On January 17th, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) released a two-part documentary titled India: The Modi Question. Though its content was supposedly controversial and inflammatory, it didn’t make many headlines until Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the subject of the documentary, cracked down on it. Within days of the documentary’s release, Modi banned it from being streamed within India, cut power to universities planning to show it, and raided the BBC India office for “tax violations,” though he wasn’t fooling anyone to what the true reason for the raid was.
I watched it a few weeks ago out of curiosity since the whole affair flooded the pages of every single news source I read. And I must say, it wasn’t a remarkable watch, and Modi’s reaction to the whole fiasco has far eclipsed any claim made by the documentary in the newsworthiness category.
Though a 2-part series, the vast majority of media attention has been focused on the first episode, detailing the deadly 2002 riots in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Over a period of three days, anywhere between 1,040 and 3,000 people died during violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims. At the time, Modi was serving as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and the first episode focuses on claims that he was complicit in the Hindu-led violence, or at least knowingly turned a blind eye.
Much of the negative coverage surrounding the documentary has accused it of bias, but I personally believe the documentary is generally fair. Though concerns over the political affiliations of the interviewees have been reported, the filmmakers have, from my perspective, largely cited appropriate sources, such as both domestic and foreign government reports. The documentary also features interviews with individuals holding a variety of viewpoints, from foreign officials and citizens critical of Modi’s conduct to politicians from Modi’s party convinced of his innocence.
The larger problem is that the documentary attempts to summarize a complex, nuanced problem entrenched in Indian society into Modi alone, ultimately creating a narrative that is relatively fair and well-researched, but far too narrow in scope.
Since Partition in 1947, Hindu-Muslim violence has been a continuity, partially stemming from the expectation that India would be for Hindus and Pakistan for Muslims. Although this has some truth in Pakistan, where 96% of the population is Muslim, India has never seen the same religious homogeneity due to its far larger size and population. Today, Muslims make up a substantial proportion of India’s population, with roughly 200 million residents.
The idea that Muslims should leave India has spanned countless politicians and political parties over nearly a century of India’s independence, and caused outbreaks of violence in nearly all regions of the country, from Assam in 1983 to the national capital, Delhi, in 2020. Yet the documentary rather unfairly attempts to paint Modi alone as the sole reason why religious violence exists. Additionally, many claims presented lack appropriate evidence and are debatable at best, such as the allegation that Modi himself authorized police to stand by and let the violence happen.
But despite the documentary’s shortcomings, Modi has ultimately come out of this whole fiasco worse than anyone else. His actions have drawn increased scrutiny towards his administration and furthered the appeal of the documentary due to sheer curiosity. The rather authoritarian measures taken by his government to suppress the documentary have only made him look more guilty, despite the questionable nature of many of the documentary’s claims.
The Modi government has made a serious misstep in its handling of the documentary. Had Modi just stayed silent and let the storm pass, perhaps more attention would have been drawn towards the documentary’s flaws. But the brutal, authoritarian nature of the government’s actions have instead bolstered opposition parties and drawn a flood of media attention towards Modi’s censorship and democratic backsliding in India, and the Indian government has now drawn the condemnation of the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders. Yikes.
Although the documentary nor Modi’s response to it is truly enough to kill his political career, Modi’s response specifically taints India’s reputation as the world’s most populous democracy. Freedom of the press is an intangible component of a functioning democratic society, and I personally find the crackdown on the documentary concerning.
So is this where India’s democratic record ends? Probably not. But democratic backsliding is a gradual process, and if left alone for too long, the consequences will be irreparable.