Not even personal phone calls to Vice-Chancellor Zeblon Vilakazi stopped the screening of the documentary that focuses on the state of India’s democracy under current prime minister.
The screening of India: The Modi Question at Wits on Friday, May 12, was a powerful example of the importance of media freedom and open discussions in exercising democracy.
Difficult conversations about nationalism, police brutality, media freedom and command responsibility – the idea that a commanding officer is responsible for atrocities committed by their subordinates – are very often shied away from in postcolonial contexts.
The Humanities Graduate Centre (HGC) hosted the screening and panel discussion of the two-part documentary about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his relationship with the Muslim minority in the country. It was released by the BBC in January 2023 and subsequently got banned by the Indian government as “anti-Indian propaganda”.
The first part follows Modi’s early political life, extending into his time as chief minister of Gujarat province, when in 2002 deadly violence shook the province, with Muslim populations targeted by extremists following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims.
Among many accusations that followed was that direct orders from Modi had allowed for the violence to play out – an accusation that Modi was acquitted of by India’s Supreme Court in 2021.
The second part of the documentary follows Modi’s career after the riots, focusing on his re-election as prime minister of the country in 2019 for a second five-year term. This is when he presided over a controversial policy changing the status of the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir and the Citizen Act which revoked the citizenship of many Muslim Indians.
The documentary also covers the ever-increasing suppression of media in the country, with Reporters Without Borders stating that press freedom in the country has declined.
Sociology professor Srila Roy and Mellon Chair in Indian Studies, Professor Dilip Menon, made up the panel at the screening, with more than 30 people from diverse backgrounds in the audience. The discussion began by highlighting the fact that students at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university were arrested for hosting a screening not unlike the one that was held at Wits.
The state of India’s democracy came under the spotlight. A group of four individuals in the audience voiced their anger at the BBC during the discussion, labelling the documentary “propaganda” and “hypocritical from colonial Britain” – responses very similar to those made by the Indian government.
Roy rebuked these comments, stating that it was in bad faith to have a debate of “what ifs” when the subject matter was about the loss of human lives during a time of ethnic violence. The real question, she said, was, “Why is there a ban and why are university students being arrested for watching [the documentary]?”
The screening was championed by the director of the HGC, Professor Lorena Núñez Carrasco, following weeks of external pressure from pro-Modi supporters for it not to go ahead. Not even personal phone calls made to Vice-Chancellor Zeblon Vilakazi stopped the screening.
Menon alluded to the possibility of the pressure stemming from not wanting to ruffle any feathers ahead of the Brics summit being held in Durban later this year. He highlighted the contradiction of India being the world’s largest democracy due to the largest population actively taking part in voting, and yet having the documentary being banned where there “should be free, open discussion”.
The full documentary is no longer available on YouTube, with the site saying this was for copyright reasons. Menon suspects the Indian government could have played a role in its removal.
FEATURED IMAGE: Wits hosted a screening of the documentary, India: The Modi Question, which is banned in India. Graphic: Seth Thorne
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