The BBC’s Documentary on Gujarat Riots is Being censored in India
The Indian government is trying to stop people from viewing a BBC documentary about the 2002 Gujarat riots. The two-part film cites a previously unpublished British government report that found the state government under then-chief minister Narendra Modi “directly responsible” for creating a climate of impunity for Hindu nationalist violence.
The BBC’s India: The Modi Question
After the BBC aired two documentary series critical of Indian PM Narendra Modi’s handling of India’s Muslim minority, officials from India’s income tax department visited BBC offices in Delhi and Mumbai for a “survey”. They seized accounts, financial files and phones of employees. The Committee to Protect Journalists said it was an act of intimidation and that authorities should not be harassing journalists doing their jobs.
The two-part documentary, which reopened allegations about Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots that left hundreds dead, provoked accusations of anti-India bias and was met with violence by supporters of his Bharatiya Janata Party. Some BJP politicians even petitioned the supreme court to ban the BBC in India. The petition was dismissed.
But it is hardly the first time that India’s thin-skinned ruling party has been accused of trying to stifle dissent. The government has a history of intimidating journalists and civil society groups, prosecuting them under sedition laws, raiding their homes and imposing censorship on media companies.
The first episode
Two decades ago, when Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, his government sparked communal violence that left more than 1,000 people dead, the majority of whom were Muslims. The first episode of the documentary recounts how a UK government inquiry, led by former foreign secretary Jack Straw, blamed Modi’s government for the violence, saying that senior police officers were told not to intervene.
The episode also claims that Modi’s BJP-led state government encouraged the riots by inciting Hindu nationalist groups and providing them with state resources. Since assuming office, the episode says, Modi and his party have been pursuing a “Hindu supremacy project” through laws and actions that empower party supporters to harass and attack religious minorities.
When the documentary first aired in January, India’s government tried to block it on YouTube and Twitter. But activists, journalists, and even politicians kept sharing links to the BBC series, despite the authorities’ attempts to stop them. It seems that the show has sparked a national debate on what the Modi government is doing to promote Hindutva, and whether or not it should be allowed to continue.
The second episode
The second episode takes up the story of 69 Hindus who were acquitted of charges related to the 2002 Gujarat riots. The riots occurred after the train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set on fire and blamed on Muslims, sparking a spree of retaliatory killings and rapes by Hindu mobs.
Many of those who were acquitted were associated with the rightwing Hindu vigilante groups Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which have close links to Modi’s BJP party. The acquittal was met with cries of “Jai Sri Ram”, a Hindi religious greeting often co-opted and weaponised by Hindu nationalists as a battle cry.
The Indian government has blocked tweets and YouTube videos with links to the documentary, but users have found alternate ways to watch it. The Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi, has called the documentary a propaganda piece and said it “seeks to push a particular discredited narrative”.
The two-part documentary revives questions over PM Modi’s leadership during one of India’s most deadly episodes, when he was chief minister in the western state of Gujarat in 2002. More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in what the government called a communal riot.
The BBC cited a British foreign ministry report quoting unnamed sources who said that Modi instructed senior police officers not to intervene in the violence by Hindu nationalist groups, which was intended to “purge Muslim areas.” The documentary also quotes Modi himself rejecting those claims as false.
The BBC was not banned in India, but the government blocked its airing and stopped people from sharing clips on social media. The government used emergency powers under India’s information technology rules, and Twitter and YouTube complied with the directions. The censorship has led to protests by opposition parties and rights activists. The World’s Marco Werman spoke with Rana Ayyub, an expert on the riots and author of the book “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up.” She has been trying to get a copy of the BBC documentary.