Allahabad HC ‘Restrains’ Al Jazeera From Airing Docu on India’s Muslims for Fear of ‘Evil Consequences’

The court was hearing a petition that claimed that the film, titled 'India... Who lit the Fuse' is “likely to create hatred amongst different religious denominations and thereby destroy the secular fabric of the Indian state".

New Delhi: The Allahabad high court on Wednesday, June 14, “restrained” Al Jazeera from telecasting, broadcasting or releasing the news documentary India… Who lit the Fuse? until the issues raised in a petition “are adjudicated” after notice to the Doha-based broadcaster. The high court, considering “the evil consequences” that are likely to occur on the telecast or broadcast of the film in question, has deferred the telecast pending consideration of the petition.

The court has also directed the Union government and the authorities constituted under it “to take appropriate measures warranted in law to ensure that the film is not allowed to be telecast/broadcast unless its contents are examined by the authorities, duly constituted in law for the purpose, and necessary certification/authorisation is obtained from the competent authority.” The Union and state governments have been directed to “secure social harmony and protect the security and interest of the Indian State.”

A petition filed by one Sudhir Kumar, who claims to be “a public-spirited person and a social activist”, has cited detailed reasons for asking for the documentary to be barred by the court from being aired by Al Jazeera. Among them are principally, that it is “likely to create hatred amongst different religious denominations and thereby destroy the secular fabric of the Indian State. The Film also has the potential to create social unrest and disturb public order, decency and morality.”

While The Wire was unable to verify the content of the documentary, the petitioner claims that he has “reliably learnt” from print and social media reports that the film portrays the “Muslim minority of [India] living with a sense of fear and presents a disruptive narrative creating a sense of public hatred, which is far from reality”. The petitioner claims that the film “negatively portrays” the political functionaries of the Indian state and projects them as acting detrimental to the interest of minorities.

The Arabic edition of the Al Jazeera documentary on the treatment and status of Muslim minorities in India has been tweeted by the news channel.

News channels are not required to obtain certificates for exhibiting documentaries aired on them. Earlier this year, when the BBC made a news documentary on the Gujarat violence of 2002 when Narendra Modi was the state’s chief minister, it was not allowed to be streamed in India with the use of emergency provisions. The reasons for this are yet to be made public. The BBC documentary, aired in January 2023, focused on a UK government inquiry in the wake of the widespread violence in Gujarat in 2002, which held then CM Modi directly responsible”. The documentary was never aired on Indian television, and was blocked by the Union government on all social media platforms.

Significantly, the counsel appearing for the Union of India in the Al Jazeera case did not dispute the legal submissions made on behalf of the petitioner. He did not refute the fact “that necessary certification has not been obtained”. 

The bench consisting of Justice Ashwani Kumar Mishra and Justice Ashutosh Srivastava heard arguments from the petitioner that Al Jazeera is only a news organisation but it has “exceeded its ambit” so as to broadcast films. This, the petitioner argued, was with the singular intention of creating distress and endangering the public order in the country. It also said that the film proposes to publicise distorted versions of facts to create disharmony amongst the citizens of the country who belong to different religious denominations.

The court though says the seriousness of the charges made in the PIL has forced it to take recourse to Article 19(2), which speaks of reasonable restrictions to the freedom of expression in India.

The seven-page order, made available by LiveLaw, says, “We are conscious of the fact that the freedom of speech and expression as also the right of broadcast is a fundamental right but it remains subject to the reasonable restrictions imposed by Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India.”

The court noted that Al Jazeera was not represented in court and that the film was not available for perusal. The court directed the petitioner to “take steps within 48 hours to serve” Al Jazeera by
“registered/speed post as well as by dasti” and fixed July 6 as the date for admission/hearing of the writ petition.

Al Jazeera, contacted for a response, refused to comment but it is believed it will “take legal recourse.” The story will be updated if and when they do.