Marking their protest against the Union government’s decision to block the BBC documentary India: The Modi Question, several student groups and political parties across the country held screenings over the past week. The documentary examines the role of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Gujarat riots of 2002, when he was the Chief Minister of the state. While most efforts to screen the film were met with resistance from those affiliated to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), several screenings were also prevented by University authorities and police officials across different states.
But as Justice K Chandru, retired judge of the Madras High Court, puts it, “If people are determined to watch an uncensored film, the technology has become so advanced that the state can do little to stop them from watching it. In fact, every objection to the screening of a film will only get it more viewers.”
The BBC documentary, however, has not been technically banned in the country so far. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting order has only blocked the sharing and uploading of the link to the documentary, besides asking YouTube and Twitter to take it down. So the question remains, on what grounds are the police and other authorities preventing citizens from watching a perfectly legal film?
Apar Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation tweeted on January 26 that the blocking of specific links “is not actionable for in person screenings or can lead by itself to legal penalties.” While public exhibitions may be restrained based on the provisions of the Cinematograph Act of 1952, screenings by invitation to a specific body cannot be legally contested, he added. TNM spoke to students and experts about the clampdown on all attempts to screen the documentary.
When the National Students Union of India (NSUI) at the Delhi University (DU) announced a protest against the censorship of the BBC film by holding a screening, they were contacted by the Delhi police asking them to withdraw from it. When they refused to pay heed, names and other details of a few protesters were recorded by the police.
On January 27, 24 NSUI activists who gathered outside the Arts Faculty were confronted by the police and taken to the police station. Their laptop was also seized. Ajil K Binu, NSUI-KSU consolidator and a political science student at DU, said, “I was just setting up the documentary on my laptop, when a police officer slapped my laptop shut and seized it. We were all taken into custody.”
When the students questioned the police action, they were told that prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) were in effect in the campus. “We were not informed of any such orders, neither on the day of the protest nor before it. The University too had sent us no notification indicating that 144 was in force here,” Ajil said. None of the students have seen any official documentation indicating the same till date, he added.
Ajil also said that members of other student organisations staging protests within the campus were not similarly arrested, alleging targeted action against NSUI by the University.
According to Justice Chandru, the CrPC mandates that the district administration follow certain practices before Section 144 is imposed as per the order of a District Magistrate (DM) or Additional District Magistrate (ADM). “A red banner is supposed to be raised with a message that any assembly is unlawful here and force would be used to disperse people if they don’t voluntarily leave. There must be an announcement via loudspeakers too. At times, even gunshots will be fired into the air before lathi charge is used.”
But all these procedures are only on paper now, Chandru said. “The imposition of prohibitory orders under Section 144 CrPC is now implemented at the drop of a hat. There is no necessity that the police inform anybody about the promulgation of a ban order. If any inquiries are held later and questions are raised about the procedure, the police would have a stock response that all of these procedures were followed. The DMs will also lie before the Commission,” he said.
For students in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, the police didn’t even offer any justification. The Students' Federation of India (SFI) had announced a screening of the BBC film at 6 pm on January 26. In the morning that day, the proctor Atiqur Rahman, a few professors, and proctorial department staff rounded up five students, and under the guise of taking them to the proctor’s office across the road, led them outside campus, where they were handed over to the police. By then, the campus had been surrounded by police forces, the students said.
According to Azeez, the SFI unit secretary at Jamia, “One of the students, Nivedya, was chased across the campus by the university’s security guards and beaten up in front of other students. Her phone was seized, and she was handed over to the police.”
Later in the evening, eight students among those protesting the arbitrary arrests were also taken into custody. All of their phones were confiscated, and they were detained for nearly a day. The students were let go just before 24 hours were up, thus circumventing the clause that all persons under preventive detention for 24 hours should be produced before a magistrate.
“Those among us who were not detained were beaten up by the police outside the campus,” said Liya Shareef, a Jamia student and executive member of the Fraternity Movement. “Jamia has been turned into an open jail under Atiqur Rahman. The smallest of gatherings require us to spend two to three days seeking permissions,” she said.
