The BBC’s so-called documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi — India: The Modi Question — has come at an interesting time. India has just pipped the United Kingdom to become the fifth largest economy in the world. It currently holds the presidency of the G20, and through it is creating greater diplomatic space for India in international affairs, so as to take the leadership of the Global South on issues of common concern.
The UK, in the meantime, is a pale shadow of its imperial past, being ruled by an Indian-origin prime minister, who is busy negotiating a largely favourable free-trade agreement (FTA) with Britain’s one-time colony, India. The “propaganda piece”, as India’s External Affairs Ministry calls the BBC ‘documentary’, also comes at a time when the Modi government, which has snubbed the sanctimonious West, led by the US and the UK, to take an autonomous position on the Ukraine war, is gearing up to face the national electoral challenge early next year.
The BBC ‘documentary’, based on a supposedly unpublished British Foreign Office report, raises questions about Prime Minister Modi’s role during the 2002 riots in Gujarat. It claims that Modi, as the chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that enabled the violence.
Apart from the absurdity of a foreign government conducting an inquiry into an internal affair of another sovereign country, the findings themselves stand in sharp contrast to the judgement of the Supreme Court. Modi was exonerated in 2021 by India’s highest court following a long-drawn investigation by the court mandated special investigation team (SIT). Another petition questioning the verdict was dismissed last year, and the Supreme Court, while dismissing the petition as motivated by “ulterior designs”, emphasised that “all those involved in such abuse of process need to be in the dock”.
The BBC ‘documentary is clearly a hit-job’ aimed at India and especially Prime Minister Modi, for if things were so clearly stacked against the then Gujarat CM and his deputy, Amit Shah, the UPA big guns wouldn’t have failed to exploit them to their advantage in the 10 years they were in power in Delhi. All those confidential meetings — like the one in 2013, attended by two UPA ministers and a staunch Sonia Gandhi loyalist-cum-adviser at the official residence of one of them, and accompanying them were two top CBI officials, aimed at ‘fixing’ Modi and Amit Shah in the 2004 Ishrat Jahan encounter case — defy logic.
Gujarat riots and predator activism
Coming to the 2002 Gujarat riots, the truth is far more nuanced and layered than advocated by the BBC propaganda piece. For instance, unlike what happened in Delhi 1984 or Nellie 1983, where one community was selectively targeted and killed, Gujarat 2002 saw a large number of Hindu casualties in police firings, too.
Officially, a total of 262 Hindus and 863 Muslims were killed in the Gujarat riots. This includes those who lost their lives in the police firing. At least 61 Hindus and 40 Muslims lost their lives in police firing in the first three days of the riots. Of the 25,486 people identified as accused in the riot-related activities, 17,489 were Hindus, while 7,997 were Muslims. The total number of accused arrested was 26,997, out of which 19,198 were Hindus. As of 5 March 2002, 98 relief camps were running in the state, of which 85 belonged to Muslims, while 13 were for Hindus. At one time, 40,000 Hindus lived in refugee camps. Do these numbers suggest a one-sided pogrom, or an ethnic cleansing, as one Pakistan-born British MP said last week citing the BBC ‘documentary’ in the UK Parliament?
The BBC ‘documentary’ projects “activist” Teesta Setalvad as a “martyr” fighting for minority rights. In her book, Modi, Muslims and Media: Voices from Narendra Modi’s Gujarat, Madhu Kishwar interviewed journalist Uday Mahurkar, who had covered the 2002 riots for the India Today magazine. Mahurkar, while recalling his visit to the Shah Alam dargah, which had been converted into a refugee camp, said: “On one side of the dargah there is a big room where one lady… was briefing the press… She was crying hysterically in front of journalists. As soon as the media persons moved away, she instantly stopped howling… On the other side of the partition, there was a squint-eyed man from Karnataka. A lady was sitting with him with a tape recorder tutoring this Muslim from Karnataka to say, ‘I am so angry at the riots that I am going to become a terrorist’.” The lady tutoring the Karnataka man was Setalvad!
The worst indictment for Setalvad came from her one-time associate, Rais Khan, who revealed how he used to get fake affidavits signed by people on her instructions. It so happened that 22 witnesses submitted identical affidavits relating to the 2002 riots cases. When SIT questioned them, it was found that they had actually not witnessed the riot incidents, and were handed the affidavits by Setalvad. And in the Best Bakery case, Yasmin Banoo, a key witness, said Setalvad forced her to lie! For her services, Setalvad was awarded Padma Shri in 2007. And the UPA’s HRD ministry granted Rs 1.17 crore to her NGO, Sabrang, in 2010 — despite NCERT’s opposition.
