NEW DELHI — The film had already been banned, the social media posts censored. Now, the students huddled without light or electricity around glowing smartphones to watch what their government had deemed to be subversive foreign propaganda.

China? No. They were in India, ostensibly the world’s largest democracy, and watching the BBC.

The Indian government over the past week has embarked on an extraordinary campaign to prevent its citizens from viewing a new documentary by the British broadcaster that explores Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in a deadly 2002 riot that saw more than 1,000 people — mostly Muslims — killed.

Indian officials, invoking emergency powers, ordered clips from the documentary to be censored on social media platforms including YouTube and Twitter. The Foreign Ministry spokesman lambasted the BBC production as a “propaganda piece” made with a “colonial mind-set.” One junior minister from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) declared that watching the film amounted to “treason.”

On Tuesday evening, authorities cut electricity to the student union hall at New Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in an attempt to prevent the film being screened — a move that only provoked defiant students around the country to try to host more viewings.

...All told, the remarkable steps taken by the government seemed to reinforce a central point of the BBC series: that the world’s largest democracy was sliding into authoritarianism under Modi, who rose to national power in 2014 and won reelection in 2019 on a Hindu nationalist platform.

Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific policy director of the digital rights group Access Now, said the episode should “give more attention” to the “dangerous situation” of eroding civil liberties in India. The government has become “far more efficient and aggressive” in blocking content during moments of national political controversy, he said.

“How is it acceptable for India, as a democracy, to be ordering such a large amount of web censorship in the country?” Chima said. “You have to look at this incident as part of a cumulative wave of censorship.”

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