Supreme Court to hear pleas challenging BBC documentary ban next week

The Supreme Court of India will next Monday hear requests challenging the use of emergency powers to block the controversial BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and allegations linked to the 2002 Gujarat riots.

India has called the documentary a
India has called the documentary a "propaganda piece" that lacks objectivity and reflects a colonial mindset. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia

A bench comprising Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and justices PS Narasimha and JB Pardiwala took note of the submissions of serial litigant Advocate ML Sharma and senior advocate CU Singh seeking urgent listing of their separate Public Interest Litigations on the issue.

In addition to Sharma, another petition has been filed by veteran journalist N Ram, activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan, and Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra.

Advocate CU Singh said that the Centre has invoked emergency powers under IT Rules to remove the links about the documentary from social media, adding that tweets by N Ram and Advocate Prashant Bhushan were taken down, and that the Centre has not yet formally publicised the blocking order. College students in Ajmer were rusticated for screening the documentary, he added.

Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju slammed the petitioners for "wasting" courts' time.

"This is how they waste the precious time of Hon'ble Supreme Court where thousands of common citizens are waiting and seeking dates for Justice," he tweeted.

ML Sharma's petition terms the Centre's ban on the two-part documentary as "malafide, arbitrary, and unconstitutional".

The PIL also urged the top court to examine the BBC documentary – both parts I and II – and sought action against those who were responsible and involved directly and indirectly with the 2002 Gujarat riots.

On January 21, the Centre, using emergency provisions under the Information Technology Rules, 2021, issued directions for blocking multiple YouTube videos and Twitter posts sharing links to the controversial BBC documentary "India: The Modi Question".

Mr Sharma said that in his PIL he has raised a constitutional question and the top court has to decide whether citizens have the right under Article 19 (1) (2) 

"Whether without having an Emergency declared under Article 352 of the Constitution of India by the President, Emergency provisions can be invoked by the Central Government?" the PIL said. It claimed the BBC documentary has "recorded facts" which are also "evidence" and can be used to further the cause of justice for the victims.

Mahua Moitra has shared the link to the documentary on Twitter, saying "Govt on war footing to ensure no one in India can watch a mere BBC show. Shame that the emperor & courtiers of the world's largest democracy are so insecure (sic)."

The Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry told Twitter and YouTube to block the first episode of the BBC documentary, people familiar with the matter said, a day after British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak distanced himself from the documentary series, saying he "doesn't agree with the characterisation" of his Indian counterpart in the UK's parliament by Pakistan-origin MP Imran Hussain.

The ministry told Twitter to remove over 50 tweets on the documentary by Britain's national broadcaster, sources said.

India has called the documentary a "propaganda piece" that lacks objectivity and reflects a colonial mindset.

Students' organisations and opposition parties across India have organised public screenings of the documentary in protest over the ban orders. Students clashed with college authorities and the police in several campuses after not being allowed to hold screenings, some were briefly detained as well.

A Supreme Court-appointed investigation had found no evidence of wrongdoing by PM Modi, who was Chief Minister of Gujarat when the riots broke out in February 2002.