Campuses seething over government Modi documentary ‘ban’

Universities across India are seething over the screening of a controversial BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which has been banned in the country.

Reports of students trying to screen the documentary at university campuses despite multiple warnings from university administrations have led to some students being suspended, even as India’s Supreme Court has agreed to hear a petition challenging whether banning the documentary was valid under the country’s constitution.

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 ‘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, was deemed “hostile propaganda” by the government.

However, multiple reports have poured in from around the country of universities launching probes and taking action against defiant students.

Central University of Rajasthan in the Ajmer district suspended 10 of its students for 14 days for watching the documentary on 26 January – India’s Republic Day.

A day later, on 27 January, the university’s proctor said the students had been suspended from both studies and hostel accommodation for 14 days with immediate effect. All the affected students had watched the documentary on their mobile phones. The university administration has called the suspensions an ‘administrative’ action, but students are now fearful.

One of the 10 students, speaking on condition of anonymity, told University World News: “We were forcibly thrown out of the hostel by the security of the university on the night of 28 [January]. The university proctor didn’t even talk to us and didn’t give us a chance to present our side. Now the proctor is not even picking up the phone.”

Another of the suspended students said: “At 10 o’clock in the night, 40 to 50 students belonging to Hindu organisations assembled in the basketball court of the university carrying saffron flags and started raising provocative slogans such as ‘Traitors of the country, leave India’, ‘Shoot the traitors of the country’.”

Saffron is a colour associated with religious Hinduism, and widely adopted by supporters of Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“At around 11.15pm, those people carrying saffron flags came to the hostel shouting slogans. They switched off the lights of the hostel and started kicking the doors of all the rooms. We were very nervous.

“They made a random list of the students and the names of most of the Muslim students were included in it. Names of many such students were included in the list who were not even in the hostel at the time of the incident.”

Anuradha, a public relations officer at the university, told the media that 10 students had been suspended, but she claimed it had nothing to do with the documentary. “This disciplinary action has been taken by the Proctorial Board. Such actions have been taken earlier also. It has no connection with the documentary.”

An advisory issued by the proctor asked students to maintain law and order on the campus and avoid sloganeering.

Arrests but no charges

A number of students were arrested last week at Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), a prestigious university in New Delhi after attempts to screen the film on campus. They were released within 24 hours, circumventing rules against preventative detention which require detainees to be presented before a magistrate within 24 hours.

Others noted there were no specific charges.

Apar Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation said on 26 January via Twitter that blocking specific links by the government did not amount to a national ban, as the law only blocks specific urls and is directed specifically against online platforms, not individuals. The blocking of specific links “is not actionable for in-person screenings nor can [it] lead by itself to legal penalties”, he said.

However, he noted there were other ways to restrain screenings. “In terms of educational institutions there already exists an inverse power relationship against students. Here, departmental circulars and disciplinary proceedings can lead to risk.”

The screening did not actually take place at JMI. The Students Federation of India (SFI) JMI unit said they have not yet abandoned the screening plan but merely postponed it as students have been harassed and the examinations are also going on.

Intimidation by authorities

Many instances of intimidation by university authorities have been reported. On 28 January, about 200 students from the Mumbai-based premier Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) watched the documentary, amid tight police security and in defiance of the orders of the institute authorities. Institute officials said the students watched it on their laptops and cell phones and the institute had not provided any facilities for the public screening.

Delhi University (DU) launched a probe against students who sought to screen the documentary on campus. A committee formed by the DU administration headed by Proctor Rajni Abbi submitted its preliminary report on 30 January. The report details the versions of the university and the security staff. The committee will now proceed with a detailed investigation.

On 27 January, attempts were made to screen the film in Delhi’s Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar University and Delhi University (DU). Delhi Police detained 24 DU students who were later released. The university said it will quiz the students and also meet their parents and suggest measures to boost security at the campus.

Similarly, the University of Hyderabad, where two groups of students screened the film on 21 and 26 January, is likely to refer the matter to the proctorial board.

The film was also screened at some institutes in Kolkata in the eastern state of West Bengal, and in the southern states of Kerala and Telangana. Notably, non-BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, Modi’s party) governments are in power in these states.

In Kerala, the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), the youth wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the Students Federation of India (SFI), a left-wing student organisation, are screening the documentary in various venues in Kerala, including on campuses.

Amid an ongoing furore, the SFI’s Central Executive Committee called on all its state units to screen the documentary. Left-leaning student organisations are pushing to get it screened on more and more campuses, defying the ban. However, universities are not allowing the screening following the government’s ban.

Leaders of many student organisations seeking to screen the documentary say they are being forcibly prevented from watching.

Some members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the ruling BJP, said in Delhi that the leftist student organisations were spoiling the atmosphere of the universities in the name of screening the documentary.

SFI’s Delhi University unit responded that the screenings were not vitiating the atmosphere on campuses; on the other hand, the atmosphere is spoiled when university administrations call the police and students are detained.

Supreme Court petition

Amid the ongoing row, India’s Supreme Court has agreed to hear a petition challenging the government’s ban.

The petition termed the order of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting banning the BBC documentary as illegal, malicious, arbitrary and unconstitutional. The petition asks whether the central government can curb the freedom of the press, which is a fundamental right guaranteed under the constitution.

The petition also asks whether emergency provisions can be invoked by the central government without the country’s president declaring an emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution of India. The petition claims the BBC documentary contains “recorded facts”. These facts can be used to further the cause of justice for the victims.

The court will hear the matter on 6 February.