Youth organisations affiliated to the Opposition parties and student outfits on Tuesday screened the first episode of BBC’s India: The Modi Question across Kerala to lodge protest against the Centre’s recent move to ban it on social media. A similar attempt at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was prevented by the authorities, leading to group viewings on personal devices.
The JNU campus was shrouded in pitch darkness as the electricity had been cut off at most parts, especially outside the venue: Teflas, the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) office. As the screening could not take place, the union shared the link of the documentary and the students, who had gathered in large numbers, viewed it together on their phones.
“You can shut one screen down but you cannot stop the thousands that light up instead,” said JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh while addressing the gathering. The students turned up despite an advisory from the university administration that such an “unauthorised activity” might disturb peace and harmony of the campus.
Ms. Ghosh said the union decided to go ahead with the screening as its task was to “strengthen democracy” and it would continue to do so. Referring to a Prime Minister’s Office tweet dated April 18, 2018, — that said “I want this Government to be criticised. Criticism makes democracy strong: PM @narendramodi”, — Ms. Ghosh said “I think the JNU administration missed the tweet by our PM tweeted some years back. Just reminding. We take his words quite seriously.”
“If the ABVP [Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad] or the administration had a problem with our protest screening of the documentary that the Centre is trying to hide, they could have carried out a parallel programme. That is the culture of dissent that we have on campus,” she said, adding that the students came together to uphold democracy and the right to dissent.
As the public viewing was going on in pitch darkness, stones were pelted at the gathering. After a brief scuffle between students, a march was organised by the JNUSU to the north gate of the campus, demanding electricity to be restored.
A student said that the only place safe on campus is at the gate as the rest of the campus is in darkness and unsafe. Ms. Ghosh exited campus and requested Delhi Police officials standing outside to get the electricity back on campus.
Reacting to the Left-backed JNUSU’s plan for screening the documentary, the ABVP said supporting a “British-constructed narrative” was coherent with the “colonial mindset of British sepoys”. “Many in Opposition as well as so-called student organisations are indeed British stooges, spreading propaganda-driven BBC documentary in Indian educational institutions,” it said.
The Students’ Federation of India (SFI), in a statement, said its Central Executive Committee had decided to screen the documentary in all States to reveal the “real face” of the Modi government. “Though the authorities gave permission to the ABVP to screen ‘ Kashmir Files’ which is a propaganda movie of RSS-BJP politics, Central universities/institutions are giving orders to cancel the screening of this documentary. The Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has also issued directions to block the first episode of the BBC documentary. The SFI condemns this autocratic step of the Central government,” it said.
Tension in Kerala
In Kerala, political temperatures escalated over the public screenings of the documentary by the student and youth organisations owing allegiance to the CPI(M) and the Congress in defiance of the “Central ban”. It led to tense stand-offs between the BJP and rival party workers. The police used water cannons to disperse BJP workers who attempted to disrupt a public screening at Poojappura grounds in Thiruvananthapuram, while in Kochi, they prevented the BJP workers from storming the screening venues at Maharaja’s and Government Law College.
The BJP workers held a march to the Police Commissioner’s office in Kozhikode, demanding a ban on the screenings. In Kannur university too, students screened the documentary. The brewing political tension prompted the police to deploy in strength to prevent any violence.
The screenings drew condemnation from the BJP leadership. Union Minister of State for External Affairs V. Muraleedharan urged Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to ban them saying they were aimed at “turning Kerala into a strife-torn State”. In an open letter to Mr. Vijayan, BJP State president K. Surendran said the documentary regurgitated baseless allegations dismissed as false by the Supreme Court.
The BJP found a lone voice of support in Anil K. Antony, Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee digital media chief and son of veteran Congress leader A.K. Antony, who tweeted that the BBC’s views undermined India’s sovereignty.
Mr. Antony’s position triggered criticism from Youth Congress president Shafi Parambil. Leader of the Opposition V.D. Satheesan also sent a clear message to the party cadre by attending a public screening in Kochi.
CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and the party’s State secretary M. V. Govindan have lent support to the public viewings of the documentary.
In another development, the ABVP has lodged a complaint with the University of Hyderabad Vice-Chancellor seeking action against those who screened the documentary on January 21. The university registrar has sought a report on the issue.
The campus security had earlier tried to stop it, but a section of teachers and students in support of the screening said the documentary had not been banned as the Centre had only asked social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube to take down its web links. However, the ABVP leaders alleged that it was a “sinister design” to disturb peace on the campus. “Where is the need for screening when everyone can watch it on their gadgets if they wish to?...,” said Mahesh Namani, a research scholar and ABVP member.
The university officials said the campus was peaceful and there was no untoward incident.