Why the BBC documentary on Modi isn't what it should be?

Why the BBC documentary on Modi isn’t what it should be?

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A political controversy has erupted in India over a BBC documentary that tracked Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom, which took place during his tenure as the province’s chief minister. The BBC documentary on Modi has evoked a sharp response from the government, which used emergency powers to ban its screening in India and forced social media platforms to make it unavailable to Indian users.

The BBC documentary on Modi, named India: The Modi Question, is a two-part programme that highlights the prime minister’s complicity in the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom in the first part and links his ascension to power in 2014 and re-election in 2019 with the growing hate crimes against Muslims in India.

Although the Indian government has rubbished the claims made in the BBC documentary and called it a “propaganda” video made with a “colonial mindset”, the Opposition, which has been marginalised by Modi’s far-right Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) meteoric rise in Indian polity, seized the opportunity to accuse the government of imposing censorship on the press.

The Indian Supreme Court gave a clean chit to Modi in 2012. The Supreme Court had also dismissed a plea filed by Zakia Jafri, the widow of a slain former member of the Parliament (MP) Ehsan Jafri, who was killed by a Hindutva fascism-incensed mob in Ahmedabad’s Gulberg Society during the pogrom on February 28th 2002. The Indian government has used the Supreme Court’s verdict in favour of the prime minister to oppose the recent BBC documentary on Modi.

Although the BJP-led Union government managed to ban the screening of the BBC documentary on Modi, the Opposition has been sharing and screening it to oppose the ban. Opposition Trinamool Congress (TMC) MPs Mahua Moitra and Derek O’Brien have shared the clips of the BBC documentary on Modi on social media and vowed to “fight censorship” imposed by the government.

Violence erupted in universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) over the screening of the banned documentary by left-wing student organisations. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), an ultra-right student organisation loyal to Modi, allegedly resorted to stone-pelting in JNU. At the same time, the Delhi Police detained left-wing student leaders who tried to screen the documentary in JMI.

Although the BBC documentary on Modi is based on real events and highlights facts that the government has been trying hard to push into oblivion, the timing of its release, 20 years after the incident and nearly nine years after Modi became the prime minister, raised some questions regarding its purpose.

What is the content of the BBC documentary on Modi?

The first episode of the BBC documentary on Modi, released on January 17th 2023, tracked his first steps into politics, from joining the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—the global fountainhead of Hindutva fascism and the world’s largest non-government armed paramilitary force—as a teenager to becoming an official of the BJP, the parliamentary wing of the RSS, and then the chief minister of Gujarat in 2001, following the purge of his predecessor Keshu Bhai Patel.

It also included his interview with the BBC during his tenure as the chief minister, where he denied any complicity in the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom and said that he does not need to learn human rights lessons from the British – accused of gross human rights violations, genocides and oppression in India and all over the world.

Former British foreign secretary Jack Straw revealed on the BBC documentary that the then British Ambassador to India and Britain’s High Commission had set up an inquiry into the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom, and a secret report was presented to the Labour government. The report blamed Modi for being complicit in providing a sense of impunity to the perpetrators of the violence. Straw revealed that the British government didn’t act on the report and didn’t release its content either.

The second part of the BBC documentary on Modi examines his track record since his ascension to power, especially after his landslide re-election victory in 2019. It links the growing aggrandisement of the RSS-led Hindutva fascist camp with Modi’s rise. The issues of growing anti-Muslim violence in India, the gross dehumanisation of the minority community by trampling its constitutional rights, the removal of Jammu & Kashmir’s special status under the erstwhile Article 370 of the constitution and the crackdown on dissent are highlighted in the second part of the programme.

Who spoke to the BBC?

The BBC reported that more than 30 people they approached for an interview declined to speak, fearing repercussions. Several others appeared, including Straw, Lucknow-based hate-crime reporter Alishan Jafri, author Arundhati Roy and Amnesty India chief Aakar Patel. The BJP’s Swapan Dasgupta and Subramanian Swamy—now a ‘Modi critic’ within the ultra-right universe—also featured in the documentary with other intellectuals and a UK-based 2002 pogrom victim family.

Roy, a famous author, has been a vocal anti-establishment figure, and she has been writing extensively on issues concerning the marginalised and oppressed sections. She had been critical of the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by Dr Manmohan Singh. She remains a strong critic of the BJP and the RSS and regularly participates in public discourse against the Modi government’s alleged discriminatory and divisive agendas.

