Future Tense

Narendra Modi’s Censorship Has Reached an Alarming New Level

In India. On American social media. He even muzzled the Internet Archive.

Narendra Modi speaking at a podium decked in roses.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a rally in Mumbai on Thursday. Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Getty Images

Modern-day Indian democracy has no compunction about mass censorship. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has weakened the country’s once robust press, persecuting adversarial reporters and independent outlets. Though such hostility has become so pervasive as to become old news itself, the government’s latest attack on free speech and journalism has been greeted with widespread alarm—and for good reason.

Last week, the BBC broadcast the first hour of a new two-part documentary, India: The Modi Question, to TVs across Britain and on its website; the second half of the series aired Tuesday. The doc as a whole probes Modi’s stints in political power, from his time as chief minister of the state of Gujarat to his current tenure as prime minister, and his mistreatment of India’s Muslims along the way. Given the overwhelming international documentation of Islamophobic persecution under Modi’s watch, it couldn’t have been a surprise that The Modi Question features ample reporting on the now–prime minister’s history of bigoted governance; the BBC is hardly the first outlet to spotlight this. Yet just days after the first portion aired, Indian government ministers disparaged the film as “propaganda” with a “lack of objectivity” and a “colonial mindset.” (In response, the BBC pointed out that its movie included responses from members of Modi’s political outfit, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, and that the government declined its request for a reply.)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Even though The Modi Question was not broadcast on any Indian TV or digital networks, clips of the documentary circulated widely across social media. In response, over the weekend India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting invoked a notorious 2021 emergency law—one that’s been utilized to obscure the visibility of social media content at the Indian government’s discretion—to impose a blanket ban on any form of public access to The Modi Question within Indian borders. This encompasses clips on Twitter and Facebook, in-person screenings, TV airwaves, and other means of viewing even one second of the movie.

It’s not as though the government just announced the ban and walked away; it’s following through, to an aggressive extent. The ministry personally got Twitter to take down or obscure dozens of tweets linking to The Modi Question, including posts shared by ministers of Parliament from opposition parties, and to preemptively strike down new posts sharing the doc; YouTube is blocking film uploads and links, and the Internet Archive has also taken down links to the film (although users are still uploading their own rips). Twitter’s compliance inside Indian borders is not unexpected, considering it has often agreed in the past to take down or obscure certain accounts according to officials’ desire, but it’s especially jarring in light of the company’s still ongoing lawsuit against India for this very type of censorship, plus the reinstatement of several formerly banned Islamophobic accounts.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The crackdown is also reaching universities. On Tuesday, after the student union at Delhi’s increasingly embattled Jawaharlal Nehru University planned to hold a Modi Question screening, the school’s administration publicly announced that it had not granted the students permission and recommended they cancel it. When the union defied this request, the university shut off electricity and internet access across campus while calling for police backup. An anonymous student told Reuters that their peers were circumventing this by watching the doc “on mobile phones through links shared over Telegram and Vimeo.” At another school in Delhi, the Muslim-run Jamia Millia university, police forces reportedly detained more than a dozen students who’d likewise planned a screening on Wednesday. Such defiance has spread to other academic bastions: The University of Hyderabad is investigating students who held a Modi Question viewing this week, and various college groups and activist organizations in Kerala are hosting public screenings across the state in the face of BJP pushback. The left-wing Students’ Federation of India told Reuters it wishes to exhibit The Modi Question in every single state.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

This isn’t the first time the Modi administration has cracked down on international TV shows and movies, but its probing here is especially telling. The chief objection to the BBC documentary stems from the first episode’s coverage of Modi’s reign as Gujarat chief minister—specifically, his oversight of the bloody 2002 riots. That spate of communal violence began in February of that year, when a train carrying a group of Hindu devotees was stopped and set aflame, killing nearly 60 passengers. Although the exact cause of the fire is still unknown, the state’s Muslim population was scapegoated, and brutal interreligious clashes flared up throughout the state over following months. After the violence simmered down, authorities reported up to 2,000 fatalities, the large majority of them Muslim. The event was condemned both domestically and internationally, with various human rights activists and government officials holding Chief Minister Narendra Modi culpable for failing to stop the bloodshed, or even accusing him of encouraging it. As a result, the George W. Bush administration forbade Modi from visiting the United States, and the riots remained a stain on Modi’s reputation for years—at least, until he began his run for prime minister and the Indian Supreme Court appeared to absolve him. (Independent scholars continued to highlight Modi’s rhetoric and actions during the riots, including his mocking of displaced citizens, denial of relief funds from the national government, interference with local police and judicial investigations, and alleged encouragement of Hindus who wished to “vent their anger.”)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Since Modi became PM, his administration has gone after public figures who criticized Modi for the riots, like journalist Rana Ayyub and actor Aamir Khan (both of whom, incidentally, are Muslim). The BBC film appears to have exploded, however, because it utilizes archival footage from its own on-the-ground investigation of the riots and their aftermath, including an interview with a hostile Narendra Modi in which the minister brusquely dismisses questions about the riots with the same talking points he’s using today. The documentary also showcases never-before-published British government memos from 2002 that deem Modi “directly responsible” for the riots, alongside commentary from an anonymous government official who worked on the report (and claims to be speaking out for the first time). The reports deem the riots a “pre-planned” event by pointing to Hindu rioters’ use of data networks targeting Muslim residences, cite police claims that “implicit state Government pressure” prevented the forces from rescuing Muslim rape victims, note allegations from on-the-ground journalists and human rights groups that Modi personally ordered cops not to intervene in any Islamophobic attacks, and record how relief money was doled out in a discriminatory fashion by the state, with much more going to Hindu survivors. The reports from Tony Blair’s government further labeled the riots a “politically motivated” campaign with “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing,” aimed at “purg[ing] Muslims from Hindu areas.” According to then–Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, his office looked into the Gujarat riots because concerned Indian Britons had petitioned his government to do so. (Notably, despite these damning reports, current British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has stated that he’s “not sure that I agree at all with the [film’s] characterization” of Modi.)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

For those who never believed Modi’s purported innocence regarding the riots, the new documents are a bombshell. To those devoted to Modi and his Hindu nationalist M.O., the BBC documentary is just another “anti-India” hit job and political smear courtesy of the subcontinent’s former colonial administrator. But those with suspicions about the BBC’s intentions aren’t asking what motivation the Modi administration has for its widespread censorship of The Modi Question, which won’t let up anytime soon. As the Associated Press notes, the BBC controversy landed shortly after the government proposed a new measure that would empower it to “take down news deemed ‘fake or false’ from digital platforms.”

This isn’t even the first time India has banned coverage of the Gujarat riots: In 2004, the film board of the country’s BJP-led administration censured the documentary Final Solution, a two-part feature that dissected the animating factors behind the riots’ Islamophobic brutality. However, the ban was lifted later that year after a new opposition government was elected and Indians protested the censorship en masse. It’s much less likely that will happen this time. Instead, you can probably expect a lot more domestic prosecution and globe-spanning censorship to come.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Advertisement