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 it.

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 sitting exams for a year, according to the Indian news site The Wire.

DU’s move has been criticised by students.

“In a democracy, restricting students from appearing in exams is an unlawful [and] a condemnable act,” tweeted the NSUI, which is among the country’s largest student organisations, 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-Newark, who researches Hindu nationalism…

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