Patel has been on the radars of the Union government since Amnesty made critical remarks on India’s alleged human rights violations during Modi’s reign, especially related to minority Muslims and Kashmiris. Patel was denied the right to travel outside India, and the central agencies are investigating allegations of misappropriation of foreign funds by Amnesty.

Jafri regularly reports on hate crimes against minorities from Uttar Pradesh. His writings have been published regularly in several online publications and journals. As a Muslim journalist reporting from the heartland of ultra-right Hindutva politics, Jafri is regularly subjected to online trolling by those who support the government and its policies.

While all of them have a record of anti-establishment stance, Straw appears as the odd one in the BBC documentary on Modi. Straw has been accused of peddling lies and fabricating facts to build a case against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, which was used by the US and the UK to launch their infamous Iraq invasion in 2003.

It’s alleged that Straw, on the insistence of former American secretary of state Collin Powell, lied to the people about the alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) stocked by Hussein. Later, it was found that Iraq under Hussein had no WMDs, and the entire war of invasion was launched using sheer lies and fabricated data.

Straw, a war crime accused, remains scot-free like his boss, former British prime minister Tony Blair, former US president George W Bush and others accused of invading and ravaging Iraq. Straw is one of the least reliable sources for a media entity reporting on any ‘secret report’.

What’s new in the BBC documentary?

Surprisingly, despite the hullaballoo over the BBC documentary on Modi, it fails to add any new perspective to what’s already in the public domain regarding the prime minister’s background. Rather than adding any new perspective or revealing new findings, except for an unknown British secret inquiry report, the documentary has merely reiterated the clichés used by mainstream Modi critics.

Moreover, in the first episode, the BBC documentary explicitly blamed the burning of the Sabarmati Express coach in Godhra station on February 27th 2002, as the catalyst of the Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom, which suits the narrative peddled by the Hindutva fascist camp to incite the violence. An Indian Railway inquiry commission headed by Justice UC Banerjee had found that the fire in coach S9 of Sabarmati Express, in which 59 RSS activists died, was a result of an accident and the coach was not set on fire from outside by a mob, as the Hindutva fascist camp had alleged.

People like Roy also alleged that the Modi regime brought the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA 2019) to disenfranchise Muslims. This article explains how the narrative that the CAA 2019 will disenfranchise Muslims is wrong. Rather than the CAA 2019, the CAA 2003, passed by the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, enacted provisions to disenfranchise millions of Indians, especially lower-caste Hindus and ostracised Dalits from West Bengal and other states.

Apart from the violence in Gujarat and the suppression of dissenting voices in the state, the Hindutva camp under the RSS’s aegis has been accused of provoking the Kandhamal pogrom targeting Christians in 2008, the 2013 anti-Muslim pogrom in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, a series of lynching of Muslims throughout India on the accusation of “cow slaughter”, the 2020 Delhi anti-Muslim pogrom during former US president Donald Trump’s tour, and a series of anti-Muslim violence throughout India since 2014.

While Modi’s ascension to power also brought a tectonic shift in Indian mainstream media’s attitude and turned most media houses into government megaphones, several independent media entities, despite inviting the government’s wrath, managed to document and report hate crimes and the BJP-led government’s complicity in them. So, none of the BBC’s allegations was new and failed to present anything substantial to be considered a remarkable work.

What could have made a difference?

The BBC documentary would have created a real difference had it focused on the issues that the BJP and the Modi regime try to conceal using the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy. It has been found that whenever the opponents blame Modi for communalism, the BJP succeeds in portraying them as “anti-Hindu” and “anti-national” forces and manages to polarise a large section of the Hindu society, across caste lines, under its banner.

Rather than focusing on Modi’s communal policies, which help him sweep elections by masquerading as a messiah of the Hindus, the BBC documentary on Modi would have fared better had it focused on the flawed idea of “Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu theocratic state ruled by upper-caste Brahmins) that the RSS promotes as its agenda.

Detailed analysis of what new things the “Hindu Rashtra” promises to deliver to the poor and the marginalised Hindus, especially the ostracised Dalit community and the lower-caste Hindus, could have created a difference. The BBC could have shown the lower-caste Hindus and the Dalits that a “Hindu Rashtra” won’t liberate them, won’t increase their earnings, won’t create new opportunities for them and won’t allow them social mobility; rather, such a state would further subjugate them and turn them into right-less servile beings.

