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A new phase of censorship creep in India
N. RAM <>
Published : Feb 03, 2023 15:34 IST



[image: Delhi Police personnel detain a student after the Students’
Federation of India‘s announcement to screen the BBC documentary, India:
The Modi Question, at the Jamia Millia Islamia campus in New Delhi, on
January 25.]

Delhi Police personnel detain a student after the Students’ Federation of
India‘s announcement to screen the BBC documentary, *India: The Modi
Question*, at the Jamia Millia Islamia campus in New Delhi, on January 25.
| Photo Credit: PTI
A proposal to amend the IT Rules 2021 and the ban on a BBC documentary are
part of a larger trend of Internet censorship, growing since 2014.

The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media
Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, are back in active play, causing deep concern
among those who value free speech and media freedom in India. These Rules
are part of a larger trend of Internet censorship, which has been growing
since 2014 with “the second coming of Hindutva”.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) recently
proposed an amendment to the IT Rules 2021 that would further tighten the
regime of Internet censorship. The proposal has been sharply criticised
organisations like the Internet Freedom Foundation, which believes that
“this will heavily impact the freedom of speech, expression and information
online, and will make the Union Government the final arbiter of what news
may be published and what must be removed.”

Under the proposed amendment
there will be a new category of takedown of social media content and news
media content. The target will be any information “identified as fake or
false” by the new enforcers—“the fact check unit at the Press Information
Bureau of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting or other agency
authorised by the Central Government for fact checking, or, in respect of
any business of the Central Government, by its department in which such
business is transacted under the rules of business made under clause (3) of
article 17 of the Constitution.”

If the amendment is adopted, it will seriously affect the operations of not
merely social media intermediaries but all providers of digital news
content, including the legacy media, in India. Its unconstitutionality with
respect to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a)
is patent and one expects the higher courts to give it short shrift.
‘India: The Modi Question’

The proposal came on the heels of another disturbing development, the
censorship of the first episode of the BBC’s two-part documentary, *India:
The Modi Question*. The episode was released on BBC 2, to viewers within
the UK, on January 17, and unauthorised uploads immediately began to pop up
on YouTube and other websites. Two days later, the spokesperson of the
Ministry of External Affairs charged that “the bias, the lack of
objectivity, and, frankly, a continuing colonial mindset is blatantly
visible”. He characterised the film as “a propaganda piece designed to push
a particular discredited narrative” while admitting that he had not
actually watched it. Worse was to follow.

On January 20, in an action that could have come straight out of George
Orwell’s *Nineteen Eighty-Four*, the Secretary, Ministry of Information and
Broadcasting, issued an order under Rule 16 (“Blocking of information in
case of emergency”) of the IT Rules 2021 to deny Indian viewers access to
the documentary. The blocking order and related proceedings were opaque and
manifestly arbitrary, with the government failing to place either the order
or the reasons for it in the public domain. However, the next day, Kanchan
Gupta, Senior Adviser, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, took it upon
himself to tweet that “[the] Ministry of Information & Broadcasting has
issued directions for blocking multiple @YouTube videos of first episode of
@BBCWorld ’s hateful propaganda “India: The Modi Question”. Orders were
also issued to @Twitter for blocking over 50 tweets with links to these YT
videos. The directions to block content from @BBCWorld vicious propaganda
were issued by Secretary, I&B, on Friday using the emergency powers under
the IT Rules, 2021. Both @YouTube and @Twitter have complied with the
directions. Governments in India.”

By way of explanation, Gupta stated that multiple Ministries had examined
the BBC’s “malicious documentary” and “found it casting aspersions on the
authority and credibility of [the] Supreme Court of India, sowing divisions
among various Indian communities, and making unsubstantiated allegations”.
Misidentifying the broadcaster, he added: “Accordingly, @BBCWorld’s vile
propaganda was found to be undermining the sovereignty and integrity of
India, and having the potential to adversely impact India’s friendly
relations with foreign countries as also public order within the country.”

But what is *India: The Modi Question* really about? It is the BBC’s
exploration of the Narendra Modi government’s ideological, strategic, and
policy approach towards the country’s largest religious minority—India’s
Muslims, who constitute nearly 15 per cent of the national population and
number over 200 million—and the tensions and conflicts that arise from
this. The documentary interrogates Modi’s own record, on this score, first
as Chief Minister of Gujarat for twelve-and-a-half years, and then as “an
enormously popular and hugely divisive” Prime Minister who is treated by
Western powers as a valued ally and “a bulwark against Chinese domination
of Asia”.
[image: Jack Straw, former British foreign secretary.]
Jack Straw, former British foreign secretary. | Photo Credit: Matt Dunham/AP

The spine of episode 1 is a secret report, revealed here for the first
time, of a British High Commission enquiry ordered by a deeply concerned
Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, into the 2002 communal violence in Gujarat.
Its findings were devastating: “Extent of violence much greater than
reported. At least 2000 killed. Widespread and systematic rape of Muslim
women. 138,000 internal refugees. Targeted destruction of all Muslim
businesses in Hindu and mixed Hindu/Muslim areas... Reconciliation
impossible while Modi remains Chief Minister.” Jack Straw and one of the
investigators, a retired British diplomat whose face is not shown on camera
and whose words are spoken by an actor, are interviewed in the film and
explain the background and context of the enquiry and its findings.

