Over 500 scientists and academicians have released a statement expressing dismay at the “censorship” of a BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The two episodes of the documentary, titled India: The Modi Question, were released on January 17 and January 24. The documentary examined Modi’s alleged role in the communal riots that took place in Gujarat in 2002 and his subsequent track record.

Although BBC did not release the documentary in India, the Centre on January 21 had directed YouTube and Twitter to remove links sharing snippets from the documentary.

The statement by the Indian scientists and academicians was released on January 31. Till the morning of February 3, a total of 522 persons had signed it.

The signatories said that the Centre’s stand that the documentary undermines India’s sovereignty and integrity does not withstand scrutiny. “The removal [of the documentary from social media] violates our rights, as Indians, to access and discuss important information about our society and government,” they said.

The signatories also said that attempts by university administrations to prevent screenings of the documentary violated principles of academic freedom. “Universities should encourage open discussions on social and political questions,” they said. “Such discussions are crucial for the proper functioning of a democratic society. It is unacceptable for Universities to block the expression of some views, merely because they are critical of the government.”

Last month, students attempted to screen pirated versions of the documentary at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Ambedkar University and Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi as well as the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai and the Presidency University in Kolkata.

The statement claimed that those who were instrumental in encouraging and enabling the 2002 riots were never held to account. “This accountability is crucial, not only to prevent a repeat of such events but also to reverse the communal polarisation that threatens to tear the country apart today,” it said. “Therefore, the questions raised in the BBC documentary are important.”

However, the signatories emphasised that their statement should not be seen as a blanket endorsement of the BBC or of the British establishment.

“We are aware that Jack Straw, who appears in the documentary, was the British foreign secretary in Tony Blair’s cabinet,” they said. “In this role, he was responsible for spreading falsehoods about ‘Iraqi weapons of mass destruction’, which were dutifully repeated by the BBC and used to justify the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.”

Straw said in the documentary on Modi that the British government in 2002 sent an inquiry team to look into the riots in Gujarat. The team had alleged that Modi had prevented the police from acting to stop the violence targeted at Muslims.

The inquiry team also cited “reliable contacts” as saying that Modi met senior police officers on February 27, 2002, and “ordered them not to intervene” in the rioting, the documentary claimed.