Chaos ensued at a major university in the Indian capital after stones were thrown at students who staged a screening of a banned BBC documentary series that blamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Power and internet connections were disrupted for hours at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, where members of the university’s student union had staged the first episode of the two-part BBC documentary India: the Modi question.
The JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU), long considered a bastion of the university’s left-wing politics, held the screening on Tuesday at 21:00.
The documentary – which claims Mr Modi was “directly responsible” for the 2002 riots in his home state of Gujarat when he was prime minister there – has been denounced as a “propaganda piece” by the government.
The government has also invoked emergency powers to block the spread of any clips via social media in India.
Just half an hour before students were to watch the documentary, a blackout occurred at 8:30 pm affecting one-third of the JNU campus and some faculty living quarters.
JNUSU blamed the “deliberate” blackout by the JNU administration, which had threatened disciplinary action on students if the documentary was shown, claiming it could disturb “peace and harmony” on campus.
In a video from the campus, JNUSU President Aishe Ghosh protested the blackout, waving a piece of paper with a QR code on it.
“If they close one screen, we light up hundreds,” he said.
The students continued to watch the documentary on their phones and laptops despite the power outage as a sign of their protest.
JNUSU said some students were injured after stones were allegedly thrown by members of ABVP, a student group of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Dozens of angry students then staged a protest march from their campus to a police station and demanded that a complaint be filed against the stone throwers.
Delhi Police on Wednesday said it had launched an investigation into the complaints by both JNUSU and the ABVP, but said no formal complaint had yet been filed.
“No FIR [First Information Report or first step to a police complaint] it was still archived. They have filed a complaint and we are investigating it,” Delhi Police officials told ANI.
“We have filed a complaint and the police have assured us they will look into the incident immediately,” Ghosh said. “We have provided the name and details of everyone involved. As of now, we are canceling the protest,” he added.
One day before the screening, the JNU administration said it had not given permission for the screening.
“This is to underline that such an unauthorized activity can disturb the peace and harmony of the university campus”, it reads and warns against “strict disciplinary measures”.
In response to the administration, JNUSU asked under which provision of the university rules voluntary screening was prohibited.
“By showing the documentary/film, we are not trying to create any form of disharmony. The purpose of the screening is only to watch the documentary on campus. Only students with voluntary interest would take part in the screening,” a statement read.
Ghosh also tweeted an attack on the university administration, describing it as “‘banned’ by an ‘elected government’ of the largest ‘democracy'”.
He said JNU had held screenings of controversial films such as Kashmiri Filesbut “never received a notice from the administration”.
“This is happening for the first time.”
Tension has gripped another top university in Delhi, where students had scheduled a screening of the documentary on Wednesday night.
More than a dozen students have been arrested by police and classes suspended at Jamia Milia Islamia University in the national capital after the administration denied any films from being shown on campus.
A Jamia Milia student union called for a protest against student detention after riot police and tear gas cannon vans were stationed outside the campus along with a huge media presence.
The University’s Federation of Students of India (SFI) unit said students were detained in an “heinous manner” to dissuade them from watching the documentary.
The university reiterated that it will take all measures to prevent individuals and organizations from having a “vested interest in destroying the university’s peaceful academic atmosphere”.
The BBC documentary was also reportedly screened at the University of Hyderabad and campuses in the communist-ruled southern state of Kerala, despite warnings from BJP leaders.
The documentary traces Modi’s rise through the ranks of the Hindu nationalist BJP, despite his alleged involvement in the riots and failure to stop them during his leadership of the state.
He also uncovered memos showing Mr Modi was criticized at the time by several Western diplomats and the British government. It included an unpublished report from the UK Foreign Office which held Modi “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that enabled the Gujarat violence.
The February 2002 riots killed over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, while he was the state’s prime minister.
While the BBC said the documentary was “rigorously researched”, the Indian government called it a “propaganda piece” that revealed a “colonial mindset”.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price, when asked for his views on the series, said the US and India have an “exceptionally deep partnership” without offering any comment on the documentary.
“I don’t know the documentary you are referring to. I am very familiar with the shared values that unite the United States and India as two thriving and vibrant democracies. When we have doubts about the actions taken in India, we have expressed them. We had a chance to do it,” Price said.