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Modi's government blocks a documentary critical of the prime minister

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A new BBC documentary about India's prime minister has reignited debate about press freedoms in India. The film questions Narendra Modi's role in the deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2002. That mob violence killed roughly a thousand people, most of them Muslim. The documentary is called "India: The Modi Question." YouTube and Twitter have complied with government requests to censor clips of the documentary, and university officials have shut down public screenings. Sadanand Dhume is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SADANAND DHUME: Thank you. Good to be back.

SHAPIRO: People have criticized Modi for his involvement in these riots for two decades. And so why has this new documentary invited so much controversy?

DHUME: Well, you know, the Gujarat riots of 2002 are a stain on Modi's political career that he's never quite been able to wash off. And the reason they're controversial is that, first of all, they're on the BBC, which has a certain amount of credibility and heft in India. And secondly, this is something that, as a political issue, Mr. Modi thought he had buried, at least in India. And so by bringing it up again, raising questions about what happened in 2002, it's really like, you know, itching an old scab. And that's why it's become so controversial.

SHAPIRO: Is the government's criticism of the documentary centered on the way it characterizes the riots or what the documentary has to say about Modi's leadership today?

DHUME: Well, you know, the government sort of has had a - I would say a fairly petty and childish response. They've accused the BBC of neocolonialism, and they've really questioned the right of the BBC to make the program. But I think underlying this is a fear that Mr. Modi's international image, which he has worked very hard to buff, is going to be tarred at a moment when India is stepping up to lead the G-20, the group of 20 largest economies in the world. So I think that this documentary coming against that backdrop is jarring, and the government finds it embarrassing, which is why they have resorted to blocking it on social media.

SHAPIRO: Student activists have kept screening the documentary across the country in protest of the censorship. How is the rest of India responding?

DHUME: It's very much a polarized country at this moment. And as you would imagine in a polarized country, the responses really break down largely on political lines. Many of Mr. Modi's supporters view this as India standing up for itself and speaking back to the former colonial master. And many other people, particularly people who are affiliated with the opposition, think it's absolutely appalling that the government has blocked the documentary and is making efforts to prevent Indians from viewing it.

SHAPIRO: OK, but are more people actually watching it because it's been censored?

DHUME: For sure. I mean...

SHAPIRO: I mean that's - we're talking about it.

DHUME: ...Evidently, Mr. Modi and his advisers had not heard of the Streisand effect.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

DHUME: But there's no question that a lot more people are talking about it and watching it and that if they'd just done nothing, it's quite possible that people would have just yawned in India.

SHAPIRO: Is it pretty typical of American tech companies to agree to censor clips of the documentary when the Indian government asks?

DHUME: Unfortunately, yes. You know, many of these companies are locked out of China, so they view India as potentially the next big market, even though in real terms, if you look at the sort of dollars that come out of India, the numbers are quite small. But they look at India as potentially a large market, and the government of India is able to use this to arm twist American tech companies. And unfortunately, they have not shown too much spine.

SHAPIRO: You know, people often call India the world's largest democracy. What does this episode tell us about the country under Modi?

DHUME: Well, I think India is the world's largest democracy if you look at democracy in narrow terms - in terms of voting. More than 600 million people voted in the last Indian general election in 2019. But if you look at democracy in terms of the protection of individual rights and if you look at things like freedom of speech and freedom of the press, then the situation in India does not look that great. I mean, what kind of democracy stops people from watching a documentary? I think there's no way around that.

SHAPIRO: Sadanand Dhume is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Thank you for speaking with us.

DHUME: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.