Students arrested over banned Modi documentary screening

Around a dozen people have been arrested at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university, four of them from the left-leaning Students Federation of India (SFI), after the SFI said it would screen a controversial BBC documentary at the campus.

The two-part BBC documentary 'India: The Modi Question', which examines the role of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi when violence took place in his home state of Gujarat in 2002 at a time when he was the state’s chief minister, has created a storm on university campuses after student groups tried to air the documentary after it was banned by the federal government.

The documentary probes allegations of Modi’s complicity in the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, which erupted after a train carrying many Hindu pilgrims caught fire, killing 59. Mobs later overran Muslim neighbourhoods killing and perpetrating other atrocities while the police were said to have stood by.

Modi has repeatedly denied accusations that he did not do enough to stop the riots while he was chief minister of the state and responsible for policing and security in the state.

On 21 January, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting blocked the series on YouTube as well as YouTube links to the documentary, using emergency powers under the country’s information technology legislation. The documentary was deemed “hostile propaganda” by the government.

Despite being warned of strict action by university administrations, students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi and at the University of Hyderabad in the southern state of Telangana, held screenings of the BBC film on campus, with others such as Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) in New Delhi and Presidency University and Jadavpur University in Kolkata, West Bengal, saying they intended to go ahead with screenings in defiance of the authorities.

Campuses in the southern state of Kerala were reportedly also planning screenings, with the backing of the state government led by the Left Democratic Front, an alliance of left-leaning political parties which is currently in power in the state.

Scores of other students who had assembled at JMI to oppose the detention of four activists were detained by Delhi Police on 25 January, according to Pritish Menon, secretary of the SFI's Delhi state committee.

Another SFI leader, Varkey Parakkal, said the students were not doing anything illegal. Dissenting against the government is a right guaranteed in the Constitution, he said.

Many of the detained students were released a day later, on 26 January, and no charges were pressed against them. But SFI officials claimed that 13 of the detained students had not been released and they continue to be in police custody.

A police spokesperson was quoted as saying “a screening for a BBC documentary was to be organised by a group of Jamia Millia Islamia students inside the university today, which was not allowed by the administration of the university. The university administration informed the police that some students were creating a ruckus on the streets and therefore a total of 13 students were detained around 4pm to ensure peace in the area.”

The arrests occurred after the college’s chief proctor issued a notice threatening disciplinary action over any unapproved meetings or gatherings of students on “any part of the campus” after it came to the university’s notice “that some students belonging to a political organisation have circulated a poster about the screening of a contentious documentary film on the university campus today”.

Blackout at JNU

The arrests at JMI came days after Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) management tried to bar a showing of the documentary, warning that campus “peace and harmony could possibly be disrupted” by the screening.

When JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) decided to go ahead on 24 January in defiance of the authorities, the university administration allegedly cut the power supply to the entire campus and disconnected internet connection to the JNUSU office, which students said was aimed at stopping the screening.

University officials are yet to respond to the latest developments on the campus and the students’ allegations.

Students were nonetheless able to share a link with each other to view the documentary on their mobile phones and laptops as darkness engulfed the campus.

But JNUSU President Aishe Ghosh alleged that while they were watching on their mobile phones activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with their faces covered, pelted them with stones. ABVP has denied this.

An associate professor at a leading university in Delhi said on condition of anonymity: “The way students are being intimidated at two of the universities is outrageous and curtails the right to free speech.”

“The undemocratic measure and the restrictions imposed on campuses are unwarranted. It would be even more unfortunate if students have to face any sort of [punitive] action for their insistence to screen the documentary,” said a senior professor at JNU, requesting anonymity.

“Directions to block access to the documentary have been issued using emergency powers under the contentious IT Rules. The new IT Rules have been widely seen as one of the most potent instruments to restrict free speech in India,” he said.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting can ask social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to immediately remove content in emergency situations under the Information Technology Rules (IT Rules), 2021.

JNUSU’s Ghosh said: “We are encouraging campuses across the country to hold screenings as an act of resistance against this censorship.”

University of Hyderabad screening

University of Hyderabad (also known as Hyderabad Central University) students also screened the documentary on campus, defying the authorities. According to the Hyderabad University administration, students held a screening on 22 January, a day after the central government banned the series. University officials said permission was not given for the screening.

The screening was organised by a Muslim student group called the Fraternity Movement, which averred it would screen the second part of the documentary as well, even as the university launched a probe into the screening and the BJP student wing demanded stern action.

The Fraternity Movement denounced what it called the “unilateral directive” issued by the federal government to certain online platforms to ban the documentary. Afsal Hussain, president of the Hyderabad University unit of the Fraternity Movement, said they decided to organise the screening “in memory of the victimised Muslims and to stand in solidarity with them”. It did not use any of the platforms which were barred from carrying the series by the government.

For many students currently at university, the violent events of 2002 and the investigations into Modi’s role – which led to him being temporarily barred from travelling to the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union while he was chief minister of Gujarat before he was elected prime minister in 2014 – occurred before they were born.

Academics criticise government moves to ban viewings

There have been similar reports of attempts to screen the documentary at many other universities. At Pondicherry University, in Kalapet, in the Union Territory of Puducherry, students belonging to SFI were assaulted by activists of the BJP student wing when they tried to screen the documentary.

A screening at Panjab University in Chandigarh, organised by the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), a student group allied to the opposition Congress party, was halted midway by university security personnel, saying NSUI did not have permission to screen it.

Academics have slammed the government's move to block access to the documentary and prevent its screening on campuses. Many of them said the ban “proved” that the 2002 violence still troubles Modi and the ruling BJP.

But questions are also being asked about the universities’ role in preventing students from organising showings of the documentary.

Roop Rekha Verma, a former vice-chancellor of Lucknow University in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, said university administrations “don't have the power to censor but they give permission or refusal for organising [a showing of] the programme on campus,” she said describing it as a “dictatorial decision”.

At the same time, they [the university administration] have to go to the government for things relating to their work, so they are compelled to comply. “That's why they have to follow government orders, otherwise it will be difficult for them to work,” she told University World News.

Verma said university officials wanted more important posts for themselves and more facilities for their institutions from the government, so it is not easy to go against the government. “This is the reason why they don’t think about academic freedom but about themselves,” she said.

“University officials cannot defy the government and have to enforce the ban imposed by the government, but neither the government nor the university can convincingly explain to students under which law they are prohibiting the screening of the documentary on campus,” said an associate professor at a leading university in Delhi on condition of anonymity.

The BBC said the documentary was "rigorously researched" and involved a wide range of voices and opinions, including responses from Modi’s party, the BJP.