statement. tweet. He added that both YouTube and Twitter, which was recently acquired by Elon Musk, have complied with the orders.

In a statement, the BBC said the documentary had been “rigorously researched” and the Indian government declined to comment on the piece.

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Over the weekend, Indians could only share the film on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, and view copies stored on cloud services or on physical USB sticks.

On Tuesday night, students gathered at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi for a much-advertised show at 9pm, defying warnings from university administrators to cancel the event or face disciplinary action. Hundreds of students flocked to the student union, but were thwarted 30 minutes before the scheduled time when the electricity went out and the hall plunged into darkness, said Anagha Pradeep, a political science doctoral student.

Instead of watching the documentary on a projector, they shared links to download the film on their phones and watch it as a group, she said.

Soon after, students were attacked by members of the youth wing of the Hindu nationalist RSS group, Pradeep said. According to local media, university administrators blame the power outage on a faulty power line.

On Wednesday, student groups from Kerala in South India to West Bengal in the East had announced their plans to organize viewings. At Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, administrators stopped all unauthorized gatherings after police arrested several students for planning to show the documentary, local media reported.

Aishe Ghosh, the leader of the JNU student union, said the campus pushback showed India was “still breathing” [as] a democracy.”

“What’s the problem if a large number of Indians see it?” Ghosh said by telephone on Wednesday from a subway stop where she hid to avoid arrest.

“They will see through the propaganda if it exists,” she said. “What we get is more and more censorship.”

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