Indian students who defied BBC’s Modi documentary ban give me hope

While corporations and universities bowed to pressure to ban controversial BBC documentary, students showed freedom of speech and critical enquiry still matter in India, says Mukhtar Ahmad

二月 18, 2023

The raids on the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai are the latest part of the fallout from the broadcast of a critical profile of Narendra Modi.

Laptops, phones and financial data were seized earlier this week by tax officials weeks after the screening of a two-part documentary, The Modi Question, which alleged that India’s president turned a blind eye to the Gujarat riots in 2002 while he was chief minister. Furthermore, the BBC programme cited previously classified British intelligence quoting unnamed sources who claimed Modi had told senior police officers “not to intervene” in the violence that killed more than 1,000 people, mostly minority Muslims, after 58 Hindu pilgrims died in a fire on a train.

The documentary was not aired in India and Twitter and YouTube agreed to remove any links to what government officials called “propaganda” but it was still seen by some thanks to India’s students. Although many universities refused permission, students pressed ahead with planned screenings, with authorities having to resort to sabotage.

At Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, authorities suspended the internet and cut off the university electricity supply. Nonetheless, students watched the documentary on their cell phones and laptops, although some were pelted with stones from those hiding behind bushes.

At Jamia Millia Islamia, another university in New Delhi, the administration called the police to prevent the documentary’s screening. Again, the internet was shut down and large numbers of police surrounded Jamia and locked the gates. Officers say they detained four students after the Student Federation of India, a student wing of the Communist party of India, announced its plan to screen the BBC documentary.

Similar treatment was meted out to students of Delhi and Ambedkar universities, also in the national capital, whose numbers were dispersed by officers at the behest of university authorities.

Down south at Hyderabad Central University, efforts to block the BBC documentary were less successful. It was screened twice on campus. In Kerala, another southern state in which the communist party is in power, there was no resistance from the university. The youth wing of Modi’s political party, the BJP, tried to stop it but police foiled their attempt. In Rajasthan, where the congress government is in power, the Central University of Rajasthan in Ajmer has suspended 10 students over an alleged screening of the documentary, although administrators have claimed students were suspended for other “indiscipline” offences.

In Mumbai, more than 200 students from the prestigious Tata Institute of Social Science Research ignored warnings by campus administrators to watch the documentary, while it was screened on the street outside the University of Calcutta by student union members after it was banned from campus. It was also screened at Kolkata’s Jadavpur and Presidency universities, although the latter’s showing was stalled for half an hour because of a power disruption. Thankfully, students gathered outside the office of the university’s dean till the power supply was resumed.

The serious allegations made against President Modi in the documentary were not a surprise. Indeed, there was hardly anything new that was not already known to Indian people thanks to TV news reports and subsequent investigations. But students knew it was imperative that the claims were aired and interrogated – not brushed under the carpet. At Jamia, where peaceful student protests were violently broken up by police in December 2019, echoing the Gujarat violence, the significance of the show was even more acute.

The obvious question faced by heads of Indian universities who sought to thwart these screenings is what law they used to prohibit its release. On closely examining the pattern of campus bans, it is easily established that vice-chancellors of central universities who are appointed by the central government were more enthusiastic in preventing students from screening the documentary. According to Wire columnist Apoorvanand, a Delhi University professor, the vice-chancellors have become “stooges and spokespersons of the majoritarian regime”.

He was rightly critical of the head of my former employer, Aligarh Muslim University, who wrote an obsequious Indian Express opinion piece suggesting that the show’s “half-baked agendas” included the BBC’s sense of a “white man’s burden” – in others words, righting the wrongs caused by British colonialism – or a desire to stoke a sense of “misplaced victimhood” among Muslim Indians. Economic envy after the “Indian economy just outdid the British economy to become the fifth largest in the world” may also explain the allegations, he suggests.

That is, of course, loyalty to the boss. But while the attempts to ban the BBC documentary have illustrated the craven side of university authorities, it has shown the best aspects of our student community. Our young people are still aware of their democratic rights and will take risks to demonstrate .

This is the silver lining for a country where all other institutions, including the media, have fallen in line with the government.

Mukhtar Ahmad is former professor of electrical engineering at Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh, India.



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