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BBC’s Modi Series Leads to Crackdown on Students
“India: The Modi Question” reopens old wounds with little new detail
By: John Elliott
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. 2023 was to be the year that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi would flourish on the world stage as the head of the G20 group of nations, eclipsing criticisms of his authoritarian rule and sailing on as an international statesman to his third general election victory next year.
The election win for his Bharatiya Janata Party looks safe, for now at least, but the prime minister’s international image during India’s current presidency of the G20 has been hit by the BBC’s horrific new two-part tv series, “India: The Modi Question”, that focused on treatment of Muslims. That has been exacerbated by the government’s attempts to stop screenings of the two one-hour documentaries.
There have been daily reports this past week of escalating and excessive police activity and arrests in universities across the country to stop students tuning in.
The irony is that international media and tv reports of this action have graphically underlined some of what the series depicted about Modi’s authoritarian rule since he was chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 and then became prime minister in 2014.
The power was cut off earlier this week in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, allegedly to prevent students from screening the series. Action was also taken in three other of the capital’s universities where police used security legislation to ban gatherings of more than four people. The documentary was screened in Kerala by the Congress Party and by students in Hyderabad and Kolkata.
Initially, after the first BBC episode was aired on January 17, it seemed that the government wanted to avoid high profile diplomatic and other confrontations. A spokesman dismissed the episode as “a propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative,” adding: “The bias, the lack of objectivity, and a continuing colonial mindset, is blatantly visible.”
The government got the film, which the BBC tactfully did not broadcast in India, removed from Twitter and YouTube but then the universities and police created the ongoing crisis.
The big unanswered question is why the BBC ran the series without any news peg, raking up well-trodden facts and allegations with little new and little reasoned analysis – it could have explored other negative aspects of Modi’s rule in relation to Muslims, and it could have at least mentioned positives in terms of economic and other developmental reforms.
Instead it mainly relied on old television footage and added some interviews, including a series of rebuttals of all allegations by an erudite Modi-supporting Anglophile, Swapan Dasgupta. A widely respected journalist-cum-BJP politician, Dasgupta this week said the BBC had “undermined Indian constitutions” so the government had to act. There was “an ecosystem in the West that works to undermine the Modi government, and the BBC documentary is a part of that.”
The first episode covered the riots in the Gujarati town of Godhra, which erupted in February 2002 after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set on fire, allegedly by Muslims, killing 59 people. Modi was accused of ordering the police not to stop the riots as Hindu mobs attacked Muslims, beating them to death and burning their homes. Figures of the dead vary, totaling maybe 1,000 or even as many as 2,000. The BBC film included accusations – and denials – that Modi met police chiefs to tell them not to act.
Questions and disputes about Modi’s alleged complicity in the riots as chief minister have generated controversy for the past 21 years. A series of court cases culminated in the Supreme Court last June dismissing an eight-year old appeal against a 2012 closure report clearing Modi that had been filed by a special investigating team. This was widely seen as closing the issue – till the BBC series appeared.
The second episode covered the time since Modi became prime minister and showed scenes of extreme police brutality against Muslims, together with lynchings over bans on cow slaughter, the government’s changes to the constitutional status of Muslim-dominated Kashmir with internet shutdowns and mass arrests, and communal violence in Delhi over citizenship rights legislation.
The main aim was clearly to blame Modi for action against Muslims, but the horrific scenes also harmed India’s international reputation with repeated images of the sort of police violence that has been commonplace for decades.
The only new item in the series was an unpublished secret 2002 report by the British High Commission (embassy) in Delhi for the Foreign Office in London. This found Modi “directly responsible” for what it described as a “systematic campaign of violence” by Hindus against Muslims “that has all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.”
This was backed up by Jack Straw, who was the Labour government’s foreign secretary at the time. He ordered the report and says on the BBC that it was “obviously a stain on his [Modi’s] reputation. There is no way out of that.” Straw’s Lancashire constituency had a large Muslim electorate which may, an anonymous BBC source told India’s Telegraph newspaper, have influenced him.
Conspiracy theorists see the series as a plot to undermine Modi in the eyes of the G20 nations, though both the UK and US quickly distanced themselves. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he “did not agree with the [BBC’s] characterization” of Mr. Modi.”
(Some might link that conspiracy theory with the coincidence of the Adani group, owned by Gautam Adani, a close Modi ally and one of the world’s richest men, being accused of fraud this week by a US “short seller” financial research firm — the businesses have lost at least 20 percent of their value).
Others see the BBC series as an attempt to upset current negotiations on a long-awaited trade deal (FTA) between India and the UK, which is targeted for March, maybe in a first-stage form. A BJP spokesman has claimed it was a Pakistan plot, while others might even blame Modi’s many American critics in Washington.
Contacts I have spoken to guess there was no plot and that the series may have been pitched to the BBC by its producers who, having got the scoop of the High Commission report, argued that Godhra deserved a fresh look after Modi was exonerated last June.
India would surely be justified in complaining that the BBC abandoned balanced reporting when it commissioned what emerged as a campaigning film pegged to a 21-year-old story. Some contacts suggest that the BBC Board cleared the series after India failed to respond over a considerable time to an invitation to comment.
Indian government officials feel that the international media do not give the country – and Modi – credit for positive developments. They argue that there is also a failure to recognize the significant generational changes taking place as the old elite typified by the Congress Party and its Gandhi dynasty are replaced by new generations with proud Hindu-oriented nationalist attitudes.
Little has been said openly by Indian officials, but the new high commissioner in London, Vikram Doraiswami, mounted a strong defense of the country’s “largely peaceful social transformation” when he hosted a reception in the City of London’s Guildhall on January 26 to celebrate India’s Republic Day. In a dig seemingly directed at the BBC, he said that this transformation was taking place in a “democratic evolutionary framework and, frankly, certainly not in what some sections of the media might make you think.”
“What we Indians sometimes see passed off [in the media] as a normal India is about as accurate as for Indians to expect to see people in armor placing heads and hung-drawn-and-quartered bodies around the city of London – it is about as archaic.”
The problem of course is that the new nationalism is frequently reported internationally through the prism of Godhra and Modi’s authoritarianism together with the problems of Muslims and other minorities. For that view to change, a new image needs to be projected, which has not been happening this week when students have been hassled and detained for watching a BBC film.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.