Indian students defy warnings and watch Modi documentary

JNU students watch BBC film despite warnings of disciplinary action and social media ban

January 24, 2023
New Delhi - 16 Apr, 2020 - The entrance gate of Jawaharlal Nehru (JNU) University a public central university located in New Delhi, India
Source: iStock

Students at a leading Indian university have watched a controversial documentary about prime minister Narendra Modi in defiance of threatened disciplinary action and a government block on the film appearing on social media.

The students’ union at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University organised a screening of the two-part BBC documentary India: The Modi Question on the evening of 24 January.

Local media reported that minutes before the screening was due to start, there was an electricity blackout on campus. In response, students who had gathered for the event decided to watch the documentary on their phones using a link shared via a QR code.

The union’s decision to go ahead with the event came nearly two days after the government used emergency laws to block viewing of the first episode of the documentary on YouTube as well as any Twitter posts with links to the programme. Both social media platforms complied with the orders.

The film recounts Mr Modi’s role as chief minister of Gujarat when violence broke out in the state in 2002. An estimated 2,000 people died, and systemic rape of Muslim women was carried out, some at the hands of the police. The BBC cited a report to the UK government that concluded that Mr Modi’s state government had created a “climate of impunity” for the Hindu extremist group that led much of the violence against Muslims. The report also found that Mr Modi was “directly responsible” and that the massacre had “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing”.

In a warning to students ahead of the screening, university management said “such an unauthorised activity may disturb the peace and harmony of the university campus”. In a notice, it stated: “The concerned students/individuals are firmly advised to cancel the proposed programme immediately failing which a strict disciplinary action may be initiated as per the university rules.”

The students’ union criticised the warning, but it was welcomed by the JNU unit of the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad group.

“Supporting a British-constructed narrative is coherent with the colonial mindset of British sepoys, of which many in opposition as well as so-called student organisations are indeed British stooges, spreading a propaganda-driven BBC documentary in Indian educational institutions,” said the ABVP, which is a student branch of a national-level Hindu nationalist party.

Meanwhile, in the south Indian state of Kerala, the youth division of the left-wing Communist Marxist Party has announced plans to organise screenings of the documentary in 200 venues across the state.

In a statement on its Facebook page, the group said: “We at Democratic Youth Federation of India stand against such acts of repressing free speech and expression. We demand that the government should take back its ‘ban’ on the documentary and that it should refrain from using such authoritarian actions.”

Another left-wing student organisation called for its units across the country to organise screenings “as soon as possible”.

“The Students’ Federation of India will not accept ‘censorship’ in the world’s largest democracy and the central executive committee of SFI has decided to screen the documentary India: The Modi Question in all states to reveal the real face of Modi government,” it announced on social media.

A screening of the film was held on 21 January at Hyderabad Central University, also known as the University of Hyderabad, which is now being probed by the security department of the institution.

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