Software engineer Rahul had not heard of the BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi , until it was banned and Indian news channels and social media erupted in furious debate over censorship, history and freedom of expression. But the online hype piqued his interest, and within an hour, the Bangalore city resident was able to find part one of the documentary and quickly downloaded it onto his computer. “I invited some friends and family members to my [house], and we watched it,” Rahul said, using an alias. “The more the government tries to stop people from watching it, the more curious we become.” The two-part film by the British broadcaster explores the rise of Modi and his alleged role in deadly riots in the western state of Gujarat in 2002. How many people in India would have actually paid attention to the film if not for the nature of the government’s response and the controversy that followed Prateek Waghre, India’s Internet Freedom Foundation Although the BBC did not broadcast the documentary in India , the federal government invoked emergency powers to swiftly block clips from being shared on social media platforms on January 21. Twitter and YouTube were quick to comply with the government’s request. India’s Foreign Ministry condemned the documentary, calling it a “propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative” that lacks objectivity and propagates “a continuing colonial mindset”. Kanchan Gupta, a senior adviser in the government’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, denounced the film as “anti-India garbage”, while a junior minister from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) declared that watching the film is akin to an act of “treason”. Yet state attempts to subdue viewership appear to have backfired, with clandestine screenings of a film some analysts say reveals few new details. “How many people in India would have actually paid attention to the documentary if not for the nature of the government’s response and the huge controversy that followed,” said Prateek Waghre, policy director at India’s Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF). “There are certainly elements of the Streisand effect here,” he added, referring to an online phenomenon named for the singer’s attempt to suppress an image of her Malibu home only to increase attention to it. In the days following the ban, Indian authorities scrambled to halt screenings of the film in university campuses across the country. In New Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, officials cut off power and the internet before a screening organised by a student union, saying the film would disrupt the peace on campus. ‘India, not Hindia’: row over India’s languages heats up during Hindi Diwas But students still gathered to watch the film on mobile phones and laptop screens in dimly-lit rooms. At another college in the capital city, Jamia Millia Islamia University, dozens of police equipped with riot gear and tear gas detained members of a student group who organised a screening on grounds of maintaining “law and order”. The students have since been released, according to the president of the student group, Sanam Husain. But what disciplinary action the university might take against the students remains uncertain. “As a student, practising our fundamental rights like freedom of speech, debating controversial topics, asking questions about existing theories – these are all important parts of academic learning,” Husain said. “It is very unfortunate that universities are trying to restrict students from the ability to have this discourse about the government because it might be too critical,” she added. The documentary The BBC documentary focused on Modi’s tenure as chief minister of Gujarat where violence erupted in 2002 after a suspected Muslim mob set fire to a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, killing 59 people. The incident set off one of the worst outbreaks of religious bloodshed in post-independence India in which at least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in reprisal attacks across Gujarat. The BBC’s investigation cites a British diplomatic investigation that concludes the riots were planned by Hindu nationalist groups, and that Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that brought forth the violence. Rahul Gandhi’s Unite India march: a win for Congress in Modi’s ‘bazaar of hate’? Critics have long-accused Modi of failing to protect Muslims and stop the riots, but the leader has denied the allegations, and in 2013, India’s top court ruled there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him. The BBC has said the documentary was “rigorously researched” and involved a wide range of voices and opinions, including responses from people in the BJP. This incident shows a government completely unprepared “to accept media scrutiny, academic scrutiny, and criticism,” said Megha Kumar, deputy director of analysis at consulting firm Oxford Analytica. “This is particularly striking given that India is ostensibly the world’s largest democracy.” Stifling dissent Activists say the ban is part of a worrying trend of increased online censorship in the country, aided by internet laws and content moderation policies that give the government more control over the flow of information online. The latest amendment to India’s IT rules passed in 2021 would force social media platforms and online intermediaries to take down any information deemed “fake or false” by the Press Information Bureau (PIB). And with little transparency on what information is determined false, observers also worry who it will be used against. “There are certainly concerns that this is going to be used selectively against stories or people that don’t necessarily paint the government in a positive light,” said IFF’s Waghre. And the space for criticism may be about to get a lot smaller, experts say, with a Digital India Bill due to replace its more than 20-year-old Information Technology Act, 2000. “The government wants a compliant media, not an adversarial media,” Kumar added.