BBC docu: As govt stops shy of imposing blanket ban, students battle to ride the block

BBC docu: As govt stops shy of imposing blanket ban, students battle to ride the 'block'

Irony died a painful death on Friday. The day Prime Minister Narendra Modi told students during his ‘Pareeksha Par Charcha’ programme in New Delhi that “criticism is an absolute condition and a Shuddhi Yagna (purification ritual) for a prosperous democracy,” the police cracked down on students just a few kilometres away at the Delhi University campus for trying to screen a BBC documentary on the 2002 Gujarat riots.

The documentary, blocked on various social media platforms under instructions from the Union government, is critical of Modi, who was the Gujarat chief minister during the communal riots that claimed over 1,000 lives, according to official figures.

Campus crackdown

On Friday, the Delhi Police, which falls under the Centre’s jurisdiction, imposed Section 144 in the Delhi University campus and detained 24 students from the university’s Arts Faculty for planning to screen the controversial two-part documentary ‘India: The Modi Question’. Similarly, at Delhi’s Ambedkar University too, power supply was cut and students were detained as they raised slogans and protested. Friday’s police crackdown came close on the heels of a similar chain of events that played out at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Jamia Milla Islamia University. At Jamia, the riot police had laid siege and detained over a dozen students on Wednesday.

In the Opposition-ruled states though – in Hyderabad University and Kolkata’s Jadavpur University on Thursday and Presidency College on Friday – the left-wing students’ union SFI was successful in screening the documentary. In Hyderabad there were clashes between students of SFI and BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), which screened the controversial film Kashmir Files as a tit-for-tat. There were reports that the Congress student wing NSUI also screened the documentary in Chandigarh.

No ‘ban’, just ‘block’

The Modi government has not used the word ‘ban’ for the two-part documentary but has asked YouTube and Twitter to ‘block’ the links using Emergency provisions of the Information Technology Rules, 2021, notified on February 25, 2021. The reasons given for invoking these provisions are that the documentary is “undermining the sovereignty and integrity of India” and has “the potential to adversely impact…friendly relations with foreign states” and “public order within the country”.

Rule 16 of the IT Rules, 2021, describes the government’s power with regard to “Blocking of information in case of emergency”. It says, “In case of emergency nature, the Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting may, if he is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient and justifiable for blocking for public access of any information or part thereof through any computer resource and…as an interim measure issue such directions as he may consider necessary to such identified or identifiable persons, publishers or intermediary in control of such computer resource hosting such information or part thereof without giving him an opportunity of hearing.”

The ‘emergency’ rule

The Modi government has invoked this rule seven times since the 2021 Act came into effect, with the target, on most occasions, being YouTube channels. These instances, however, went by without much hue and cry. Not so this time. The government’s move – which the Opposition has termed as ‘censorship’ – has had an adverse impact. The diktat to ‘block’ streaming has only resulted in fanning interest in the documentary with students across campuses battling police action to see and show the BBC series.

Interestingly, the ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB) has not issued any press release concerning ‘blocking’ of BBC documentary through the Press Information Bureau, the official channel, so far. As an Indian Express report pointed out, “The only information about the blocking orders having an official semblance came from former journalist Kanchan Gupta, who works as an advisor to the MIB and put out a tweet thread on Saturday (January 21) about the move.”

Legal implications

The fact that it is not a ‘ban’ means that it can be seen by people without inviting any legal action. The order was issued to social media companies, and not any individual, to block the content. As such, if an individual screens the documentary, the act can’t technically invite legal action.

Even at Delhi University, the reason for imposing Section 144 and detaining students was given as “no permission was sought” for screening the documentary. Delhi University’s proctor Rajni Abbi was quoted by news agency PTI as saying, “We cannot allow the screening of the BBC documentary, as no permission was sought from the administration.”

Lawyer Apar Gupta, Executive Director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a New Delhi-based digital rights organisation, has also tweeted to clear the legality of the issue. He says, “First, there is no national ban on it. IT Rules & Section 69A only blocks specific web urls (even, prevents their re-upload) but is directed specifically against online platforms not individuals. This is not actionable for in person screenings or can lead by itself to legal penalties. Second, there are no general prohibitory orders on it as well.”

But, Apar warns, “There are two ways how restraints may be placed. In terms of educational institutions there already exists an inverse power relationship against students. Here departmental circulars and disciplinary proceedings can lead to risk.” This is already in play at various universities.

He cautions that “care may be taken that screenings are by specific invitation to a well defined body and class,” as, he points out, “the more concerning issue is the Cinematograph Act, 1952 under which authorities may claim that the screening constitutes a ‘public exhibition’.”

Invoking interest

The documentary is being seen by people on laptops and mobile phones as the clips of the documentary are reportedly being shared on platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram. In JNU, there were reports that students handed out QR codes for people to scan so they could stream the film on their mobile phones or laptops. A post on Twitter shared that the documentary was available to view on Telegram, Drive and Mdisk with the name “Pathaan Full HD”, evidently to escape censure.

So, while social media behemoths like Google-owned YouTube and Twitter have bowed to the government diktat, in absence of a clear legal action the people are finding ways to overcome the ‘block’.

Then why is the government not going the whole hog in preventing people from seeing the documentary, which it clearly wants to do? Is it because the documentary has been produced by a premier international news channel such as the BBC and banning it in India would attract on Modi and his administration further charges of running an authoritarian regime that is intolerant of criticism? How would such an action play out internationally, particularly among Western democracies that Modi has been desperately trying to court, at a time when India’s ranking on indices such as press freedom and health of democracy has been sliding steadily?

The Swedish V-Dem Institute has already been raising an alarm for the past two years on increasing autocratisation of Indian democracy, claiming that the country under Modi is now only “partly free” and turning into an “electoral autocracy”. Last year India slipped eight places in the press freedom index to 150 out of 180 counties, its worst position on record. Though the BJP-led government has been routinely dismissing such international rankings and reports as “malicious”, “misguided” and “short on facts”, announcing a ban on a BBC documentary would lend more credence to such surveys. And clearly, that won’t do.

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