Unlike DU, no prohibitory orders were in place in Jamia. “When we asked the police officers why we were being detained, they asked us, ‘weren’t you shooting some documentary on campus?’ That was how little the civil police officers who took us knew. They were clearly only obeying orders from higher authorities,” Azeez said.
Speaking to TNM, Professor K Laxmi Narayana of the University of Hyderabad (UoH) pointed out that proctorial bodies are intended to conduct internal enquiries and take action within the university, and not hand over students to the police. “If that is the case, what is the use of having a proctorial board in the first place? It is an educating body, not a punishing body. But they are performing the duties of the police in universities now,” he said.
Justice Chandru added that most Vice Chancellors (VCs) are not independent persons, and that they are always guided by police advice. “In some campuses, intelligence agencies even recruit students to spy on others and give periodical reports. I know of instances in which the VCs and Registrars are told what to do by the police bosses,” he said.
In Rajasthan’s Ajmer, eight students of the Central University were suspended for watching the documentary on their mobile phones. In the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the administration first cut off electricity and later disrupted the internet when students gathered for a screening. At the Government Law College in Kerala’s Ernakulam, there was a similar power cut during the screening of the documentary, but it was restored after various student organisations raised protests. The administration of TISS Mumbai issued multiple circulars against the screening and/or organising protests over the issue.
Students watching the documentary after electricity was cut at JNU. Credit: Vasudha Chatterjee
In Chennai, a young corporation councillor was arrested for organising a screening of the documentary. The police stated that the protesters were detained for unlawful assembly. In Kozhikode, an attempt by the Fraternity Movement to screen the film at the beach was foiled by the police on the grounds that no prior permission was sought for the screening. Eight persons were taken into custody in connection with the incident.
VP Sanu, all India president of the Students Federation of India (SFI), told TNM that the BJP fears the opposition posed by the country’s students. “Ever since the protests in 2016 across several universities in India, starting from the University of Hyderabad, students have been the only effective opposition in the country,” he said. Protests had swept across several top universities across the country in 2016 after the suicide of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula at UoH, which students and activists called an instance of caste-based institutional murder.
“It is the students who have led strong protests against the undemocratic actions of the BJP government. Hence, the efforts of the BJP have been trained on recruiting those affiliated to it to reputed universities across the country. Whether it be faculty appointments or student admissions, there has been an evident attempt at saffronisation,” he said.
Sanu alleged that the Delhi police has now made it a routine to harass protesting students by taking them into custody for long hours without filing cases. “The frantic clampdown on all attempts to screen the documentary is proof that the government and the BJP have something to hide. Modi himself had earlier called the BBC a credible media house. Why are they so afraid of them now?” he asked. He added that the issue will be raised in the upcoming session of the Parliament.
Professor Laxmi Narayana pointed out that in a university, all views must be heard, whether right or wrong. “The autonomy of universities has been compromised through appointments of people who share the RSS-BJP ideology. They have put their own people in different bodies. This is a calculated move to suppress voices of dissent. With the National Education Policy 2020, student representation in academic councils and executive councils has been reduced. The autonomy of universities has also been affected by the common entrance test conducted by the National Testing Agency (NTA). Delays in the conduct of the tests leads to disruption of the whole academic schedules of universities, preventing them from functioning autonomously. The autonomy of the UGC is also removed, and the Union Ministry has completely taken over now,” he said.
Justice Chandru alleged that universities, which enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy, have now been converted into government departments. “The Executive Council or the Syndicate (university governing bodies) are now filled with government secretaries representing government departments, who almost have a majority say in the day-to-day affairs of the university. For the slightest protest, varsity authorities come down heavily upon student leaders, who spend long years trying to fight out this battle. The other trick they resort to is to close the campus and shut down the hostels,” he said.
“Central universities, where they have direct control, have more or less been taken over. They haven’t been able to wield as much control over state universities,” Laxmi Narayana remarked, adding that universities must build resistance. “In UoH, there is still a substantial number of faculty members who support the students. That is not the case in many other places. What we can do now is reach out to fellow teachers and ask them to stand with the students. Those who stay silent are also doing so out of fear or pressure,” he said.
Read Revati Laul’s opinion: BBC’s ‘The Modi Question’ played it safe, failed in many ways