Modi’s BBC Raid Sends Shock Waves Through India
Disturbing payback for a disturbing documentary
By: Jyoti Malhotra
The news that India’s government sent income-tax authorities to the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai, alleging that the foreign broadcaster was not in compliance with Indian law, and had indulged in tax evasion and diversion of profits, has sent shockwaves across the country.
The Indian Express called it “the daylight knock,” with the process becoming the punishment, part of a “disquieting pattern” where media organizations, think tanks, and NGOs are being regularly raided because they are critical of government policy. Opposition leader from the Congress party P Chidambaram was scathing. The government’s belief in freedom of speech and expression, he said, was tantamount to believing “speech is free, as long as everyone else agreed with me.”
Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister who is also a practicing Hindu, steadfastly kept himself away from the controversy, preferring to applaud instead India’s decision to buy 250 civilian aircraft from Airbus worth billions of pounds. The US State Department spokesperson was equally careful. We support the importance of free press around the world, but cannot offer an opinion on the tax raids, he said.
As India leads the G-20, the world’s 20 largest economies, over this year, three things are increasingly clear.
First, the government is very sensitive to criticism that is otherwise part and parcel of a robust, diverse society, and will attempt to shut it down as much as possible. There is widespread speculation – but no proof -- that the income tax raids are punishment for a BBC documentary broadcast last month on the 2002 Gujarat riots, which demonstrated the alleged involvement of the then chief minister of the state, the current prime minister Narendra Modi.
The BBC documentary, called ‘India: The Modi Question,’ in one place showcases a telling response by Modi to the BBC journalist interviewing him. She asks him about the one thing that he might have done differently in handling the crisis. Modi responds grimly by stating, “I would have controlled the media.” It’s not clear whether this is a slip of tongue or just an aggressive man fed up with being forced to reply to a persistent reporter demanding answers to questions he believes he doesn’t owe her one whit.
But if most of the material in that documentary is old hat, save for an unpublished cable written by the British high commission in New Delhi at the time accusing Modi of being complicit in the riots, then the question many are asking is, “Why is the Modi government determined to use a rocket-launcher to kill a fly today?” Or why conduct tax raids against a media organization for no real reason, knowing fully well that this will damage India’s image abroad and condemn it to being seen as a weak and brittle democracy, even if it is the world’s largest one?
Second, the BBC documentary, which was never broadcast in India, hardly made a big splash because it was largely old hat. But the Modi government still went ahead and invoked emergency powers under the Information Technologies, 2021, preventing people from watching it on social media and online.
The retributory raids complete the circle. They send the message that a paternalistic government won’t allow criticism, and that the price must be paid for voicing dissent – you have to swallow and fall in line.
Significantly, both the injury and the punishment are presumed. People are making assumptions between the errant documentary and the tax raids even though the connection hasn’t been formally confirmed. In a situation where you don’t even know what you are being punished for, the ambit for punishment becomes much larger, the person wielding the whip becomes much more powerful and the chilling effect on all sides becomes far more pervasive. The idea is to instill fear so that the citizen doesn’t even think of crossing the line, knowing full well what will happen if he does.
Third, the importance of the memory of the Gujarat riots, 21 years after they took place, cannot be underestimated. The fact is, more than 1,000 people died in the riots, most of them Muslims, but because the wheels of justice grind slowly, punishment for the carnage has been equally pathetic – in fact, there has been none. Person after guilty person has been acquitted, either for lack of evidence or for a lack of follow-through.
The lesson of the past 20 years is that the victims, mostly Muslim, have not been able to access justice because they have been shown their place in the hierarchy of things. And because there has been little or no closure, there has been little healing. That’s why the scars are skin-deep and get ripped out each time something small happens – like the broadcast of a documentary that showcases little that is new.
But analysts also believe that there’s more to the tax raids than imagined intolerance on the part of the government. That in the wake of Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi’s recently-concluded long march, from the southernmost tip of India, Kanyakumari, to India’s northernmost territory, Jammu & Kashmir, it seems that the government is worried that the ground may be shifting beneath its feet.
Only last week in Parliament, Modi was forced to reply in length to Gandhi’s accusations about the crony relationship between the PM, the ruling party, and one of the world’s richest men, Gautam Adani. In a fortnight, Adani’s fortunes plummeted after an international short-seller, Hindenburg Research, questioned his company’s finances.
Will Gandhi’s long march make a difference to the political landscape of the country, especially when general elections are only a year or so away?
Many feel that Gandhi may have stirred the pot but that his attempts aren’t good enough or strong enough to overcome what Modi is offering. Certainly, several analysts feel that Gandhi’s Congress Party won’t be able to convert the gathering goodwill for his party into votes and will fall short of winning enough seats to unseat Modi and his party when the elections are held.
As for the damage to India’s reputation of being a democracy which has held despite severe challenges these past 75 years, the fact is that India has been here before. In 1975, when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi invoked a state of Emergency across the country, she set into motion a series of events that undermined the nation-state.
The Modi government’s attempt at curbing dissent cannot be compared to what happened to the people during the Emergency, from 1975-1977. At least today, the media is resisting by having some critical conversations in print, online, and TV. In contrast, Indira Gandhi’s crackdown was far more complete.
If Modi is only following in his predecessor’s footsteps, he should also be aware of what happened on the ground two years into the Emergency, when Mrs. Gandhi had to call elections. She lost badly, to a haphazard coalition of political parties in the Opposition, who shelved their differences to join hands.
Whether or not history repeats itself today, only time will tell. For the moment it is enough to know that democracies have the uncanny ability to fight back – both during elections or outside. The coming year certainly promises to be interesting.