It is important to note that the documentary makes it clear that the
anti-Muslim pogrom came in the wake of the Godhra atrocity of February 27,
2002, in which 59 Hindu activists and pilgrims travelling on a train were
burnt to death in an attack allegedly carried out by a group of Muslim
extremists armed with stones and petrol cans.
The second episode

Episode 2 examines “the troubled relationship” between the government and
India’s Muslims after Modi began his second term in 2019 with a
strengthened parliamentary majority. In this episode, the filmmakers
present to us arresting, if distressing, video footage, a deft mix of
insightful, sense-making, and apologetic interviews, and understated
comments by the BBC journalists.

The documentary makers made a good call when they decided to concentrate on
the post-2019 chapter during which the Modi government moved quickly to
deliver on the hardcore RSS-BJP agenda—first by doing away with the special
status Jammu & Kashmir enjoyed under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution
and clamping down on any sign of opposition or protest with overwhelming
military and paramilitary force; and then by enacting a citizenship
amendment law that openly discriminated against Muslims, and brutally
suppressing the extensive protests the law triggered.

Episode 2 also brings out in an effective and moving way the periodic
violence unleashed against Muslims by Hindu extremist outfits, the blaming
of the victims by authorities, and the immunity the attackers have enjoyed
in many cases.

The BBC documentary is well-researched, fair, and powerful. The filmmakers
follow every commandment in investigative journalism’s guidebook: careful
sourcing and verification; giving those against whom allegations are made,
or their defenders and apologists, a chance to respond and refute; and
providing context, perspective, and balance without resorting to false
equivalence. In the end, it helps viewers make sense of what is happening
The Centre’s reaction

It is understandable that the BJP government declined to comment on the
allegations when invited to do so by the journalists making the
documentary. A sober way of dealing with the fallout from *India: The Modi
Question* would have been for the government to downplay it, perhaps say it
disagreed with the thrust and message of the documentary and with some
comments made by those interviewed. Even a “No comment” would have been
better than what followed.

Everyone knows that the real offence committed by the BBC documentary was
investigating the genetic connection between Modi’s highly controversial
role during the 2002 Gujarat pogrom and the panoply of post-2019 BJP
government policies that discriminate against and target Muslims in new
ways—muscular, violent, and toxic—and on an unprecedented scale. But the
government found itself unable to come clean on this, its real objection to
the documentary.

ALSO READ: BBC documentary puts Modi back in the dock

The reaction to the blocking orders was immediate and instructive.
Downloads, obtained in various ways, have been widely shared. Mass
screenings have been organised in public places by opposition parties,
independent organisations, spontaneously formed film groups, and students
in several parts of India—and people have flocked to watch the banned film.
In Delhi, top management at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia
Islamia University attempted heavy-handedly to bar students from organising
screenings on campus. All this served to fuel greater interest and
excitement over the documentary.

Somewhat sheepishly, the BJP government has let it be known that it has no
intention of blocking episode 2, which apparently does not violate India’s
IT Rules 2021 and can still be watched on a website or two, plus the
unauthorised downloads. The government seems belatedly to have realised
that censorship and bans only bring on a “Streisand effect”. (Look it up.)

There was a time when I believed, and proclaimed in various forums, that
with freedom of speech and expression and, by extension, the freedom,
independence, and general state of the press, India was in an enviable
position in relation to every other developing country. If I were to claim
anything like that today, I would be vulnerable to the charge of purveying
“fake or false” news, with no need for any fact check by the PIB.

[Disclosure: The author is the lead petitioner in a writ petition before
the Supreme Court of India that seeks, on several constitutional and legal
grounds, an end to the government’s censorship of the BBC documentary.]

*N. Ram, former Editor-in-Chief of *The Hindu  *and  *Frontline *, is
currently a Director in The Hindu Group Publishing Private Limited. He is
the recipient of several journalism awards and of the Padma Bhushan (for
journalism), 1990, and Sri Lanka Ratna, 2005. *


Splendour of Mamallapuram

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