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 by 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 77 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”.
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 today.
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.
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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.