India's war against a BBC documentary on Modi

Close Up Shot of a Smartphone Screen with BBC News app. Image by Brett Jordan. Used under a Pexels License.

Close Up Shot of a Smartphone Screen with BBC News app. Image by Brett Jordan. Used under a Pexels License.

On the morning of February 14, 2023, approximately two dozen officials from India’s Income Tax Department made their way into the India office of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) located in the capital city of New Delhi to start an “income tax survey” of the organization. According to Newslaundry, a media watchdog in India, roughly 100 employees from the organization who were present in the building at the time were asked to submit their phones and remain on the premises during the raid. A similar “survey” also started at the BBC office in Mumbai. The search lasted for three days and was concluded on the evening of February 16, 2023.

For those familiar with the socio-political circumstances in India, the news on Tuesday came as no surprise since it followed a pattern that has become extremely common in the country. BBC, the national broadcaster of the United Kingdom, had been the topic of public conversation and news coverage for the past month, the reason being its explosive documentary on the Gujarat riots of 2002.

In January 2023, the BBC released a two-part documentary titled “India: The Modi Question,” which aimed to highlight the rising violence against the Muslim minority population in India under the leadership of its current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The first part of the series, released on January 17, focused on the horrific Gujarat riots of 2002. The segment exposed the significant involvement of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state of Gujarat in the violent attacks against the Muslim minority population during that period.

The information the documentary shared was nothing new and has existed in the form of publicly available written records, documentation and reportage for the last two decades. During a rally in November 2022, Amit Shah, a prominent leader of the BJP and the Minister of Home Affairs, acknowledged the Gujarat riots in which a large number of people, primarily Muslims, lost their lives. Shah proclaimed that “they were taught a lesson.”

Blocking the documentary in India

Yet the Indian government’s reaction to the documentary was instant, dismissing it as a propaganda piece. The documentary was made available only in the UK through BBC's online streaming service BBC iPlayer; however, it was uploaded to multiple YouTube channels by individuals and extensively shared on various social media platforms. The government invoked emergency laws to completely prohibit access to the documentary on the web for viewers in India. Kanchan Gupta, the senior adviser at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting mentioned in a tweet on January 2023 that a number of YouTube videos containing the first episode of the BBC documentary and over fifty tweets with links to the YouTube videos were ordered to be taken down.

On January 24, the BBC aired the second part of the documentary, which examined the performance of the Modi government following its re-election in 2019, and it was not subjected to any censorship orders.

The decision by Twitter to remove the tweets and the lack of support from Western democracies in defence of the BBC's documentary, which the organization claimed was “rigorously researched,” sparked widespread debate.

Cracking down on public screenings

Despite the Modi government’s desperate attempts to suppress the documentary and prevent it from being viewed online, student groups in prestigious universities across India conducted public screenings to demonstrate their dissent against the oppressive government.

However, the government responded with severe measures against these student groups. Students who screened or watched the documentary were suspended by colleges, while supporters of the BJP and state-led groups held protests outside universities, even going so far as to threaten the students with physical violence and murder for screening the documentary.

In addition, BJP leaders labelled the BBC as corrupt and accused them of having ulterior motives in trying to “defame” India's reputation. They denounced the documentary as propaganda and condemned it as an expression of a colonial mindset. These criticisms were also used to justify the ban on the documentary.

The raids follow a pattern

Considering this sequence of events, the recent raid on the BBC seems to be retaliatory action, aimed at teaching the organization a lesson and hindering its operations in India, while citing other reasons. It is possible to arrive at this inference since the BJP has previously employed state agencies such as the IT (Income Tax) Department and ED (Enforcement Directorate), which investigates financial crimes, to target think tanks, NGOs and media outlets that have dared to criticize the government led by Narendra Modi.

For instance, on September 7, 2022, the IT Department conducted raids in the offices of Oxfam India, Centre for Policy Research (one of the most prominent think tanks in India) and Independent And Public-Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF), which funds several media outlets like The Wire, The Caravan, The Print, all of which have been critical of the BJP. The investigations were aimed at scrutinizing alleged violations of the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act (FCRA), a law that regulates foreign funding in India.

Since coming into power, the BJP has tightened FCRA regulations, requiring more detailed reporting and scrutiny of civil society organizations that receive foreign funding in India. The government has also denied the renewal of FCRA licenses for hundreds of NGOs, alleging their involvement in “anti-national activity.”

In July 2021, the IT Department conducted a raid on Dainik Bhaskar, a prominent Hindi-language newspaper in India, over allegations of tax evasion. Opposition leader Jairam Ramesh tweeted that the newspaper was targeted because:

In February 2021, The offices of independent media house Newsclick in New Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, along with residences of its senior management were raided by the ED, which accused the organization of money laundering. Newsclick had previously been critical of the BJP-led central government in its reporting and extensively covered the Farmer's Protests that shook the nation.

The India office of international human rights organization Amnesty International faced raids by the ED in 2018 and 2019, which accused the organization of violating the FCRA act. Amnesty's bank accounts were subsequently frozen, leading to the organization's cessation of operations in India in September 2020. Amnesty accused the Indian government of engaging in a witch hunt due to the organization's work criticizing the government.

It is noteworthy that media houses or NGOs with close ties to the BJP or those known to report positively about the party have not been subjected to similar raids or searches, regardless of any allegations made against them.

Groups advocating for human rights are warning about the alarming decline in human rights and media freedom in India. They argue that state agencies are being used as weapons to suppress all forms of dissent and criticism of the government in the country. As a result, the cost of being an independent journalist in India has become very high.

In order to avoid facing similar retaliatory measures, many mainstream media channels in India have resorted to becoming mouthpieces of the government, sharing nothing beyond propaganda, thus making it harder for the public to access unbiased and critical information.

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