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Documentary On PM Modi’s Alleged Role In Gujarat Riots Spurs Outrage

The documentary serves as a painful, but necessary reminder of the allegations leveled against Narendra Modi. 

In its most recent attempts at stifling dissent, the Indian government banned a two-part BBC documentary, “The Modi Question,” launched mid-January. 

It is being viewed privately in homes and at special screenings in academic institutes in India and abroad to recall a 20-year-old collective poignant memory. 

The documentary is a painful yet necessary recollection of the allegations against the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, as it reveals very little new information except it finds Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that enabled the violence in the anti-Muslim riots in the northwestern state of Gujarat in 2002.  

A thousand people, predominantly Muslim, were killed. Modi, then Gujarat’s chief minister, was widely condemned for not directing the state authorities to stop the violence against the Muslims. Many foreign governments also took note and disengaged with him, and the U.S. government revoked his visa then. 

Earlier this month, the documentary was screened at  Columbia University’s Journalism School and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, among others. At Columbia University, the screening was followed by a panel discussion led by progressive academics, Indian activists and journalists. 

Audrey Truschke, a historian of South Asia and an associate professor at Rutgers University, also a panelist at the screening, explained the symbolism behind banning this documentary. 

A quotation of the film shown during an open projection at the Presidency college premises of a documentary made by BBC named “India: The Modi Question” despite the government ban on the film. Media groups say India’s government is abusing its emergency powers under the 2021 IT Rules by blocking the documentary. DIPAYAN BOSE/SOPA/GETTY IMAHES

“The fear that the BJP has of this documentary being seen abroad is that it drives home the point that this isn’t over. It’s not closed, and it’s not going away,” Truschke said. “And none of that can happen until we address the causes of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. And so long as Modi, the BJP, and Hindu nationalism are in power in India, we can’t move beyond because you have to move through and confront the problems because otherwise, it will happen again. Maybe in a different part of India, the violence unfolds slightly differently, like in the Delhi riots in 2020. But that’s what we all fear: there’s going to be another chapter in the story.”

Of the 162 countries assessed, India ranks 8th as an at-risk country to inflict mass violence in 2022 or 2023, according to the Early Warning Project, a joint initiative of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Dartmouth College. In its 2022-23 statistical risk assessment report published in November, it noted, 

“In 2022, the Hindu nationalist-led government’s systematic discrimination against the Muslim minority has continued to intensify amid mounting reports of violence met with impunity to restrict Muslim rights,” the report said. “Hindu nationalist leaders have continued to propagate hate speech, including religious leaders’ calls for mass killings of Muslims in December 2021. Several states saw large-scale and violent incidents targeting Muslims in recent months, which involved Hindu nationalist processions engaging in derogatory anti-Muslim chants and the desecration of mosques. In response to these violent provocations, local authorities bulldozed Muslim-owned property across several states, which rights groups cited as an apparent attempt at collective punishment.”

Safa Ahmed, Media Associate, Indian American Muslim Council, an organization formed in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots in 2002, pointed out that while the documentary is a “gateway” to learning about the events that transpired during the riots, it failed to address the deeper issues and lacked testimonies from victims. 

“I was waiting for a woman’s voice because it was the Muslim women of Gujarat [who were most brutalized]. Pregnant women were slit open, women were gang-raped by the masses and were burnt alive, and older women were stripped and burnt alive. Children were force-fed petrol and burnt alive,” she said. “I hoped the documentary would’ve revealed these stories as they have gone untold for over two decades.”

In August, Modi sparked global outrage as he approved the premature release of 11 men serving life sentences for gang-raping a pregnant Muslim woman, Bilkis Bano, and killing 14 of her family members, including her 3-year-old daughter during the Gujarat riots of 2002. 

Banning the documentary is a press freedom and censorship issue. In doing so, “very clearly on a global stage, the Indian government is doing very anti-democratic things,” said Ria Chakrabarty, Policy Director, Hindus for Human Rights, in an interview.

“The Hindu nationalists’ outrage over it (the documentary) has been because a British news outlet produced it. A lot of journalists who did the work before this are Indian journalists, and they risked a lot to do so,” she explained.  “Just because the BBC produced it doesn’t discount the ferocity of the facts.”

Chakrabarty said many people reached out to her after the screening at Columbia University to talk about the influence of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism within the American diaspora. She explained that Hindus for Human Rights was formed in response to Modi’s re-election and the Howdy, Modi event in Texas in 2019. “Our founders didn’t see any Hindu Americans in the diaspora standing against the rise of Modi, particularly Islamophobia and casteism.” 

Recently, there has been a push to eliminate caste-based discrimination in the U.S.

In December 2019, Brandeis University became the first U.S. college to include caste in its non-discrimination policy. Harvard University also adopted caste protections as part of its contract with its graduate student union for its student workers in 2021. Since then, Colby College, the University of California, Davis, and Brown University have adopted similar measures. And most recently, leaders in Seattle are spearheading this move at the state level. 

A 2021 survey titled, How Indian Americans View India?” published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that “Indian Americans hold broadly favorable views of Modi. Nearly half of all Indian Americans approve of Modi’s performance as prime minister. This support is greatest among Republicans, Hindus, people in the engineering profession, those not born in the United States, and those who hail from North and West India.” Furthermore, “Almost seven in 10 Hindus approve of Modi’s performance, while just one in five Muslims do the same.”

Modi’s actions can be viewed very differently by the Hindu diaspora than by the people living in the region, Chakrabarty explained. 

“Being a minority in the U.S., it does seem like perhaps there’s a sense that Modi and his government are putting Hindus on the map in a way, that it’s ok to be proud of being Hindu” parallel to the temptation for various groups in America to put too much weight and emphasis on their race, religion or other group identity.

For instance, at the India day parade in New Jersey in August, there was a wheel loader that seemed like a bulldozer (which has become a symbol of systematic repression and government-led destruction of private homes and businesses, mostly owned by Muslims in India.) While in Texas, a Hindu group, Global Heritage Fund, organized a fundraiser to help demolish churches in India and convert Indian Christians. 

U.S. agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State have expressed concerns over the rise of religious majoritarianism and religious freedom in India. Still, they aren’t doing enough to address the issues. 

“People we speak to (in these departments) seem to understand the real concerns. The people we spoke with at the DHS and the Department of Justice seem to understand concerns about Islamophobia. The border patrol and asylum officers are also willing to hear from us,” Chakrabarty said. “But it doesn’t translate into larger action by the state department.”  

Issues like the spread of misinformation through WhatsApp messages have also been hard to monitor and tackle. “It is a problem within many immigrant communities. My parents’ friends here are more pro-Modi than my parents’ friends in West Bengal. They just aren’t living with the economic issues. They didn’t have to deal with the chaos of demonetization,” Chakrabarty pointed out. 

Sunita Vishwanath, Co-Founder, Hindus for Human Rights urged during the panel discussion at Columbia University. “What do we do as Hindus? This is all happening in our names. Are we OK with this?” she asked. “So please, after everything you’ve seen here (in the documentary), have those difficult conversations with your Hindu friends.”

Manmeet Sahni is an independent journalist from New Delhi based in New York. She writes about politics, human rights, inequality and social movements. Her bylines have appeared in Documented, The Article and others, and she is an alumna of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

Produced in association with Religion Unplugged

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