Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi awaits the arrival of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India on Wednesday.

Manish Swaroop/AP


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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi awaits the arrival of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India on Wednesday.

Manish Swaroop/AP

NEW DELHI – Days after India blocked a BBC documentary examining Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in 2002 anti-Muslim riots and banned people from sharing it online, authorities are seeking to block screenings of the program at colleges and universities and ban clips of it. Critics have criticized social media as an attack on press freedom.

Tensions rose at Jamia Millia University in the capital New Delhi on Wednesday, where a student group said it planned to screen a banned documentary, prompting dozens of police equipped with tear gas and riot gear to gather outside the campus gates.

Some plainclothes police clashed with the protesting students and detained at least half a dozen, who were taken away in vans.

“It’s time for Indian youth to present the truth that everyone knows. We know what the prime minister is doing to society,” said Lia Sharif, 20, a geography student and member of the student group Fraternity Movement.

Jawaharlal Nehru University in the capital turned off electricity and internet on its campus on Tuesday before the students’ union screened the documentary. Officials said it would disturb peace on campus, but students nevertheless watched the documentary on their laptops and mobile phones after sharing it on messaging services like Telegram and WhatsApp.

The documentary has also created a stir in other universities in India.

Authorities at the University of Hyderabad in southern India launched an investigation earlier this week after a student group showed a banned documentary. In the southern state of Kerala, activists of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party demonstrated on Tuesday after some student groups affiliated with rival political parties defied the ban and staged an event.

The two-part documentary “Bharat: Modi Question” has not been broadcast by the BBC in India, but India’s federal government blocked it over the weekend and banned people from sharing clips on social media, citing emergency powers under the Information Technology Act. Twitter and YouTube complied with the request and removed many links to the documentary.

The first part of the programme, released by the BBC last week for its British audience, relives the most controversial episode of Modi’s political career when he was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat in 2002. It focuses on anti-Muslim riots. More than 1,000 people were killed.

The riots had long dogged Modi because the authorities under his watch allowed and encouraged the bloodshed. Modi has denied the allegations and the Supreme Court has said it found no evidence to prosecute him. Last year, the country’s Supreme Court dismissed a petition filed by Muslim victims questioning Modi’s immunity.

The first part of the BBC documentary is based on interviews with riot victims, journalists and rights activists, who saw Modi differently during the riots. It cites, for the first time, that a secret British diplomatic inquiry has concluded that Modi is “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity”.

The documentary includes the testimony of then-British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who said a British investigation found that the violence by Hindu nationalists was aimed at “removing Muslims from Hindu areas” and that it had all the “symptoms of ethnic cleansing”.

Suspicious of Modi’s tacit support for the riots, the US, UK and EU denied him a visa, which has since been reversed.

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India’s External Affairs Ministry last week called the documentary a “propaganda piece designed to push a particularly discredited narrative” that lacked objectivity, and criticized it for “bias” and a “persistent colonial mentality”. Kanchan Gupta, a senior adviser to the government’s information and broadcasting ministry, condemned it as “anti-India rubbish”.

The BBC said in a statement that the documentary was “rigorously researched” and included a range of voices and views.

“We offered the Government of India the right to reply on the issues raised in the series – it refused to respond,” the statement said.

The second part of the documentary, released in Britain on Tuesday, examines the track record of Narendra Modi’s government since his re-election in 2019, according to a film description on the BBC website.

Students stand guard at the main gate of Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, India on Wednesday. A student group plans to screen a banned documentary examining Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in 2002 anti-Muslim riots, prompting dozens of police equipped with tear gas and riot gear to gather outside campus gates.

Manish Swaroop/AP


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Students stand guard at the main gate of Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, India on Wednesday. A student group plans to screen a banned documentary examining Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in 2002 anti-Muslim riots, prompting dozens of police equipped with tear gas and riot gear to gather outside campus gates.

Manish Swaroop/AP

In recent years, India’s Muslim minority has been on the receiving end of violence from Hindu nationalists, encouraged by a prime minister who has remained silent on such attacks since he was first elected in 2014.

The ban has sparked a wave of criticism from opposition parties and rights groups who have criticized it as an attack on press freedom. It also drew more attention to the documentary, increasing the number of social media users to share clips on WhatsApp, Telegram and Twitter.

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“You can ban, you can suppress the press, you can control institutions… but the truth is the truth. It has a bad habit of coming out,” opposition Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi told reporters. A press conference on Tuesday.

Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra tweeted a new link to the documentary after an earlier one was removed on Tuesday. “Good, bad, or ugly – we decide. The government doesn’t tell us what to watch,” Moitra said in his tweet, which was also Wednesday morning.

Human Rights Watch said the ban reflected a broader crackdown on minorities under the Modi government, which rights groups have repeatedly called for tougher laws to criticize.

In last year’s Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, critics say press freedom in India has declined in recent years, with the country falling eight places out of 150 out of 180 countries. It accused Modi’s government of silencing criticism on social media, particularly Twitter, a charge denied by senior leaders of the ruling party.

Modi’s government has regularly pressured Twitter to ban or restrict content critical of the prime minister or his party. Last year, it threatened to arrest Twitter employees in the country for refusing to ban accounts run by critics after it imposed sweeping new rules for technology and social media companies.

The ban on the BBC documentary comes after the government proposed giving its Press Information Bureau and other “fact-checking” agencies the power to remove news it deems “fake or inaccurate” from digital platforms.

The Editors’ Association of India has asked the government to withdraw the proposal saying that such a change would amount to censorship.

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