A security personnel speaks to people from inside the main gate of Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi, India

Blocking BBC documentary on Gujarat riots goes against India’s democratic values, journalist says

A new BBC documentary looking at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots has sparked controversy in India. The government is trying to ban it while students and activists are finding ways to watch it in defiance. Rana Ayyub, author of the book “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up,” discussed the situation with The World’s host Marco Werman.

The World

A new BBC documentary has sparked controversy across India.

The Indian government has tried to block the film “India: The Modi Question,” which looks at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in the state of Gujarat, where he was the chief minister at the time.

Several students at Jamia Millia Islamia University were arrested ahead of the planned screening. And Jawaharlal Nehru University locked its gates and cut electricity at its New Delhi campus as students gathered for another screening there. When they tried to watch it on laptops and cell phones in defiance, they were attacked by a group of masked men throwing stones at them.

Rana Ayyub, author of the book “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up,” and an opinion columnist with The Washington Post, discussed the documentary and the situation with The World’s host Marco Werman.

Marco Werman: Rana, what has the Modi government said about this new BBC documentary and its reason for censoring it?
Rana Ayyub: Well, the Foreign Office, when questioned about the revelations made by the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, on the Gujarat riots and his observations, has called the BBC documentary a propaganda by colonial minds, who are trying to discredit India and with the documentary. This is why the government of India has asked Twitter to remove Twitter accounts that have shared the link to the documentary. I have only seen the first part of the documentary. I have not been able to see the second part, because a couple of them have put out the links of the documentary, but each time they put out something, it is removed. The government has gone all out not just to censor the documentary, but stop, not just social media platforms, but any organization, any platform, any institution from publicly playing this documentary, and that goes against the very ethics of a democracy.
For those of us who don’t know much about what happened in Gujarat, take us back briefly to what did go on there in 2002, and what we know for sure about Modi’s role during those riots.
In 2002, Marco, about 60 Hindus were burned alive in a train, following which there was a decision made by the Modi government to take out the bodies in public. And over a week from that day, more than 1,000 Muslims were massacred. Mr. Modi was held responsible for, not just the lack of law and order, but the fact that the police did not act on time, that nothing was done to stop the attack on the Muslim community. Hate speeches were given in public by Hindu nationalists, and none of those hate speeches were stopped. The highest court in India, the Supreme Court, made an observation that Mr. Modi was like a modern day Nero, who looked the other way as innocent Muslims were massacred over a period of a week in Gujarat.
Right. And at the time, Narendra Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, which is essentially the governor, right? So, the current battle over this documentary with the national government of Prime Minister Modi banning the film, they used a 2021 emergency law. Do you think the government’s security concerns for not showing this film are legitimate?
Why would a documentary done by BBC, or for that matter any publication, have to be censored? I think it is a right of every Indian to watch what it wants to. They are guaranteed that right by the constitution of this country, the right of every Indian to watch the documentary and decide for themselves what is right or what is wrong. The Indian government has used emergency powers to stop the screening of a documentary citing national security threats. So, I think this is a very exaggerated claim, especially vis-a-vis a documentary. And ironically, this is what normally happens when you censor something. It is broadly watched and discussed. This documentary is now being watched by almost every Indian who, initially, was indifferent or was not watching it.
I would put to you, though, Rana Ayyub, and I know you haven’t seen the second episode of this documentary, but it does have some shocking footage, people beaten and killed on camera. We have to ask, what is the purpose of that, if not to anger people. And if it has a potential to stoke tensions, doesn’t the prime minister have a prerogative to try and maintain peace in his country?
Very, very recently the Indian government actually sanctioned the release of a film called “The Kashmir Files,” which has been called by many filmmakers as brazen propaganda of the Hindu right. Now, what happened in Kashmir, the attack on Hindus, was something that happened legitimately. But the movie, the way “The Kashmir Files” was made, was a very Islamophobic way that paints all Muslims as some kind of bloodthirsty villains. The prime minister of India, and this happened years ago, decades ago, but the prime minister of India and the home minister of India, not just endorsed the release of the film, but the prime minister went on record saying that no activist or no journalist should censor this film because it shows the reality of India. So, if it was really a law-and-order concern, then this is a pick-and-choose by the government of India, that it wants to show a certain documentary, but it does not want to show a certain [other] documentary.
We need to point out as well that the battle over this documentary is just the latest incident of censorship in India. So, what does free speech and free press look like in your country right now?
Well, in a country which calls itself the world’s largest democracy, the prime minister of India has not taken a single press conference. One of the reasons why he did not give interviews was that he referred to journalists as “news traders.” In a country where 220 million Muslims in the country are routinely under attack by Hindu nationalists; where Hindu nationalists are seen in the national capital taking violent calls for converting India into a Hindu nation; when the prime minister of the country, who is absolutely media savvy, who likes to tweet about everything, does not tweet to ask for an inclusive India, does not tweet for an end to violence, does not take a single press briefing, does not give interviews to mainstream media; when journalists in India are being silenced, I think press freedom, there is no such thing as press freedom in India.
Rana, you are a fierce critic of Narendra Modi and how he sees democracy in India, but he’s still extremely popular there. Swapan Dasgupta, an Indian politician who was in Modi’s party and a former journalist, says in the documentary, “Our democracy may not be perfect, but it keeps on improving. And I think there’s enough elbow room for everybody to have opinions, whether they are rational or otherwise.” What is your reaction to that idea that India’s democracy is improving and there’s still room for lots of differing opinions?
I really hope Mr. Dasgupta tries to see what’s happening on the ground, because this is an idea of democracy that he believes is only on camera, but not otherwise. So, I need to understand what kind of a democracy it is when every day you see violence against the Muslim community in acts that are public? Hindu nationalists are on camera in the presence of police forces, giving hate speeches, asking for a genocide of Muslims. I am trying to understand what is the construct of this democracy when some of India’s best-known student activists are behind bars for protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act, which is being brought by the Indian government, a discriminatory [law that] discriminates against Muslims in India. So, honestly, Marco, more than anybody else, I am looking for a semblance of democracy in this country, because I love this country more than I can ever speak about, because I have seen democratic values. And the reason why I, and many journalists like me and activists, are speaking about this, is because we are seeing an erosion of democratic values in a country, which is now heading toward what looks like a fascist state.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.

Related: ‘India is a tinderbox’: Religious tensions come to a boiling point after brutal murder of Hindu tailor

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.