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Get a handle on the truth

The film deals with Narendra Modi’s handling of the Godhra riots when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002, an issue that was much debated in India then and for many years thereafter.

Get a handle on the truth

NEW DELHI: The BJP-led government at the Centre has a predictable pattern of reacting to adverse developments. Its response is always that of a political party rather than a government; it prefers the language of a riposte rather than a reply.

There is always a tinge of bitterness to it, and the familiar right-wing tactic of whataboutery is always kept ready to hand. Also, the counter-charge is invariably led by the BJP IT Cell and its troop of trolls.

This was the playbook followed by the government in the wake of the documentary ‘India: the Modi Question’ aired in the UK.

The film deals with Narendra Modi’s handling of the Godhra riots when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002, an issue that was much debated in India then and for many years thereafter.

The only new facts presented by the documentary relate to a British government inquiry conducted then, the findings of which were adverse to Modi. Barring the fact that the outcome of the inquiry became accessible to the broadcaster of the said documentary now, there is little in the film that would surprise Indians. Moreover, it was not even made available for Indians to view as it was showcased on the broadcaster’s geolocked app.

By railing at the film—and the channel’s supposed ‘colonial overhang’—the BJP’s social media trolls only succeeded in bringing it to wider notice in India.

The government’s response then took an entirely ominous turn when it invoked national security and public order rules to stop YouTube and Twitter from carrying any links to the content.

This action comes against the backdrop of the BJP-led government’s intention to bring about an amendment to the IT rules by which any news certified as fake by the Press Information Bureau’s fact-check unit or other Union government agencies will have to be taken down by social media platforms.

That, if it comes to be, would be an alarming regression to the mean of the Emergency, when government censors sat on judgement on what was news fit to be printed in the newspapers.

Any form of censorship, or any of its variants, is unacceptable in a democracy, least of all in a country that claims to be the largest democracy in the world and boasts of being the ‘vishwaguru’.

These alarming moves belie Modi’s own words uttered at the recent G20 summit in Jakarta, where he presented India as the ‘mother of democracy’.

The overreaction to a media documentary, and the far more serious ‘fake news’ amendment contemplated, come at a time when the government is preaching about hosting the next G20 summit and is clearly determined to showcase itself as a tolerant regime in stark contrast to China.

Curbs on media content invariably fail in an internet-linked world. On Monday, a group of university students held a screening of the documentary in Hyderabad while political groups in Kerala have also announced their intent to screen the film in the State.

When a government imposes such curbs, or rattles the sabre of outright censorship, it betrays its own fear rather than signalling strength.

This move to stifle critical content is likely to be seen as an indicator of the BJP’s insecurities ahead of elections in nine states this year and the Lok Sabha election next year. Instead of bristling at hostile media content, the government should have displayed more assurance in facing up to scrutiny.

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