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Who’s Afraid of BBC: How a Documentary on Gujarat Riots Threatens Prime Minister Modi’s Global Image

Who’s Afraid of BBC: How a Documentary on Gujarat Riots Threatens Prime Minister Modi’s Global Image

  • The Modi government’s extreme reaction to the two-part documentary portrays his insecurity and vulnerability on the international scene.

On January 17, a week before India’s Republic Day, the British Broadcast Company (BBC) released a documentary “India: The Modi Question.” It was about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his relationship with the 2002 Gujarat riots – and it refers to the events as a “systematic campaign of violence.” 

The documentary was soon banned by the government through national emergency powers, labeling it an “anti-India propaganda piece.” However, this was not the first time the Modi government took action against a critical voice questioning his leadership and the state government machinery during the riot. Modi, a Hindu nationalist leader, was the chief minister of Gujarat state under the Bhartiya Janata Party when the deadly riots took place. And, from the media to police and judiciary, seemingly anyone critical of Modi for not taking action to halt violence against Muslims is silenced. 

In mid-February, India’s Income Tax (IT) department raided the offices of the BBC in Mumbai and Delhi. Tax authorities confiscated journalists’ phones and held staff overnight for questioning, and after a three-day investigation, claimed that the British broadcaster had evaded taxes and owed the Indian government several million dollars. The raid – which the government insisted was merely a “survey” – came hard on the heels of the BBC releasing the critical documentary. 

The Indian government has not only banned the documentary but also forbade any mention of the film in the press or social media. Twitter and YouTube followed the government’s lead by eliminating all online links to the film’s footage. 

When students gathered at the end of January at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia University and the University of Delhi’s north campus for a screening of the banned documentary, several were detained by the police. The government imposed a ban on public gatherings on campus. Delhi University punished students for organizing a screening of the BBC documentary. 

Gaurav Bhatia, a spokesperson for the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party, called BBC the “most corrupt organization in the world,” which has a tainted and dark history working in malice against India. After the IT “survey,” BBC told their staff to not talk to other media over this matter. A reporter from BBC India on condition of anonymity fearing the repercussions from the company said that the “IT officials stayed in our office for three long days.”

“Although we continued reporting on ground, we were under a lot of pressure. The respect we used to get has diminished,” the reporter added. 

The Bharatiya Janata Party does “not anymore give interviews for any story. Every second person asks us, ‘Why didn’t you pay the taxes?’ Now there are talks that the BBC should be banned in India. We might lose our jobs any day. It is traumatizing,” the reporter added. 

The deep nerve that the two-part documentary struck centered around Modi’s role in one of the most painful and violent events in India’s recent history, the Gujarat riots of 2002, a three-day bloodbath in which more than 1,000 Muslims and an estimated 250 Hindus were killed. The violence began when a dispute between Hindu pilgrims and a group of local Muslim residents at the Godhra railway station in the Northern Indian state of Gujarat. A fire broke out in the train compartment in which 59 Hindus perished. For the next three days, Hindu nationalist groups went on a rampage, attacking Muslims in what many have termed a pogrom, or a case of ethnic cleansing. Modi was widely criticized for having done little or nothing to stop the violence – and some have alleged that he promoted it. 

Following the incident, many Western countries banned Modi from their territories for his role in the bloodshed. In 2005, the U.S. government revoked his diplomatic visa citing a violation of U.S. law that bars entry to foreigners who have committed “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” But in India, the Gujarat riot story played out differently. Modi remained governor of Gujarat. Hindu groups claim the violence against Muslims was a spontaneous reaction to Hindus being burned to death in Godhra. An official inquiry cleared Modi of any responsibility in the riots and rather than weakening Modi in the eyes of many Indians, it strengthened his image as a Hindu strongman capable of standing up to Muslims, liberal critics and foreign governments. He was elected prime minister in 2014 and welcomed back into the community of nations, including the U.S. He was invited to the White House by President Barack Obama in September 2014 and in 2019 he was welcomed by President Donald Trump, who praised him as one of his closest allies.

Threat to the Official Narrative

The BBC documentary poses a threat to this official story. It revealed the contents of an unpublished inquiry report by the UK government which found Modi directly responsible for the violence and describes it as ‘a hallmark of ethnic cleansing.” The Indian magazine The Caravan later published the said report which states, “Their systematic campaign of violence has all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing. The attack on the train at Godhra provided the pretext. If it had not occurred another would have been found.” The report also states, “The VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a world council for right-wing Hindu nationalists) and its allies acted in support of the state government. They could not have inflicted so much damage without the climate of impunity created by the state government. The chief minister Modi was directly responsible.”

Human Rights Watch’s findings, and several Indian human rights organizations, and also most of the national media had indicated that the attacks on Muslims throughout the state were planned, well in advance of the Godhra incident, and were organized with extensive police participation and in close cooperation with officials of the state government led by BJP. Reports also said that during the first two days of violence, Modi defended the actions of his police stating that they had “mowed down people” to quell the violence.

