Seven days of incessant inter-communal violence: 1,044 dead, 223 missing, and 2,500 injured. The Gujarat riots shook the Indian subcontinent to its very core in 2002, inflicting a gash that ran deep and true in its memory. Twenty-one years later, BBC’s new documentary, India: the Modi Question unearths the ugly realities of this violence in just 59 short minutes—a history the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has painstakingly buried over the years, one silenced journalist at a time. A year before India goes to the polls to possibly elect Modi for a third term, the documentary described him as “directly responsible for a climate of impunity” that has led to anti-Muslim violence. It blames him for allowing religious violence to rage on in the state and for ordering senior police officers not to intervene.
The Modi government was quick to react, placing a complete ban on the documentary and drawing scrutiny from diaspora and resident Indians alike. From blocking the documentary on YouTube and Twitter to cutting the internet at major universities, it is doing everything in its power to prevent viewing. The glaring failures of this ban, while providing a glimpse of hope, do not necessarily mean that freedom of speech in India is safe. Moreover, the criticism the government has faced in response is unlikely to prevent its continued suppression of free speech. Amidst a national sentiment that is willing to ignore or even accept the BJP’s fascist attitude toward free speech, the future of India’s democracy remains murky.
The documentary ban is just one droplet in a stream of crackdowns on free speech. Be it stand-up comedy or student activism, threats to the BJP’s ultra-nationalist positions are neutralized by suppression, censorship, legal action, or an unhealthy combination of all three. The direct result of this is an environment of fear that deters people from speaking truth to power and criticizing their political leader.
There are several factors which allow Modi to get away with murder—literally and figuratively. Chief among these is the rising wave of Hindu nationalism that Modi rides to victory in the polls. Sixty-four percent of Hindus now say that being Hindu is very important to be truly Indian. There is also a growing fear among the Hindu population that they may become a minority due to higher birth rates in the Muslim community. By playing on religious insecurities, Modi has crafted a narrative that India’s Hindu community needs saving and that he is their savior. In doing so, he has managed to create a milieu in which any critique of him is deemed anti-national and anything deemed anti-national is punished. This narrative provides Modi the license to adopt illiberal policy with limited repercussions; he masterfully walks the fine line between clamping down on criticism and upholding an illusion of democracy by never directly condoning his party’s suppression of free speech, making it easy for Hindus in India to ignore his role in it.
The BJP silences individuals, organizations, and the press through legal frameworks that can easily be abused. The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), for instance, has been used extensively by the Modi government over the past few years to detain comedians, journalists, and lawyers without bail or trial under the suspicion of terror and threat to national security. Rule 16, which was utilized to ban the BBC documentary about Modi, is another such tool that allows the government to block online content if it threatens national security. Many journalists report being investigated after covering stories, such as news of farmers protesting in 2021, that were anti-establishment.
As Vrinda Grover, a human rights lawyer practicing in India’s Supreme Court says, “fewer and fewer people want to speak, and for good reason: There are consequences.” From the comedian Munawar Faruqui, to the folk singer Neha Singh Rathore, to human rights groups like Amnesty International and media houses like The Caravan, voices that rise against Modi are stifled by police or legal action. Modi’s staunchly right-wing supporters further pressure his critics through verbal and physical violence. While not a direct suppression of free speech by the government, the BJP’s silence condones these unlawful actions.
Additionally, the BJP is unleashing central investigative agencies on political opponents. Since ‘sedition,’ ‘defamation,’ and ‘threatening national security’ are all vague criminal offenses in India, they are often used to silence outspoken minority voices. The Modi administration also claims that its opponents—not just journalists, but also other civil society organizations that have touched a nerve—engage in financial impropriety. While India has had its fair share of undemocratic crackdowns on free expression, the Modi government’s use of ordinary criminal law to punish dissent is entirely new. With the BJP compromising the independence of some of the institutions and legal frameworks that form the backbone of the nation, India is inching away from democracy every day.
Despite international criticism galore, the polls remain fervently in Modi’s favor, which begs the question—how will these attacks on free speech continue to evolve amidst Modi’s continuing popularity? Is India headed toward fascist rule? It seems likely that a further emboldened Modi, bolstered by a third-term victory in 2024 and the wind of history at his back, will seek to make fundamental changes to the structure of the Constitution, stripping Indians of their democratic freedoms. The public’s continued support of his administration’s draconian and biased laws is a bleak indicator of its willingness to overlook and accept anti-democratic practices.
Its readiness to trade freedom of speech for the promise of a more developed and economically sound future will change the very fabric of the nation. The pluralist values upon which the Indian identity is built are crumbling under the pressure of violence against voices of dissent. The only real opposition to the BJP is a weak Congress party and disunited smaller opponents. Rahul Gandhi, leader of the ‘grand old’ Congress is seeking to win public support and attack Modi’s capitalist strategies, but to little avail.
A prepared BJP is already marketing Modi as a champion of the poor and downtrodden, emphasizing the continued support he has received from them in every election. Modi’s win next year would set the country on a course of democratic deterioration which might only be reversed by a complete shift in public attitude. The only foreseeable cause for this shift would be more explicit abuses of power by the BJP. Its current success hinges on its ability to cloak its undemocratic behavior, but a 2024 win might make it more confident, unflinching, and forthright in these efforts.