Bitten by imperialist bug
Alasdair Pinkerton, an Associate Professor with the University of London, has done a detailed study on how the BBC covered India from the year it gained Independence in 1947 till 2008. While looking into claims of anti-India bias in its reporting, particularly during the Cold War, he has come to the conclusion that the BBC’s reporting on South Asian geopolitics and economics reveals a pervasive and hostile anti-India bias, largely due to the broadcaster’s alleged imperialist and neo-colonialist stance.
Such contempt for India and Indians manifests itself time and again. During the 1965 war with Pakistan, the BBC was banned for its partisan reporting. It was again banned in 1970 by the Indira Gandhi government. The BBC provided a platform to a hard-core Khalistani element at a time when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Such was the uproar at that time that the then British PM, Margaret Thatcher, had to intervene and seek BBC’s apology.
In this backdrop, when Mumbai was badly battered by jihadis in November 2008, the BBC calling these terrorists “gunmen” was not really out of its character. When questioned, the British broadcaster reminded its critics that journalists shouldn’t be ‘judgemental’. Ironically, BBC journalists didn’t hesitate in calling the 7 July 2005 London attackers as “terrorists”.
On Kashmir, too, its sympathies have clearly been on the other side. The BBC, in its 2016 report, referred to Burhan Wani, the commander of a terrorist outfit in Kashmir, as “charismatic young militant”. On 5 August 2019, the Government of India decided to abrogate Article 370 that granted Jammu and Kashmir a special autonomous status within the Indian union. Soon after the BBC came up with a report saying how for many Kashmiris, “Article 370 was the main justification for being a part of India and by revoking it, the BJP has irrevocably changed Delhi’s relationship with the region”. Nowhere did it mention the most fundamental information: That the Constitution described Article 370 as a “temporary provision”!
The BBC’s record in reporting the 2020 Delhi riots, farm protests (a much-needed agriculture reform), CAA protests (which has nothing to do with the status of Indian Muslims), etc, too showed a similar anti-India tilt. In the 2020 riots, for instance, one BBC report headline — ‘Delhi riots: How Muslims’ homes were targeted and burnt’ — would be enough to show the partisan nature of its reporting, even though the violence was initiated by an Islamist outfit eager to corner the Modi government at a time when the then US President, Donald Trump, was in New Delhi.
If the BBC is being seen as anti-India, it is often accused of showing Hinduism in a poor light. In 2012, for instance, the UK broadcaster faced a foot-in-mouth moment when it referred to Holi as a “filthy festival” — a statement which it was forced to retract with an apology. A decade later, in 2021, the same BBC was seen trying to undermine the Hindu roots of this “filthy festival”: It shared on social media an Islamic couplet by Baba Bullehshah while wishing people on the festival of colour.
Maybe the BBC’s hostility is a by-product of innate British distrust for India since the days of the Raj. One particularly saw this phenomenon at the time of Independence when the British establishment supported the idea of Pakistan, largely because it wanted to keep a portion of the subcontinent rather than losing the whole of it. Winston Churchill showcased this disdain, if not hatred, for India and Indians when he let more than three million poor Bengalis starve to death in order to keep stocks for the Europeans post-War.
The BBC seems to manifest the distrust that the British establishment betrays for India. It is this milieu that lets anti-India elements such as Islamists and Khalistanis find easy access to and safe refuge in the UK. The British misgiving for a strong, nationalist government led by Narendra Modi is even greater. In that way, the BBC’s hit-job on Modi shows growing British distrust for rising India. How could India escape the Churchillian doomsday scenario to not just do well in the new global order, but also push the UK behind and take its exalted position as an economic power?
When one combines Britain’s stark contemporary realities with its colonial hangover, it creates a heightened sense of anger and disbelief. It is this heady mix that can explain why Jack Straw, British foreign secretary in 2002, thought of setting up a team to probe an incident in another sovereign country. This also explains why the BBC, knowing fully well how discredited Jack Straw was, thanks to his WMD lies vis-à-vis Iraq, could base its ‘documentary’ on his dubious assertions. More so, when India’s highest court has already given a clean chit to Prime Minister Modi and has come out strongly against those wanting to keep alive a sense of victimhood amongst Indian Muslims — something which the BBC too can be accused of doing. All this happens when an old imperial power, well past its expiry date, thinks it’s still a great power.
Maybe there’s a racial angle, too: The BBC hit-job is also the British establishment’s assault against an Indian-origin prime minister at 10 Downing Street. It has come at a time when Rishi Sunak has put his force behind FTA with India. If India retracts, it will be a big personal setback for Sunak. One good thing coming out of this otherwise sordid saga is that this may prompt PM Modi to have a relook at the FTA issue. At a cursory look, FTA seems good for Sunak and the UK, but is it equally good for India? Jury is still out on this.
The author is Opinion Editor, Firstpost and News18. He tweets from @Utpal_Kumar1. Views expressed are personal.