B. Sreekumar, former Director General of Police (Intelligence) in Gujarat, who had filed affidavits before the inquiry commission, later said that police officers who took actions to stop the mob attacks and arrested Hindu group leaders for attacking Muslims faced disciplinary actions by Modi government. Some were transferred to hardship posts while others had to leave Gujarat. Immediately after the riot, 27 police officers who had arrested the VHP leaders were transferred. One particularly heroic police officer, Rahul Sharma, who successfully prevented a mob attack upon a madrasa and rescued 400 people was transferred five times in the course of a single year. Sreekumar also claimed that it is common practice to intimidate whistle-blowers and otherwise subvert the justice system. Sanjiv Bhatt, then Deputy Commissioner of the State Intelligence Unit, who later filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court against Modi for his role in the riot, was removed from the service and in 2019 sentenced to life imprisonment for an unrelated case from 30 years ago.

The local Gujarati newspapers and state-owned media, which were under the influence of the Modi government and biased in covering the riots, played a crucial role during the Gujarat violence. The Concerned Citizens Tribunal in its November 2002 report noted that, “Much of the local media played reprehensively partisan and inflammatory roles right from 28 February. Local political leaders used electronic media in the most despicable manner. Local newspapers like Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar were a party in fueling communal tension in the state though sensationalizing, provocative and highly inflammatory reporting,” the report said. 

These two newspapers had a mass readership and were highly influential. Meanwhile, the journalists – mainly national media – who stood by reporting facts, showing the real images of the carnage, were intimidated and attacked by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad workers. The Editor’s Guild Fact Finding Report of May 2002 listed all attacks on the journalists adding that some reporters on duty were asked their religion, while an NDTV crew was forced to chant “Jai Shri Ram,” a Hindu chant to the god Ram, before leaving the site. 

In March 2008, the Supreme Court of India strongly criticized the Gujarat administration’s attempted cover-up of its role in the massacres and ordered a Special Investigation Team to investigate nine crucial cases. Human Rights Watch in its 2012 report on the riots said, “While investigations in the Godhra train attack proceeded rapidly, investigations into cases related to the anti-Muslim riots that followed were deliberately slowed down or simply not pursued. Officials of the Gujarat government, led by Modi failed to conduct serious investigations and obstructed justice. State courts dismissed many cases for lack of evidence after prosecutors effectively acted as defense counsel or witnesses turned hostile after receiving threats.”

Identity Politics

In the identity politics in India, Muslims, as a minority, are at a disadvantage under the leadership of the far-right wing Hindu nationalist party. Over the years, under the BJP government, anti-Muslim violence has been normalized in India. In 2020, a riot broke out in the capital Delhi, where a peaceful protest suddenly turned violent after some BJP leaders provoked Hindus. Citizens were protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, recognizing specific types of illegal immigrants, segregated by religion and country of origin. In the three days of riots, at least 53 people died and 200 were injured, most of them Muslims. The Delhi Minorities Commission report said that the Delhi police (which comes under the direct control of the Home Minister Amit Shah), covered-up Hindu rioters’ and refused to file or fairly investigate complaints made by Muslim victims.

Since the Gujarat pogrom, the Indian media’s changed its language when covering communal riots. Most mainstream Indian media, especially electronic, is under the control of the Modi government. It is criticized that the media was the main messenger for the 2020 Delhi riots. The Citizens Committee report published in October 2022 named six national TV news channels that framed the events around the Citizens Amendment Act which encouraged anti-Muslim sentiments resulting in deadly riots. 

Meanwhile, it’s difficult for independent journalists, with government censorship, market consolidation, and weak legal protection, to report facts. In the last few years, several independent media houses, which do not follow government narratives, have been raided by authorities. As per the Reporters Without Borders 2022 report, press freedom in India has fallen in its ranking to 150th out of 180 countries, making India one of the most difficult countries for reporters.

After many years of trials and deliberations, the Indian Supreme Court in June 2022 acquitted Modi and 63 others from all charges for alleged involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots. The court also dismissed the appeal by Zakia Jafri, widow of former Parliamentarian Ehsan Jafri who was slain before her eyes during the riot. She had demanded an investigation into what she considered a conspiracy behind the pogrom.

Persecution of Activists 

A day after the court judgment, Home Minister Amit Shah attacked activist Testa Setalvad in a broadcast interview, mentioning that she and her human rights NGO had spread false and baseless information about the riots to the police. Setalvad, who had pursued all legal avenues to bring justice to the victims, was arrested soon after the interview by Gujarat Anti-Terrorist Squad for forgery and giving false evidence with intent to procure a conviction. The case against Setalvad also includes former police officers Sreekumar and Bhatt who testified before into government misconduct in its response to the Gujarat riots. 

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Then, in August 2022, the Gujarat government released 11 Hindu men sentenced to life imprisonment for gang-raping a young pregnant woman named Bilkis Bano during the riots – on grounds of “good behavior.” Bano had 14 family members, including her 3-year-old child, killed by a Hindu group during the riot. The released prisoners were welcomed with garlands by local BJP leaders and hailed as ‘sanskari (cultured) Brahmins.’ One of them even campaigned for his daughter who stood for state legislative assembly in the elections held in December 2022. She won. 