Had the BBC documentary on Modi dissected his economic policies and provided deeper insights into the ongoing crisis and how it will further deteriorate the lives of the poor, it would have created a major impact and educated many Hindu supporters of Modi. Such an attempt could have helped bring the people’s issues to the forefront of national discourse and forced the government to explain its standpoint.

Why was the BBC documentary on Modi released now?

The timing of the BBC documentary has been questioned by many, including the BJP leaders and British politicians belonging to the ruling Conservative Party. Indian-origin Tory peer Lord Rami Ranger has reportedly written to BBC director-general Tim Davie complaining about the timing of the documentary’s release. Ranger called the timing “sinister”.

Britain’s Indian-origin Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has reportedly overlooked the BBC documentary’s findings and the Modi regime’s ban on its screening as his government—now controlled by the powerful global banking lobby he represents—is trying hard to sign a major trade deal with India. However, although Sunak’s cabinet is pushing the trade deal, it’s difficult for it to accept India’s terms, which include more student and business visas and the right to stay for longer in the UK for Indians.

Sunak, the first ‘Hindu’ and non-white prime minister, faces the challenge of maintaining a balance in appeasing the banking lobby and the powerful upper-caste Hindu lobby in the UK. Last year, riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims in England’s Leicester, showing how the threat of Hindutva fascism is looming large on Britain with a sizeable Indian-origin Hindu population living side-by-side with a sizeable Asian Muslim population.

The banking lobby that controls Sunak’s cabinet is also unhappy that the Modi regime has so far shown no enthusiasm in opening the banking and legal services sectors to British corporations. This has put the trade deal, and Sunak’s Conservative regime, in a very awkward situation. While they are eager to do business with India, the latter’s terms are irking them.

Besides trade, India’s foreign policy has been a problem for the UK and other Western forces functioning under the US-led hegemonistic framework. Unlike the UK and the European Union, India has refused to follow the US diktats and balanced its foreign relations. This has become a problem for the US, the UK and other Western forces.

Even when the West imposed sanctions on Russia after President Vladimir Putin announced his ‘special military operations’ in Ukraine in February 2022, India increased its oil imports from Russia and is unapologetic about its defence deals with Moscow. India and Russia have been consistently working on a rupee-rouble exchange model, which belittles the US-led economic order’s dollar-led exchange system.

Besides Russia, India’s stance regarding China has also frustrated the West. The West has been pinning hopes on the Modi regime and provoking it to start a military conflict with Beijing over the seven-decade-old border dispute created by British colonial rulers. Despite tensions in the borders, India-China trade has increased manifold in 2022 and reached its peak. Although India is a member of the anti-China military axis called the Quad, it has refused to utter militant rhetoric against China. It has been working to resolve the disputes peacefully.

Even before the BBC documentary row could end, an investigative report by Hindenburg Research has alleged that the Adani Group, a conglomerate owned by the world’s second-richest capitalist Gautam Adani, who is allegedly one of the largest corporate patrons of the BJP and hails from Gujarat, has “engaged in a brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud scheme over the course of decades”. The Hindenburg Research report pegged the amount involved in this alleged rigging to be around Rs 17.8 trillion (US $2.18 bn).

Such a report has already taken a toll on Adani’s stocks, and the conglomerate lost nearly Rs 550 bn. The report will affect Adani’s credit ratings globally and its borrowing capacities. This will put the Modi regime under duress as it will have to take steps to provide support to this conglomerate that has experienced a speedy rise since 2014.

This chain of events may be interpreted as a desperate attempt by the British banking and finance lobby represented by Sunak and backed by the US-led Western bloc to blackmail India and force it to change its foreign policy regarding Russia and China.

The BBC documentary on Modi, which comes 20 years after the Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom and the alleged ‘secret report’, seems like a tool to blackmail Modi to bring a change in India’s foreign policy, which is quite unlikely. Rather than causing problems, it will help Modi in the domestic arena to polarise his support base by playing the “victim card”, which may eventually lead to more anti-Muslim violence and vitriol.

An avid reader and a merciless political analyst. When not writing then either reading something, debating something or sipping espresso with a dash of cream. Street photographer. Tweets as @la_muckraker

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