A local branch of the opposition Congress Party in the southern state of Kerala screened the banned BBC documentary about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, NDTV reported.
The outlet said that Thursday’s screening was one of many organized by Congress, other opposition parties, and free speech activists across India.
Last week, India’s federal government described the two-part documentary India: The Modi Question as “propaganda” and invoked an emergency law to block it on YouTube and Twitter.
Thursday’s screening comes a day after New Delhi police, clad in riot gear and equipped with tear gas, arrested nearly a dozen students at Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) university ahead of a planned screening. Police have not confirmed the number of detainees and they are being prevented from meeting lawyers, an activist wrote on Twitter.
Authorities at the University of Hyderabad are also investigating a screening of the documentary on Saturday. On Tuesday evening, students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi said that power and internet had been cut at the campus in a bid to prevent them from screening the documentary. According to the BBC, there was a heavy police presence at the JNU campus and a group of 20-30 people threw stones at students.
Below, what to know about the documentary, and how people are circumnavigating the ban.
What is the BBC’s Modi documentary about?
The documentary aired Jan. 17 and charts Modi’s political rise through the ranks of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and becoming chief minister of the western state of Gujarat.
It focuses at length on the 2002 Gujarat riots—one of the worst outbreaks of religious violence in India’s recent history—that took place while he led the state. After a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set on fire in the state, and 59 people were killed, grieving citizens blamed Muslims. Revenge attacks led to over 1,000 deaths.
The documentary highlighted an unpublished report from the U.K. Foreign Office that claims Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that enabled the violence. Modi denies accusations of personal responsibility for the riots, and his supporters cite a 2013 Supreme Court ruling of there being insufficient evidence to prosecute him.
How are Indian citizens navigating the ban?
Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of Indian magazine, The Caravan, previously told TIME: “Frankly, the ban has been pretty stupid because it’s attracted far more attention to the documentary than would have been otherwise possible.”
(Bal also appeared in the documentary.)
Many social media users have shared clips on WhatsApp, Telegram, and Twitter, with students screening the documentary on campus. While the screening at JNU was interrupted by a power cut, students reportedly handed out QR codes for people to scan so they could stream the film on their mobile phones or laptops.
Abhishek Kumar, a prominent journalist based in India, also tweeted that the documentary was available to view on Telegram, Drive, and Mdisk with the name “Pathaan Full HD.” Paathan is a new movie starring Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan.
Read More: Column: How Bollywood Rolled Over to Hindu Supremacists
How Twitter reacted to the ban
Twitter said that it had blocked 50 tweets due to a request by India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on Jan. 20, under the country’s information technology law, which passed in 2021 and extends the Indian government’s censorship powers over social media companies.
This isn’t the first time Twitter has blocked tweets in India. Under its previous ownership, Twitter complied with demands to remove tweets that criticized Modi’s handling of widespread farmers’ protests in India in 2021.
Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk has described himself as a “free speech absolutist,” but he has also said Twitter will comply with local laws in the countries where it operates. Observers have argued that Musk’s ownership of Tesla, which has business interests in India, gives the Indian government extra leverage to force Twitter to comply with censorship demands.
Some observers say that the Modi documentary is the first real test of whether Musk would push back against the Indian government’s censorship demands.
One Twitter user pointed out the apparent contradiction between Musk’s free speech absolutism and Twitter’s compliance with Indian government demands. The user tagged Musk in a tweet that read, “Twitter seems to have gone from ‘freedom of speech, not freedom of reach’ to outright censorship in no time at all.”
“First I’ve heard,” Musk replied Wednesday. “It is not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter worldwide overnight, while still running Tesla and SpaceX, among other things.”
As of Thursday, tweets about the documentary remain blocked in India.
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