The sound of silence

January 29, 2023

BBC’s documentary titled “India: The Modi Question” has brought the controversial subject of Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots back into the spotlight

The sound of silence


anjiv Bhatt, a senior police officer in the Gujarat Intelligence Bureau in 2002, stated in a sworn declaration presented before the Supreme Court that his role afforded him access to a vast array of data and intelligence, both prior to and during the violent events of 2002. He alleged that in the evening right before the infamous Gujarat riots broke out, Narendra Modi allegedly instructed officials to inflict punishment upon the Muslim community as retribution for the arson attack on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, leaving 60 dead.

BBC’s documentary titled India: The Modi Question has brought the controversial subject of Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots back into the spotlight. It has generated a strong reaction in India, where video snippets of the documentary are being circulated online. The Gujarat riots were a series of violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims, which resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Hindu nationalist groups, including those with ties to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was led by Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s then Chief Minister, were widely criticised for orchestrating the violence. Modi and his government have been criticised for not doing enough to stop the violence and for allowing the attackers to go unpunished. Modi himself has been accused of turning a blind eye to the riots and even encouraging them. Modi and his party have consistently denied these allegations.

The claims made in the documentary prompted the Indian government to ban it on all local platforms. But the absolutist stance of censorship over this project did not limit itself to the country. The Intercept’s investigation published on January 15, 2023 reveals that Twitter and YouTube have also chosen to comply with the Saffron leader’s request to maintain a complete blackout over the documentary’s distribution.

Kanchan Gupta, a senior advisor at India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, took to social media to decry the BBC documentary as “hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage”. He announced that Twitter and YouTube have been ordered to block links to the film, and that the platforms have obeyed the directive. Gupta’s statements were corroborated by reports from Indian Twitter users, who stated that their posts containing links to the documentary were removed and they were issued a notice from Twitter that their post conflicted with local laws.

Despite the impassioned crackdown against the distribution and viewing of this documentary, the Kerala branch of the Congress Party screened the documentary as a demonstration of their right to free speech. The screening occurred only a day after the New Delhi police, clad in riot gear, apprehended nearly a dozen students from the Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) University in anticipation of a planned screening. The authorities have not disclosed the number of individuals arrested and they are being denied access to proper legal representation.

Twitter and YouTube have been ordered to block links to the film. The platforms have obeyed the directive.

But why is this documentary so offensive to the Modi government? The documentary traces Modi’s ascent through the hierarchies of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and his eventual appointment as chief minister of Gujarat. Simultaneously, it raises questions about the legitimacy of his monopoly over violence against the Muslims.

The first episode, the only one released yet of the planned two, delves extensively into the 2002 Gujarat riots and how the riots and the response to them were shaped under his leadership. After a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set on fire in the state, and 59 people killed, the grieving citizens attributed blame to the Muslim community. Retaliatory attacks spearheaded by Modi in incendiary speeches, resulted in over 1,000 deaths. The documentary also features an unpublished report from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office, which claims that Modi bore “direct responsibility” for the “climate of impunity” that enabled the violence. Modi denies any personal responsibility for the riots and his supporters cite a 2013 Indian Supreme Court ruling which gave him a clean chit citing a lack of evidence. The second episode of the documentary delves into the abysmal human rights record of Narendra Modi’s government after his re-election in 2019.

Under Modi’s leadership, a series of contentious policies – the revocation of Kashmir’s special status guaranteed under Article 370 of the Indian constitution, a citizenship law that many argue discriminates against Muslims – have been accompanied by reports of violent attacks on Muslims by Hindus. Modi and his government have denied all allegations of bias against Muslims in their policies but humanitarian organisations such as the Amnesty International have categorically maintained the opposite. Amnesty has closed its offices in Delhi.

Some journalists and social activists have claimed that the ban has instead attracted more attention to the documentary. It is also true that it has revealed the wide and expansive influence of the Modi government on Big Tech companies and raised significant concern around their decision to appease India’s contradictory claim to upholding the right to free speech.

Some Indians are persevering and constantly sharing innovative ideas of how to work around the loopholes in the censorship to share the documentary.

Prominent Indian journalist Abhishek Kumar announced on Twitter that the documentary is available for viewing on Telegram, Drive, and Mdisk under the title Pathaan Full HD. This is also the name of a new film featuring Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan.

It is important to note the increasing violence, intimidation, and arrests faced by journalists in India, with campaigners claiming that press freedom has significantly declined since Modi came to power. Modi’s controversial policies, such as a citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims and ignoring the rise in hate crimes against Muslims, have charged up Hindu nationalism.

This documentary essentially lays bare the bloody foundations of the Modi regime. In context of viewing it as a journalist in Pakistan, it only shows that if perhaps the BBC was to release a similarly revealing documentary about the plight of journalists and the nature of censorship in Pakistan, the reaction might be very similar. However, the Big Tech companies might not care at all.

The writer is an investigative journalist

The sound of silence