The Supreme Court will hear two Public Interest Litigations (PILs) on February 6, 2023, challenging the Union Government’s resolution to ban a BBC documentary titled ‘India: The Modi Question’, based on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in 2002 Gujarat riots. The plea was moved on January 30 mentioning the matter for a hearing before a bench headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud.
Justices PS Narasimha and JB Pardiwala were also present in the bench. They heard the submissions of Advocate ML Sharma and Senior Advocate CU Singh seeking urgent listing of their individual PILs on the matter. Another petition has been filed by journalist N Ram, activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan, and Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra.
Previously on January 21 this year, the Government had issued directions for blocking several YouTube videos and Twitter posts sharing links to the contentious BBC documentary. The Ministry of External Affairs rejected the documentary as a “propaganda piece” that is devoid of objectivity and imitates a colonial mindset.
ML Sharma’s petition, terming the Centre’s ban order as “malafide, arbitrary and unconstitutional”, urged the Supreme Court to call and analyse both parts of the BBC documentary. The petition also urged the Supreme Court to carry out measures against persons responsible for the 2002 Gujarat riots. In his submissions, he questioned before the court on whether citizens have the right under Article 19(1)(a) (freedom of speech and expression) to view news, facts and reports on the 2002 Gujarat riots. He also contended that without having an emergency declared under Article 352 of the Indian Constitution by the President, whether emergency provisions could be invoked by the Central government.
Senior Advocate CU Singh, in his petition, stated that the Centre did not officially publicise the blocking order and further raised that the Central Government called upon emergency powers under Rule 16 of the Information Technology Rules, 2021 to eliminate the links regarding the documentary from social media. He stated that tweets of his clients N Ram and Advocate Prashant Bhushan were also removed.
Rule 16 of the IT Rules, 2021, formally known as the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, describes the government’s power with regard to blocking of information in case of emergency.
In 2008, the Supreme court had appointed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to submit a report on the riot’s trials. In 2012, the SIT gave a clean chit to PM Modi and others, citing “no prosecutable evidence” and submitted its closure report to the Magistrate. In 2013, Zakia Jafri (Congress leader Ehsan Jafri’s wife) filed a petition opposing the closure report. The Magistrate upheld the SIT’s closure report and dismissed her plea. She moved the Gujarat High Court which also upheld, in 2017, the Magistrate’s decision. Later in 2018, Zakia Jafri and activist Teesta Setalvad approached the Supreme court, alleging that the SIT did not scrutinize all the material available, its investigation was influenced, and investigators themselves should face an enquiry. During the hearing, the state of Gujarat denied the charges and said Setalvad, who herself allegedly embezzled money donated for the welfare of riot victims, was behind Jafri’s petition.
On 24 June 2022, the Supreme Court upheld the SIT’s clean chit to 64 people including PM Narendra Modi and found no evidence of wrongdoing by him, who was Chief Minister of Gujarat when the riots broke out in February 2002. The Supreme court, while dismissing the petition filed by Zakia Jafri in the Gujarat Riot case, observed that the plea was bereft of merit. The court had appreciated the SIT and pulled up the appellant for “bordering on undermining the integrity and sincerity of investigators”.
The court had also deliberated upon “some disgruntled Gujarat officials and others trying to create a sensation by making false revelations to keep the pot boiling for ulterior designs”. The bench firmly stated that those involved in such “abuse of process need to be in the dock and face law”.
Multiple students’ organisations and opposition parties across the country have attempted to orchestrate the situation by holding public screenings of the documentary in protest over the ban orders. Some of these were reported at Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Ambedkar University, Jamia Millia Islamia University as well as the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, the Presidency University in Kolkata, and the Central University of Rajasthan in Ajmer. Although the documentary is not accessible in India, pirated links of the same has been shared extensively on online platforms.