On January 21, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting banned the sharing of a BBC documentary for “undermining the sovereignty and integrity of India” — and Indians have been looking for ways to watch it ever since.
Twitter and YouTube were ordered to immediately block access to the documentary, which examines Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in ethnic violence in Gujarat in 2002. In the days that followed, copyright takedown notices from the BBC have made the footage even harder to access. But with the dramatic ban driving interest in the documentary, Indians have turned to a combination of peer-to-peer sharing and outright piracy to access the BBC special, which has remained broadly available. The result is a stark reminder of how difficult it can be to fully block media on the modern internet — and how quickly platform bans on the world’s largest social networks can backfire against censors.
One of the Indians circumventing the ban is Aman, a 22-year-old from New Delhi who requested anonymity because he fears government retaliation. Aman first tried watching the documentary on the Internet Archive, during the brief window before the video was removed for copyright infringement. But the slow buffering on the Archive.org site eventually pushed him to download the video file — which made it that much easier to share with his friends when he was finished.
“I thought I should upload the documentary on some cloud storage website and share that link with my friends, so they could download the documentary that way,” he ultimately decided. When the second part of the documentary aired, he uploaded both parts to WeTransfer and then shared the links on Reddit.
“The way this government embraces censorship, it pisses me off,” he told Rest of World. “The ban made more people want to watch the documentary.”
Notably, Aman doesn’t see himself as in complete opposition to the current government. He said that he’s glad India has a right-wing government in power because he believes it could bring India “economic freedom,” but banning documentaries is “just ridiculous.”
At least two universities have attempted to screen the documentary, only to be shut down by locals and university officials. In one case, power was abruptly cut from a hall where the documentary was being screened. But while public showings are vulnerable, private downloads remain relatively straightforward, as users share links through a combination of public file-hosting services and other channels.
Suhail Ahmed, a tech professional based in Bengaluru, searched for the documentary for hours, but most of the links he found online had only partial uploads. He finally found the whole film on Telegram, where one group named “The Modi Question BBC Documentary” has grown to over 54,000 subscribers. There are at least three other Telegram groups with similar names, many of them renamed to capitalize on the newfound attention.
In the end, Suhail says the government order wasn’t a problem. “The ban only made me eager to watch it,” he said.
Deepesh Sharma, a Haryana resident preparing for an Indian civil services job, watched the documentary the day it was released, after downloading it from a torrent website. When the government announced a ban on its screening, Sharma decided to upload it to his Google Drive.
“I posted the links to my Twitter handle, where more than 3,000 people watched it,” he said.
Sharma believes that while there was nothing new in the documentary for people who have followed Narendra Modi’s rise after the riots, “many people, especially from the young generation, don’t know much about it or haven’t seen the visuals,” he said. He says he uploaded the documentaries to ensure that “rational people in India can watch them.”
In some ways, India’s ban is an example of the Streisand effect, in which efforts to suppress information merely draw attention to the content being suppressed. The effect is particularly powerful online, as shown in cases like the Hunter Biden laptop scandal or recent Chinese moves against livestreamers. Still, the fight to access the BBC video has become a proxy for broader concerns over online censorship, with groups around the world decrying the ban as a chilling effort to suppress politically damaging speech.
Prateek Waghre, policy director at India’s Internet Freedom Foundation, says the ban has definitely driven interest in the BBC documentary, but it has still had a negative impact on free speech in India.
“Banning this documentary got it more attention. … Most Indians wouldn’t have even watched it since it was not available in India,” Waghre said. “But at the same time, it has made it clear that saying anything critical of the government will have repercussions.”
At least two petitions have already been filed in the Supreme Court challenging the legality of the ban, although they face a difficult path ahead. One petition, filed by a lawyer in New Delhi, contends the ban is “illegal, mala fide, arbitrary and unconstitutional.” The court will hear the petitions on February 6.
Bulbul, a sales professional from Gurgaon, found the documentary through a link on Twitter. She says she didn’t learn anything new from the video, but she appreciates the new attention it’s drawing. “The way it’s weaved gives you a picture of what has happened in these 20-odd years,” she explained, “and how victims of those rights have been systematically denied justice.”
Born in Gujarat, Bulbul was in the city when the deadly riots broke out in 2002 and still carries vivid memories of the riots. “I know the reality of Gujarat,” she said. “What happened then can’t be forgotten by anyone who was there.”