The release of a critical BBC documentary, more than two decades after the Gujarat pogrom, suddenly threatens the control that Modi has established over the public memory of the Gujarat violence. The documentary tarnishes Modi’s image, at a time he can least afford it, with several major state elections scheduled this year and a national election next year. Since Modi became the prime minister, he has been recognized among the world’s most powerful and influential leaders. Morning Consult’s, a U.S. consulting firm, published a survey in February 2023 that had Modi first with 78 percent approval ratings.

Hindu National Pride

The Modi government’s extreme reaction to the documentary portrays his insecurity and vulnerability on the international scene. But it may help to boost his image domestically amongst his supporters as a powerful leader who would take any action for Hindu national pride. Among the total Indian population, 80 percent are Hindus. However, to some extent, Modi’s influence has reached the Muslim community too. Amir Khan, an Indian journalist said, “If the Supreme Court has given a clean chit to the prime minister, other countries should stop talking about it now.” In India, with a population of more than 1.4 billion, the median age is 28, meaning that its youthful population has only the faintest idea of the 2002 pogrom or the image portrayed by the BJP over the years.

“I was five years old when the Gujarat riot took place. I know it through my family because Mumbai too had its effects. But I haven’t witnessed any Hindu-Muslim riots myself,” said Pragati Shete. Shete, 25, is a resident of Mumbai. 

Pragati cast her vote for the first time in the 2019 elections and said she is aware that a BBC documentary was blocked by the government, but has little idea about its content. 

“Mumbai is governed by Shiv Sena and BJP,” she said. Shiv Sena, a Hindutva ideological party in Maharashtra state, has been an ally of the BJP since the 1980s and has been ruling the Mumbai city government since 1995. “Yes, they are not efficient at all the work but we support the party over generations,” Pragati said. 

Audrey Truschke, historian, and professor of Asian studies at Rutgers University criticized Modi’s leadership and his Hindu nationalist agenda. She said, “Modi is the butcher of Gujarat and a mass human rights killer. After the riot in 2002, he got the majority of Indians to buy his nationalist agenda. The BBC documentary has brought a stir to his image and pride. The documentary does not reveal any new information except the UK report. But it is powerful and well-made factually.” 

Truschke added that “India has a majority population who is either born after 2002 or have faint images of the riots as kids. These young voters have a sanitized image of the Gujarat riots as portrayed with BJP propaganda over the years. The documentary’s presentation will undo Modi’s image [for] Gen Z.”

(This story was published in Columbia News Service)

Devashri Bhujbal is a Master’s student at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, New York. She will be graduating in May 2023.

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  • Nah, Modi and the BJP are very popular, liked and respected. The BBC is very slanted, it has a history of being anti-India and anti-Hindu. They are very colonial, entitled, condescending. And now, the British, including the BBC, are jealous of India’s rise. India has surpassed the UK in size of economy. This was obviously a hatchet job against Modi and against India. Shame on Indians who side with the BBC in this hit job.

  • It’s also a sign of the slavishness of some Indians that they look to the BBC, which does not have India’s best interests at heart, while pretending that they do( itself a presumptuous position) for news and commentary. India has excellent, and now global news outlets, like WION, Republic, News 18, Times Now, India Today and others, whose reports on Indian, and even on some international stories, are superior to these high and mighty BBCs and CNNs et al. Many Indians still view India and particularly Hindus and Hinduism, through a British colonial lense.

  • This is another hatchet job on Modi, on the BJP and on India. FYI, the Godhra attack was not a ‘pretext’, it was an horrendous terror incident. Burning alive people( including children) on a train is pretty serious. Of course, people are going to react. What do you think would happen if Hindus in Pakistan or Bangladesh attacked a train and slaughtered that many people? One shudders at the impact. As for the BBC, Indians have their own excellent news outlets like WION, Republic, TimesNow, News 18 IBN, and others. Indians don’t have to rely on a very slanted, anti-India organisation like the BBC.

  • Narendra Modi is highly popular, respected, and moreover stands an excellent chance of being re-elected in 2024. Hatchet jobs from the BBC et al, notwithstanding.

  • A Chinese Canadian friend made a remark that was at once, short, sweet, witty and incisive. “Hindus have enough problems and challenges as it is. They don’t need Islam. Islam itself doesn’t need Islam”

    Not exactly the scripted, predictable stuff coming out of the BBC, CNN, Washington Post, NY Times, Time, the Economist, the Guardian, Financial Times, Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, Bloomberg, Huffington Post, Wall St Journal, Al Jazeera et al : The right wing Hindu nationalist BJP government, which follows a majoritarian agenda, believes only Hindus are true sons of the soil, while others are outsiders. As part of this outlook, it has revoked the autonomy of Kashmir, India’s only Moslem majority state, commenced the building of a temple at a disputed site in the town of Ayodhya where in 1992 Hindu militants demolished a mosque on the site of what they believed was the birthplace of the God Ram, and enacted what many believe is a discriminatory citizenship law”

    Blah blah blah yada yada yada.

    • The timing, selective ‘facts’, distortions, the pedigree of the media outlet, BBC. All these are factors in assessing the quality and veracity of the documentary.

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