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Free Speech? in India & The BBC Documentary

Indian media representatives march in Ahmedabad holding a banner against attacks on journalists in 2008. Photo: AFP / Sam Panthaky

India: The Modi Question, a BBC documentary aired in 2023 revolves around the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his relations with the Muslim community in the country. It was shortly after banned from screening by the Government of India, calling it a propaganda and publicity stunt which led to a political storm. This raised questions about the freedom of the press in India and sparked a major controversy, also resulting in the journalistic assault of several journalists by the government.


The two-part documentary covers his journey in the political world and his trajectory towards becoming the Prime Minister. It also includes a few controversial topics, such as the new citizenship law and the retraction of Kashmir’s autonomy. The Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in favor of banning the documentary said that it “reflected a colonial mindset”. A spokesperson for the weekly foreign minister’s press conference, accusing the BBC said, “Bias and lack of objectivity and frankly continuing colonial mindset are blatantly visible.” Kanchan Gupta, advisor to the ministry of information called it “propaganda and anti-India garbage, disguised as a documentary”.

How Freedom Was Curtailed

Soon enough, the Government banned links and clips of the documentary to be shared on social media. A petition was also filed in the Supreme court for banning BBC from operating in India which was however rejected. BBC on the other hand stood by its ideology, saying that it was “rigorously researched according to highest editorial standards”.

The ban on India: The Modi Question was seen as a violation of freedom of the press. Political leaders described it as censorship and journalists faced harassment by the Government and Judiciary. The situation was described as “hostility towards freedom of the press and censorship of criticism” with the public seeking out ways to watch the documentary on other platforms. Student groups who tried to screen the documentary were arrested on charges of treason.


The anti-Muslim riots of 2002 were one of the worst forms of religious violence India has seen since it gained independence in 1947. During this time, Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Around sixty Hindu pilgrims died and the Muslim community was blamed. Hindu mobs took to the streets and attacked Muslims killing about one thousand people. Modi was criticized for being involved in how the riots unfolded and how poorly they were dealt with, even though no evidence directly linked him with the allegations. The documentary is primarily focussed on this subject.

In May 2014, Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India. Ever since then, violence against Muslims has visibly become more common. As a minority in the country, they face immense discrimination and prejudice even after security is granted by the constitution. Experts say that press freedom has also subsequently declined and the government conveniently shuts down any criticism on social media platforms, highlighting the reduction of expression of opinions.

All of this has led to criticism from Press Freedom organizations around the world. Several journalists have spoken out against the harassment they have been subject to for reporting on matters even remotely related to anti-government activities- even if they’re simply highlighting facts. Modi in 2014, upon election said "democracy will not sustain if we can't guarantee freedom of speech and expression", Yet nearly a decade on and his election as Prime Minister has only curtailed these provisions with India ranked an astounding 140 in the 180 country World Press Freedom Index.

Free Speech Incidents over the Years

The BBC Documentary being banned isn’t the first instance of questionable action taken against a media outlet and its work, or for any public figure for that matter. Numerous stories have emerged of Indian law enforcement authorities arresting people for the minutest of reasons, often with no evidence or case itself.

40% of arrests made on Journalists due to their professional work over the last decade came in 2020. Infact, at least 3 journalists were killed in 2020 for their work. A report published by Free Speech Collective for the years 2019-20 showed that the number of criminal cases alleged against journalists for their work grew significantly over the last few years. They were primarily made in BJP controlled states like Uttar Pradesh, where action against journalism and free-speech has been greatly criticized.

A lot of FIRs filed against editors, journalists of both national level publications and local/small-scale publications have quoted ‘statements conducting to public mischief’ under Indian Penal Code 505(2) or under the grounds of being prejudicial to national-integration. Arguably, the most popular reason for arrest has been violation of Section 295A : ‘Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.’ The articles of the journalists in question have ranged from being about facts regarding publicized deaths in the farmers protests or pieces talking about criminal activities that members of the majority religion had committed. A notable case of this was when Siddique Kappan was arrested on his way to Delhi where a Dalit woman was sexually harassed by 4 upper-caste men.

Another major instance of controversial action being taken against a journalist included the arrest of Aasif Sultan, who wrote an article in 2018 for his magazine Kashmir Narrator on the deceased insurgent militant commander Burhan Wani. His article simply profiled Burhan who was killed in 2016 in an anti-insurgency operation. At the time, his death had set off a frenzy in nearby villages who resorted to attacking the local police. Although initially, Aasif was arrested for providing logistical support to an insurgency group, it was later acknowledged by the police that he was arrested in fact for the article he had written. In 2022, he was finally given bail, but once again arrested on the account of the public safety act for acting in a way harmful to the security of the state or maintenance of public order. Asif was awarded the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award in 2019, and countless organizations around the world have demanded his release.

It’s not only journalists who have been targeted. Artists of all forms have undergone scrutiny. Munawar Faruqui was arrested in early 2021, for a joke he did not even make. The son of a BJP MLA had earlier confronted him during a show, complaining that his jokes were offensive to Hindus and were derogatory towards their deities. Munawar reportedly responded saying that he makes jokes on muslims as well, and his intentions are to make people laugh-if they are hurt, he will immediately stop. Later, he was arrested on the grounds that some of the jokes he had allegedly prepared were hurtful to hindu sentiments. Apparently, the complainant had heard some jokes being prepared earlier. Those jokes did not appear on set that night, and Munawar was at the end of his set when arrested. Comedians across the nations broke into outcry- surely you can not be arrested for a joke you did not make.

The list is long, and the recent blocking of the BBC documentary is just the latest incident. Indian authorities have gone on to use ‘Tax Investigation’ and ‘Survey of Operations’ to raid BBC offices in Mumbai and New Delhi. Devices were taken away and the offices sealed.

Raising our voices is instrumental to functioning as a democracy. Curtailing the publicity of facts, reports and artists on the pretext of hurting majority sentiments is not. Arresting someone for a joke they did not make is not a country where ‘freedom of speech’ exists in its purest form. Blocking a documentary that highlighted the 2002 Gujarat Riots mismanagement as well as allegations and reports of foreign governments on the riots itself is an act that will only fuel criticism being made on the Modi government’s intolerance to criticism from both national and international peers.


Nehal Singhal | Dhriti Budhwar


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