Screening of banned Modi BBC film at Indian university descends into chaos

‘If they shut down one screen, we shall switch on hundreds,’ student union leader says

Shweta Sharma
Wednesday 25 January 2023 12:18 GMT
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Chaos ensued at a premier university in India’s capital after stones were pelted at students who organised the screening of a banned BBC documentary series that blamed prime minister Narendra Modi for the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Power and internet connections were cut off for hours at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi where members of the university’s student union had organised the screening of the first episode of the two-part BBC documentary India: The Modi Question.

JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU), long seen as a bastion of the university’s left-wing politics, held the screening at 9pm on Tuesday.

The documentary – which claims Mr Modi was “directly responsible” for the 2002 riots in his home state Gujarat when he served as chief minister there – has been denounced as a “propaganda piece” by the government.

The government also invoked emergency powers to block the spread of any clips via social media in India.

Just half an hour before the students were to watch the documentary, a blackout, affecting a third of the JNU campus and some faculty housing, occurred at 8.30pm.

JNUSU blamed the “deliberate” blackout on the JNU administration, which had threatened disciplinary action on the students if the documentary was screened, alleging it might disturb “peace and harmony” on campus.

In a video from the campus, JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh protested against the blackout, waving a sheet of paper with a QR code.

“If they shut down one screen, we shall switch on hundreds,” she said.

Students continued to watch the documentary on their phones and laptops despite the power cut as a mark of their protest.

JNUSU alleged some students were injured after stones were thrown allegedly by members of the ABVP, a student outfit of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Dozens of angry students then took out a protest march from their campus to a police station and demanded the lodging of a complaint against the stone pelters.

Delhi’s police on Wednesday said it had begun an inquiry on complaints by both the JNUSU and ABVP, but said no formal complaint was filed yet.

“No FIR [First Information Report or first step to a police complaint] has been filed yet. They have given a complaint and we are enquiring into it,” Delhi police officials told ANI.

“We filed a complaint, and the police assured us they will be immediately looking into the incident,” said Ms Ghosh. “We gave the name and details of all the persons involved. As of now, we’re calling off the protest,” she added.

A day before the screening, the JNU administration said it had not given permission for the screening.

“This is to emphasise that such an unauthorised activity may disturb peace and harmony of the university campus,” it said and warned of “strict disciplinary action”.

In response to the administration, JNUSU asked under which provision of the university rules a voluntary screening was banned.

“By screening the documentary/movie, we do not seek to create any form of disharmony. The purpose of the screening is only to watch the documentary on campus. Only the students with voluntary interest would take part in the screening,” it said in a statement.

Ms Ghosh also tweeted an attack at the university administration, describing it as having been “’banned’ by an ‘elected government’ of the largest ‘democracy’”.

She said JNU had held screenings of controversial movies like The Kashmir Files, but “never got an advisory from the administration”.

“This is happening for the first time.”

Tensions gripped another one of Delhi’s top universities where students had planned the screening of the documentary on Wednesday evening.

More than a dozen students were detained by police and classes were suspended at Jamia Milia Islamia University in the national capital after the administration denied the screening of any film on the campus.

A Jamia Milia student union called for a protest against the detention of students after riot police and vans with teargas cannons were stationed outside the campus along with a huge media presence.

The Students’ Federation of India (SFI) unit of the university said students were detained in an “atrocious manner” to deter them from watching the documentary.

The university reiterated that it will take all measures to prevent people and organisations having “vested interest to destroy the peaceful academic atmosphere of the university”.

The BBC documentary has also reportedly been screened at Hyderabad University and campuses in the Communist-ruled southern state of Kerala, despite warnings from BJP leaders.

The documentary traces Mr Modi’s rise through the ranks of the Hindu nationalist BJP despite his alleged involvement in the riots and failure to stop them during his leadership in the state.

It also uncovered memos showing Mr Modi was criticised at the time by several Western diplomats and the British government. It included a previously unpublished report from the UK Foreign Office that held Mr Modi “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that enabled the Gujarat violence to take place.

The riots in February 2002 killed over 1,000 people – most of them Muslims – while he was chief minister of the state.

While the BBC has said the documentary was “rigorously researched”, the Indian government dubbed it a “propaganda piece” that revealed a “colonial mindset”.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price, when asked for his views on the series, said US and India have an “exceptionally deep partnership” without offering any comments on the documentary.

“I am not familiar with the documentary you’re referring to. I am very familiar with the shared values that connect the United States and India as two thriving, vibrant democracies. When we have concerns about actions that are taken in India, we’ve voiced those. We’ve had an occasion to do that,” said Mr Price.

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