India’s Censorship Question


Prime Minister's Office,

Prime Minister Modi addressing the crowd at a public function in Agartala, Tripura on Jan. 4, 2022.

Oishika Hota, Editor

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi finds himself embroiled in controversy after the Indian government’s recent ban on a two-part BBC documentary. The documentary criticizes him for his alleged role as the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat in the region’s violent religion-based riots in 2002. 

Modi has refuted claims that he failed to put an end to the violence in 2002, and in 2012, a special investigative team appointed by India’s Supreme Court found no evidence that suggested he was to blame.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said, “Let me just make it very clear that we think this is a propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative.” He added, “The bias, the lack of objectivity, and frankly a continuing colonial mindset, is blatantly visible.”

On Jan. 19, the BBC issued a statement to respond to the accusation of “propaganda,” stressing that the government had neglected to address the issues brought up in the series. The statement said, “The documentary was rigorously researched according to highest editorial standards. A wide range of voices, witnesses and experts were approached, and we have featured a range of opinions – this includes responses from people in the BJP.” They added, “We offered the Indian Government a right to reply to the matters raised in the series – it declined to respond.” 

The ban was put in place in accordance with the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules enacted in 2021, which permit the “blocking of information in case of emergency.” India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued instructions on Jan. 20 prohibiting the episode and any clips from it from being shared online. 

Many Indians have found ways to bypass the ban. People have shared videos on Twitter, Telegram, and WhatsApp. Students from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi attempted to screen the documentary on campus only to be shut down by a power and internet ban. Students later distributed QR codes for individuals to scan so they could stream the episode on their smartphones or laptops.

Abhishek Kumar, an Indian journalist, tweeted that the documentary could be viewed under the name “Pathaan Full HD” on Telegram, Drive, and Mdisk. Pathaan is a new and popular movie starring Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, used in this case to obscure the documentary’s name and circumvent the ban. 

R.P. Singh, BJP’s (India’s ruling political party’s spokesperson), appeared to welcome the ban and tweeted, “Keeping in mind 2024 elections, an ecosystem is being built to tarnish the image of PM Narendra Modi ji.” But Mahua Moitra, from the opposition party, countered, “Get the point: What @BBC show proves or disproves is up to viewers to decide. But Govt of India’s raging censorship actions are unacceptable.”

The ban was imposed predominantly on sharing clips on social media platforms, such as Twitter and YouTube, who appear to have complied with these restrictions, likely due to commercial interests associated with the high number of Indian users on these platforms.

Jack Malon, a spokesperson for YouTube, said the reason behind YouTube removing the documentary was that BBC asserted copyright to the documentary. However, he declined to comment on takedown requests from the Indian government, according to Murtaza Hussain and Ryan Grim in The Intercept

Elon Musk has since responded to backlash against him and Twitter. He said, “First I’ve heard. It is not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter worldwide overnight, while still running Tesla and SpaceX, among other things.”

The current Indian government has frequently put pressure on Twitter in an effort to control the reach and impact of the social media platform. Twitter employees in the country were once threatened with arrest by the government for refusing to block accounts that were critical of the BJP. 

Many critics have questioned the apparent hypocrisy of Musk’s actions at Twitter in this case with regard to his previously-stated apparent preference for looser restrictions on “free speech.”