The government of West Bengal on Monday banned a movie critics accused of stoking communal hatred and propaganda against Muslims, but defended strongly by the right-wing ruling coalition.
The film, The Kerala Story, claims that 32,000 Hindu and Christian women from the mixed-faith state of Kerala have converted to Islam, and that some were recruited by the militant Islamic State (IS) group. Critics have called the film out for peddling lies aimed at fomenting communal polarisation and unrest.
But the movie has been endorsed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and seized on by Hindu hardliners who say its portrayal is accurate.
The state of West Bengal, which has a larger population than Germany, banned the movie on Monday, with chief minister Mamata Banerjee — whose party opposes Modi, — slamming it as a “distorted story”.
“This is to avoid any incident of hatred and violence, and to maintain peace in the state,” she told reporters in Kolkata.
The trailer for the film initially claimed that thousands of women had fled their homes “to be buried in the deserts”, but as controversy mounted it was edited to say it was a story about three women from Kerala.
But the closing credits still say it is “dedicated to the thousands of girls in Kerala and Mangalore who didn’t come back home after their conversions”.
Anurag Thakur, India’s information minister, said the film showed “the reality of IS” and that by banning it, West Bengal was effectively siding with terror outfits that “lure women with love”.
“Everyone must see this movie to understand the agenda of these terror outfits who operate globally, but do their recruitment in some parts of India,” Thakur told broadcaster India Today.
Indian authorities have not previously expressed concern that thousands of their citizens may have joined IS, a prospect which would alarm counter-terrorism experts.
Multiplexes in the southern state of Tamil Nadu have also stopped the screenings of the movie fearing violence and unrest.
The controversy comes after The Kashmir Files, about Hindus fleeing India-occupied Kashmir in 1989-90, last year saw incidents of people in cinemas calling for revenge killings of Muslims.
India banned the screening of a BBC documentary about Modi’s role during killings in Gujarat in 2001, calling it “hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage”.