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Two students have been “debarred” by a top Indian institution after screening a controversial BBC documentary critiquing the country’s prime minister—a move that some academics fear could have a “chilling effect” on free speech on the nation’s campuses.
When it was released in January, the series India: The Modi Question, which investigates Narendra Modi’s role in riots in Gujarat that left more than 1,000 people dead in 2002, was condemned by the country’s government, with several universities issuing warnings to students against screening the documentary.
Now, students at the University of Delhi (DU) who defied administrators’ order not to show the documentary are facing disciplinary repercussions. The students, one of whom is the national secretary of the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), have been banned from taking exams for a year, according to the Indian news site The Wire.
DU’s move has been criticized by students.
“In a democracy, restricting students from appearing in exams is an unlawful [and] a condemnable act,” tweeted the students’ union, which is among the country’s largest student organizations, with 521,000 followers on Twitter.
The decision also prompted warnings from some academics, who say it could stifle students’ ability to express dissent at DU and other institutions across the country.
“Two students sought knowledge about human rights abuses and their university is punishing them,” wrote Audrey Truschke, associate professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University at Newark, who researches Hindu nationalism.
“This is, sadly, to be expected,” she added, noting increasing limitations on antigovernment speech in India.
Apoorvanand, a Hindi professor at the University of Delhi, agreed.
“One can see what it is doing is sending a message that this will have a very chilling effect on students: ‘don’t try to risk their career for free expression or for something which the government doesn’t like,’” he said.
He said that the university was taking a “very clever” strategy by punishing two students more harshly while “letting others go.”
“Because many students were part of that screening, when you choose two, it becomes very unpredictable. The students who were punished are also isolated, so it fails to become a collective issue.”
He worried that other universities would take a lead from DU, one of India’s most prestigious universities.
“Delhi University claims to lead by example,” he said. “It will set the precedent [for] other universities that they can also use these measures against students.”