How Narendra Modi tried to censor a critical BBC documentary—and failed miserably

The Hindu nationalists in power in India do not want their narrative challenged, but they cannot suppress the truth forever

January 31, 2023
Students in Kolkata watching the banned documentary. Credit: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News
Students in Kolkata watching the banned documentary. Credit: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News

If you want to know how not to censor a critical television documentary, look to the behaviour of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and his reaction to India: The Modi Question, the BBC’s two-part exploration of the approach taken by his government towards India’s Muslims and the conflicts and tensions that have arisen from its ideology and policies. 

Since its release the government has engaged in an astonishing attempt to prohibit its screening and I, along with fellow petitioners, am challenging this censorship in the Indian Supreme Court. But to understand what the government is so afraid of, one has to know the context. India’s Muslims constitute nearly 15 per cent of the country’s population and number over 200m. India has the third-largest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan. It is projected to have the largest by 2050. 

The documentary starts with the backstory of an obscure politician who rises to national and international prominence, and is treated by western powers as a valued ally and “a bulwark against Chinese domination of Asia”.

pracharak, or full-time missionary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who had been drawn to the fascistic organisation as a child, Modi is assigned to work within the rising Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a mass political party guided by the RSS. Modi gets an unexpected opportunity to helm the BJP government in his native state, Gujarat. Establishing a reputation as a strongman, he wins international notoriety for presiding over an anti-Muslim pogrom that claims an estimated 2,000 lives. 

It is important to note, as the BBC documentary does, that the pogrom came in the wake of the Godhra atrocity of February 2002, in which 59 Hindu activists and pilgrims travelling on a train were burnt to death in an attack carried out by a group of Muslim extremists armed with stones and petrol cans. Modi seeks to capitalise politically on this terrible chapter by demanding an early state assembly election, whipping up majoritarian sentiment against the victims of the pogrom and insisting that only his party can stabilise the situation on the ground. His political manoeuvring, combined with his promise of economic advancement, ensures his dominance of the state for the next dozen years, until he becomes prime minister in 2014. He begins his first term promising “development for all”, but it soon becomes clear that his government is committed to nothing less than implementing the Hindu supremacist agenda of the RSS, by undermining the secular foundations of the Indian constitutional system. 

Episode two examines “the troubled relationship” between Prime Minister Modi's government and India’s Muslims after he began his second prime ministerial term in May 2019 with an enhanced parliamentary majority. The re-installed Modi government lost no time in delivering on the hardcore RSS-BJP agenda—first by doing away with the special status that Jammu and Kashmir, a Muslim majority state, enjoyed under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and cracking down on any sign of opposition with overwhelming military and paramilitary force; and then by enacting a citizenship amendment law that openly discriminated against Muslims and brutally suppressing the extensive protests this change triggered. Episode two also brings out in an effective and moving way the periodic violence unleashed against Muslims by Hindu extremist outfits, the blaming of the victims by authorities, and the immunity the attackers have enjoyed in many cases.      

It is understandable that the BJP government declined to comment on the allegations when invited to do so by the journalists making the documentary. A sober way of dealing with the fallout from India: The Modi Question would have been for the government to downplay it, perhaps say it disagreed with the thrust and message of the documentary and with some comments made by those interviewed. Even a “No comment” response would have been better than what followed.

Everyone knows that the real offence committed by the BBC film was investigating and establishing the umbilical connection between Modi’s highly controversial role during the 2002 Gujarat pogrom and the panoply of post-2019 BJP government policies that discriminate against and target Muslims in new ways—muscular, violent and toxic—and on an unprecedented scale. But the government found itself unable to come clean on this real objection to the documentary. 

Instead, as soon as episode one was out in the UK and began to pop up unauthorised on YouTube and some other websites, it launched a fusillade of dubious charges against the documentary and its makers. “The bias, the lack of objectivity, and, frankly, a continuing colonial mindset is blatantly visible,” charged external affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi. He characterised the film as “a propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative” while admitting that he had not actually watched it. Unnamed officials were quoted in India's mainstream media making the bizarre allegation that the film was “an attempt to cast aspersions on the authority and credibility of the Supreme Court of India.” 

In an action that could have come straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the information and broadcasting secretary invoked an emergency provision of the notorious Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 to issue directions for “blocking multiple YouTube videos” and “over 50 tweets” linked to material from episode one. A government adviser explained that the documentary undermined “the sovereignty and integrity of India” and had the “potential to adversely impact India’s friendly relations with foreign countries [and] also public order within the country.” It is worth noting that 17 cases challenging the constitutionality of these rules, which were before various Indian High Courts, are now under consideration by the Supreme Court—separately to our own petition of writ. 

Everyone I know has watched or will soon watch both episodes

The reaction on the ground to the ban orders against episode one was immediate and instructive. Downloads, obtained in various ways, have been widely shared. Mass screenings have been organised in public places by opposition political parties, independent organisations, spontaneously formed film groups, and students in several parts of India—and people have flocked to watch the banned film. In Delhi, university authorities have brought in police forces and attempted heavy-handedly to bar students from organising screenings on campuses, fuelling greater interest and excitement over the film. Everyone I know has watched or will soon watch both episodes. 

Somewhat sheepishly, the BJP government has let it be known that it has no intention of blocking episode two, which apparently does not violate India’s IT Rules 2021 and can still be watched on a website or two, plus the unauthorised downloads. The government seems belatedly to have realised that censorship and bans only bring on a “Streisand effect”. Look it up.