BBC’s Modi documentary and its fallout

By Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

In banning the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) much reviled and equally celebrated documentary ‘India: The Modi Question’ Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has only managed to lend it weight it may not necessarily deserve.

What makes it worse is that it has invoked emergency powers to block the documentary’s transmission in the country underscoring a streak of panic about something its ministry of external affairs spokesman Arindam Bagchi last week described as “a propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative.”

Bagchi said, “It makes us wonder about the purpose of this exercise and the agenda behind it and frankly we do not wish to dignify such efforts.”

I watched it a couple of times and found it to have been put together with material that is recycled with a better accent and higher definition. It has filler shots that are meant to be evocative for no particular reason. The only new bit is a previously unpublished report by the British Foreign Office which, among other things, calling Prime Minister Narendra Modi as being “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that allowed the 2002 Gujarat killings of Muslims in the aftermath of the death by train fire of 59 Hindu pilgrims near Godhra. Modi was then the state’s newly minted chief minister.

If the British Foreign Office had in its possession the report of its own special investigation that found Modi to be “directly responsible” for the Gujarat carnage, why did it sit on it for so long? And even now it was not released by the Foreign Office but “obtained” by the BBC. This point, of course, has no bearing on whether Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party and the extended Hindu right organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were complicit in the massacre. That was an entirely separate matter for the Indian law enforcement agencies to investigate and the Indian judiciary to adjudicate on. For whatever they are worth both were carried out and Modi was personally exonerated.

The problem with viewing every step of the investigative and judicial process as they relate to the Gujarat massacre and Modi’s alleged direct responsibility for it with suspicion and cynicism is that one is required reject India’s entire law enforcement institutions in their entirety. One can choose to do that but then that leaves no room for a rational discourse. The overarching sense that the BBC documentary gives is that irrespective what all these law enforcement institutions found and ruled, Modi was still palpably guilty. Beyond one’s revulsion for Modi’s brand of politics and ideology of vicious exclusion this approach is deeply problematic for the health of Indian democracy.

It is from that standpoint that the BBC documentary comes across too full of itself. It is undeniable that the 2002 Gujarat carnage was a complete collapse of humanity, morality and civility that profoundly hurt both Hindus and Muslims, the latter clearly much more than the former. It’s cause and motivation have been debated for two decades on both the political and civil liberty platforms, not to mention the vicious cultural churning it entailed. There has never been a clear resolution on either side of the divide about where the blame lies even though both the Hindu right and the left-liberal forces have battled it out armed with their own convictions and prejudices. If anything, the rupture in India’s socio-cultural fabric has only become deeper in the last 20 years and particularly so since 2014 after Modi became prime minister.

The timing of the BBC documentary may be curious but then the timing of any such work at any time is viewed as curious by the party under scrutiny and facing denunciation. It is tempting for those viscerally opposed to Modi and the worldview his political ideology espouses to view every court decision involving the Gujarat carnage as suspicious as long it went in the prime minister’s favor. The country’s highest court, the Supreme Court had constituted a Special Investigative Team (SIT) to investigate the causes of the 2002 riots. As chief minister Modi testified before it for nine hours on March 27, 2010. That was for the first time in India’s history that a sitting chief minister was compelled to testify over riots. That investigation did not produce any legally actionable evidence against Modi. The notion that the SIT was pliable in favor of Modi is not supported by verifiable facts.

At the time of the SIT testimony the government in New Delhi was a predominantly Congress Party formation with Dr. Manmohan Singh as prime minister. If one were to be cynical and suspicious about the SIT’s intentions in producing no specific evidence against Modi, then one would have to accept that the law enforcement instruments of the Singh government did not do their job. The simple fact is that the government then had every incentive to find enough damning evidence to head off Modi’s political career at the very least. It did not because it apparently could not and in any case the SIT was independent of government intervention or interference on paper at least since it was answerable to the Supreme Court.

The BBC documentary derives its conclusions in the face of India’s investigative and judicial process. It is, of course, reasonable to argue that the carnage of the kind that took place in 2002 could not have happened without either willful connivance born of deep historical animus on the part of a political dispensation or unintended outcome of reckless incompetence at various levels of state government machinery.

I did not report the riots from the ground. I was then in California and my 8120-mile view was that there ought to have been at least some official connivance that let such staggering failure to occur to maintain law and order. That was especially because given Gujarat’s long history of communal hatreds and riots, the horrific deaths of the 59 Hindu pilgrims aboard a burning railway coach should have immediately compelled Chief Minister Modi to ensure that it did not escalate into a much bigger retributive conflagration. It is a simple fact that for close to three days the rioters were allowed a practically unmolested run by the police. Modi’s vocal supporters have argued that the fact that the riots were brought under control in just three days shows that the government acted effectively.

In the aftermath, there was enough video record of some of the main participants in the riots openly bragging about having ‘fixed” the Muslim community “once and for all.” At least one of them featured a particularly unvarnished assertion by Babu Bajrangi, the leader of undisguisedly Hindu revanchist group Bajrang Dal, claiming how Chief Minister Modi helped him avenge the deaths of the Hindu pilgrims. Bajrangi’s pronouncements were quite macabre and he ended up being sentenced to 21 years in prison. Bajrangi’s comments were recorded as part of the news magazine Tehelka’s 2007 sting operation. However, the Supreme Court in a recent related case ruled that the video tape had no probative value.

I am not sure what the BBC documentary accomplishes other than creating a passing revival in the accusations of Modi’s complicity. It will certainly serve the purpose of generating some questions in the minds of the international community about the world’s largest democracy generally and Prime Minister Modi particularly. However, they are unlikely to be such that they will trigger any global opprobrium against him other than some ineffectual denunciation in some quarters. There is next to no prospect of Modi facing any immediate diplomatic isolation.

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