Statement: The Modi Question, Democracy and Dissent in India

January 28, 2023 Updated July 21, 2023 Statements

Washington, D.C. | | January 28, 2023 — The Modi government’s blocking of BBC’s new documentary on the 2002 Anti-Muslim Gujarat Riots is another move in an increasingly troublesome pattern of stifling of dissent in India.

The documentary, “India: The Modi Question,” revealed the previously undisclosed findings of a BBC investigation into the 2002 Gujarat Riots. The Indian government banned the documentary from all media platforms and dispatched riot police to prevent students from screening the outlawed documentary. The documentary seeks to shed light on the role that Modi played in the 2002 riots, showcasing the extremist roots of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The 2002 riots began when 60 Hindu pilgrims burned to death in a train fire that was blamed on Muslims. While the origins of the fire are disputed, many scholars and independent parties agree that it was almost certainly an accident. In retaliation, Hindu extremists planned an attack on Muslims in Gujarat which led to the mass rape of Muslim women, the destruction of hundreds of mosques and Muslim businesses, and the death of over 1000 people over a course of three days– with no government or police intervention. 

In his role as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi had access to information and intelligence during the riots that he could have used to prevent the massacre. Instead, he created a “climate of impunity” and told police officials not to intervene in the riots. He was banned from entering the United States as a result of his role in the massacre; it was only upon his inauguration as Prime Minister of India in 2014 that his visa status was reinstated. 

Earlier this month, students around the country planned to screen the documentary despite the ban. The government’s response was swift: at one university, police wearing riot gear prevented students from entering the venue for the documentary screening. At least 4 people at Jamia Millia Islamia University were detained by the police on the charge of “unauthorized gathering.” In New Delhi, at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), government agents cut off power and the internet a day before JNU students’ planned screening. 

These latest incidents align with an alarming pattern of the erosion of democracy in India under Modi’s BJP government– and a larger pattern of the erosion of democracy under right-wing authoritarian leaders across the globe. Just as Gujarati officials under Modi stood by during the massacre in 2002, the Modi administration has repeatedly turned a blind eye to anti-Muslim rhetoric, violence, and lynchings; even worse, it has taken an active role in targeting minority Muslims in a myriad of ways including Islamophobic immigration policies and the ongoing destruction of mosques and historical Muslim landmarks. 

The Muslim Public Affairs Council denounces the Indian government for its violent suppression of students attempting to watch the documentary, its continued willful negligence in protecting the rights of Indian Muslims as a minority, and its scapegoating of Indian Muslims as it undermines the secular foundations of Indian Democracy. 

We urge the Biden administration to demand answers from Prime Minister Modi for this undemocratic attempt at censorship and for preventing Indians from watching this documentary that sheds light on one of the darkest moments in recent history for Indian Muslims.

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