BBC Documentary and Freedom of Expression in India

Date:

PROF RAM PUNIYANI 

THE survey of Income tax on BBC offices in India, which were started on 14th February (2023) were stopped after three days. While IT department called it a ‘survey’, many columnists and agencies like Amnesty International called it a raid. The global media linked it to the release of BBC documentary, ‘India: The Modi question’. It was yet another attack on the democratic institutions in India and as Akar Patel of Amnesty International pointed out, “Indian authorities are clearly trying to harass and intimidate the BBC. Overbroad powers of the Income Tax Department are repeatedly being weaponised to silence dissent.”

The response of US and UK governments was very interesting. UK PM Rishi Sunak, defended Indian PM Modi. The US spokesmen, after initially dodging the issue later did state that they defend the freedom of the press, their attempt not to annoy Modi were very clear.

Documentary is in two parts. First one presents the role of Narendra Modi in Gujarat carnage and Part two deals with his anti minority policies which he pursued as the PM of India. Part one was broadcast for global audience on 17th January (2023); it was received by Indian audience also. Government was prompt enough to ban the documentary using its emergency powers. Meanwhile link of the film had been circulated by Twitter and downloaded and seen by many. Many student groups planned its screening, some succeeded and others were stopped midway by the police.

Why such an effort by the Government? The part one to begin with did accept the BJP view that Sabarmati S 6 coach was put to fire by Muslims. The Government and BJP commented that the documentary is having “the bias, the lack of objectivity and, frankly, a continuing colonial mindset is blatantly visible”. It was labeled to be part of hateful; propaganda. Though there were some new incidents in this episode the major unknown part was that British Foreign office had asked for a probe into the carnage at that time. That report is being presented in the documentary. The British report done in April 2002 makes very disturbing observations. As per this report it was a pre planned pogrom, the number of those killed were much more than officially declared and that it was a pogrom. The British diplomat, who was part of the report, is not shown in the documentary.

As per the documentary the report based on the reliable sources states that police was asked to stand down as the violence erupts. As per this documentary Haren Pandya, the then Home Minister of Gujarat deposed in front of Citizen’s Tribunal. As per him and also as per police officer Sanjiv Bhatt, in the meeting called in the aftermath of erupting of the violence on 27th February evening, Modi in the meeting at his home had instructed that there will be Hindu reaction to Godhra incident and police should let them went their anger. Later Haren Pandya was murdered and Sanjiv Bhatt is undergoing life imprisonment in another case. The Jesuit priest Cedric Prakah, who requested Haren Pandya to depose in the tribunal stands to confirm that Pandya did depose in front of tribunal.

One of the victims, who survived the mass attack, is shown in the film. He tells as to how he was witness to Ahsan Jafri making phone calls to all concerned including Narendra Modi, before the mob went into the horrific action of cutting him to pieces. It is propagated that SIT gave Modi a clean chit. The fact that Amicus Curie, Raju Ramchandran, stated that there is enough evidence in the report to prosecute; is totally ignored. Also Gen. Zamiruddin Shah did state that his army unit had to wait for three days, before local assistance was provided for them to control the violence. And it was those three days when maximum violence took place.

Part two of documentary deals with Narendra Modi as Prime Minster. Here the abrogation of Article 370, giving autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, reducing its status from a state to Union Territory and giving more free-hand to the armed forces is shown. The divisive agenda manifested in throwing up the issue of Cow/Beef, even as many a BJP leaders from North Eastern states stated that they consume beef is presented. The horrific killings, lynching of many innocents on grounds of killing, consuming or de-skinning cows came up and its adverse effect on community psychology is brought out well. It is happening at a time when Indians emerging as the leading beef exporter in global market. The ministers of Modi Cabinet garlanding the accused of the crimes related to lynching was a shocker, the Government not reprimanding these acts in a way stands to promote such acts.

It puts together the events related to National Register of Citizens (NRC), Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University violence which are well known by now. The police entering the universities and beating up the students is horrific. Student’s opposition to CAA, which is totally discriminatory, in matters of giving citizenship to the persecuted people from the neighboring countries, excluding Muslims, is a big blow to the secular fabric of our Constitution. Even in NRC, the painstaking exercise in Assam revealed that out of close to 20 lakh people not having papers of citizenship, 12 lakhs were Hindus.

CAA wanted to find a backdoor entry as citizens for the Hindus not having proper papers and to send the Muslims not having citizenship papers to detention centers. The Shaheen Bagh movement shook the country and Muslim women came forward to reclaim Muslims’ place as citizens of India. The continuum between part one and part two is the divisive politics pursued by Modi, backed by Hindu nationalist organisations. Though many events in this documentary are not new, the documentary gives the salient points of Modi rule starting from Gujarat Chief Minstership to Prime Minster of India. The UK report, later the European Union report (2012) did highlight the sectarian politics pursued by the subject of the film.

Today the Governments of UK and USA do not stand by this documentary due to strategic reasons. This documentary is a mirror to our society. Global media and institutions seeped in democratic values will get a clear picture of what is happening here under the garb religion in India, irrespective of what the Government is asserting. And last but not the least how Indian Government is curtailing the freedom of expression by all the means possible, including ‘survey’ by IT department.

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Ram Puniyani is an eminent author, activist and former professor of IIT Mumbai. The views are personal and Clarion India does not necessarily share or subscribe to them.

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