By Syed Ali Mujtaba
The BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi called “India: The Modi Question” has virtually brought a storm in the country. The government is using the entire might of the Indian state to stop the people from seeing this documentary. Exactly the same thing happened some fifty years ago, when the movie Kisa Kursi Ka was stopped by the censor board its copies were confiscated and burnt. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi promulgated a national emergency when the controversy of ‘Kisa Kursi ka’ erupted in the country.
What was ‘Kisa Kursi ka’ movie
‘Kisa Kursi Ka’ was a political satire on the politics of Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi. Its plot revolved around an evil politician, trying to woo the people through various kinds of propaganda. The film spoofed Sanjay Gandhi, Congress supporters Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari, private secretary to Indira Gandhi, R.K. Dhawan, and Rukhsana Sultana, etc.
As per Sanjay Gandhi’s orders, all the prints including its master print were picked up from the Censor Board office and brought to the Maruti Udhyog factory in Gurgaon and burned. The subsequent Shah Commission established by the Government of India in 1977 to inquire into excesses committed in the Indian Emergency found that Sanjay Gandhi was guilty of burning the negative, along with V. C. Shukla, Information and Broadcasting minister of that time. The only surviving print that remained available was with Zee TV which was TV Telecast much later.
The legal case of ‘Kisa Kursi Ka’ ran for 11 months, and the court in its judgment on 27 February 1979 held Sanjay Gandhi and Shukla guilty. In his judgment, District Judge, O. N. Vohra at Tis Hazari Court in Delhi, found the accused, guilty of “criminal conspiracy, breach of trust, mischief by fire, dishonestly receiving criminal property, concealing stolen property, and disappearance of evidence.” The verdict was later overturned.
What is BBC DOCUMENTARY?
The BBC documentary explores Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in a deadly 2002 Gujarat riot that saw more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims being killed. In the hour-long first segment of the series, the focus is on Narendra Modi’s early career and his rise to the national stage through the RSS route. The documentary focuses on Modi’s tenure as the Gujarat CM when the state burst into communal violence in 2002 following the burning of 59 Hindu pilgrims in a train fire at Godhra. The train burning was blamed on Muslim perpetrators and the Hindu mobs retaliated by rampaging the Muslim homes in several places of the state. The riot continued for many days and the government made no effort to stop it.
The BBC uncovered British diplomatic cables from 2002 that likened the paroxysm of murder, rape, and destruction of Muslim homes leading to their “ethnic cleansing.” British officials also concluded that the mob violence was preplanned by Hindu nationalist groups “under the protection of the state government.” The documentary tends to suggest that Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that led to the communal outbreak. While the film disclosed the existence of the diplomatic cables for the first time, it did not level any groundbreaking allegations against Narendra Modi.
The government banned the documentary
The government got so much paranoid about the documentary that it has done every possible thing to stop the screening of the film. The panic shown by the government reinforces the central point of the film that the world’s largest democracy is sliding towards authoritarian rule.
This was something that Indira Gandhi also did after winning the election in 1972. During her time when the movie ‘Kisa Kurse ka’ came, which tried to expose Indira Gandhi’s autocratic rule, the iron lady of India did not allow the censor board to issue any certificate to the film but simply burnt its copies.
Something similar is being done now in India when the government has embarked on an extraordinary campaign to prevent the viewing of the BBC documentary on Narendra Modi. Government officials are invoking emergency powers and ordered clips from the documentary to be censored on social media platforms including YouTube and Twitter.
The Foreign Ministry spokesman lambasted the BBC production as a “propaganda piece” designed to push a particular discredited narrative.” He accused the broadcaster of maintaining a political agenda and a “continuing colonial mindset.” One junior minister has even declared that watching the documentary amounted to “treason.”
Replying to the Indian government’s stand, the BBC in a statement said this documentary was “rigorously researched” and the Indian government has made no comment on the exact narrative of this piece.
How the ban is enforced?
The BBC documentary after being banned on social media evoked huge interest among the student community and they huddled on their campuses to watch the documentary which the government calls subversive foreign propaganda.
At the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the authorities cut the electricity of the student union hall where an attempt was made to screen the film. Similarly, when students of Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi announced their plans to view the film, the Delhi police sent riot police armed with tear gas to the campus to detain the students attempting to screen the film. Even though those students were later released, such a move by the government has provoked defiant students around the country to host more such viewings.
Human Rights activists are saying this is a “dangerous situation” of eroding civil liberties in India. The present move of attempting censorship is seen in the larger mission to make India an authoritative state. Since 2014, the government has undertaken a well-crafted, deliberate takedown of various institutions and mechanisms that could be compared with the Indira Gandhi government.
Parallels can be drawn with ‘elected autocracies’, where elected governments use the very institutions integral to democracy to kill democracy itself and destroy civil liberties. In India we have heard nothing of the Lokpal bill since 2014 which was the central plank of Modi to come to power. He has made the National Human Rights Commission dormant. Investigation agencies are misused at the slightest opportunity, with action against activists, journalists, students, political opponents, or anyone who protests against the government.
The powers of the Election Commission appear to be clearly compromised. The Information Commission is almost non-functional. The list is long and disturbing. Others who can hold the executive accountable like academia, the press, and civil society have also been systematically emasculated. Universities are under attack. An unbiased mainstream fourth estate in India no longer exists, and the media operates mostly as a propaganda machine. Civil society, too, is being slowly but surely strangulated.
Well, that is India under Modi’s rule, where it’s often touted that Modi hai tao Mumkin hai. It is evident with a ban on the documentary film that Indian democracy is sliding down into the rabbit hole. It remains to be seen how further such a slide will continue. It seems to reason that if the such slide is not stopped, India awaits the official declaration of the Second Republic under Modi’s rule.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org