In an apparent bid to recover from the setback caused by senior leader AK Antony’s son Anil Antony denouncing the BBC for making a documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, the Kerala unit of Congress on Thursday, 26 January, organised a public screening at Shanghumukham beach in state capital Thiruvananthapuram.
It is the first time a mainstream political party in Kerala — or anywhere in the country — has organised a screening of the documentary in a public space.
Although the ruling LDF and the Opposition UDF have denounced the Union government’s “brazen attempts” to suppress the documentary across viewing platforms on the grounds that it was motivated propaganda, only their student and youth wings had so far organised screenings in different parts of the state.
Initially, the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) had thought of screening the documentary at its office in Sasthamangalam in the city.
The venue was then shifted to Shanghumukham beach to make the screening accessible to the public.
The move was a success as a many people gathered at the beach venue, along with district and state-level party leaders and workers.
Though there was significant police presence anticipating protests by the BJP, no untoward incident was reported till the end of the screening.
“The response from the public was huge. People, irrespective of party affiliations, came to watch it. Given the positive response, we plan to show it across the state at different locations,” said KV Babu, secretary of KPCC.
Rebutting Shashi Tharoor
The public screening of the documentary is also being seen as rebuttal by the KPCC of the stand adopted by Congress leader and local MP Shashi Tharoor, who reportedly said that not much attention must be given to events that occurred 20 years ago.
The fact that Anil Antony was one of Tharoor’s supporters in the party, only added to the belief that the KPCC’s public screening was also targeted at the Thiruvananthapuram MP.
Anil Antony resigned on Wednesday from all party posts after his comment criticising the BBC and backing the Union government’s stand that the Modi documentary was anti-India propaganda was criticised by a host of Congress leaders and workers.
Tharoor had, on Wednesday, only mildly chastised Anil Antony for his stance, saying: “I feel this is an immature stand… The sovereignty of our country cannot be affected so easily… will it be affected if a foreign documentary is screened,” he had asked.
Protest screenings, muted BJP response
The screening of the documentary at Shanghumugham has also come in wake of protest screenings in Delhi, in two universities in Hyderabad, in Kolkata, and one by the Congress student wing NSUI in Chandigarh.
In Kerala, the move to protest the “banning” of the documentary by the Centre, has given an edge to the Congress over its rival CPI(M) — the main constituent of ruling LDF — which has had a guarded response to the issue so far.
As colleges and universities remained closed on Thursday due to Republic Day, there were few screenings of the documentary.
But student wings of all constituents of the LDF and the UDF are preparing to screen it on college and university campuses across the state in the coming days.
Some Muslim organisations, too, have announced plans to widely screen the documentary.
Except for a few protest marches and a petition to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to intervene and stop the screenings, the BJP state leadership has done little to counter its growing popularity.
Within the BJP leadership in the state, a sizable section is now questioning state president K Surendran’s inept handling of the issue by reducing the protests to just filing a complaint with the chief minister.
Union Minister V Muraleedharan has urged Vijayan to enforce a state-level ban on the screenings aimed at “turning Kerala into a strife-torn state”.
Both Congress and CPI(M) plan to use the documentary to highlight how the BJP seeks to silence dissent, with the potential to engage in public discourse on critical matters.
CPI(M) state secretary MV Govindan and KPCC president K Sudhakaran have extended support to all those who organise public viewings of the documentary.
The Congress and the CPI(M) are also seeking to galvanise public opinion against the BJP and the ruling dispensation at the Centre ahead of the fast-approaching Lok Sabha elections in 2024 by using the documentary.
By doing so, they hope to bring questions about the Gujarat carnage to the forefront of political discourse in Kerala, a state with a sizeable Muslim population that is being wooed by both the Left and the Congress.
About the documentary
The first episode of India: The Modi Question, released on 17 January, alleged that a team sent by the British government to Gujarat in the wake of the post-Godhra riots of 2002 had held that then chief minister Modi was “directly responsible for a climate of impunity” that led to the violence against Muslims.
The Centre, on Friday, 20 January, invoked emergency powers and directed YouTube and Twitter to remove links to the documentary.
Free speech activists have since played a cat and mouse game with the Centre by forwarding links to the documentary on various other platforms.
Meanwhile, The Caravan magazine obtained a copy of the inquiry conducted by the British government, which was cited in the BBC documentary. According to the report, the violence was “planned, possibly months in advance” by the right-wing Hindu group Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
The report said: “The attack on the train at Godhra on 27 February provided the pretext. If it had not occurred, another one would have been found.”