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Vivek Katju writes: BBC documentary on PM Modi raises questions about intent and timing, but government response could have been more self-assured

Takedowns should not be routine responses to controversial documents or documentaries even if their content is offensive — as indeed this documentary is in some respects, writes Vivek Katju.

'India: The Modi Question' focuses on PM Narendra Modi's and his then state government's response to the 2002 Gujarat riots. (File Photo)
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Vivek Katju writes: BBC documentary on PM Modi raises questions about intent and timing, but government response could have been more self-assured
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Just before the BBC telecast the first part of its documentary “India: The Modi Question” on its channel BBC 2 on January 17, it carried a more than 11-minute report on the documentary in its programme “Impact” on BBC World News. While the BBC 2 channel’s reach is limited to Britain, the latter has a large audience in several parts of the English-speaking world; it also has a presence in many other parts of the world. Clearly, the BBC’s intention was, at a minimum, to arouse an interest in as large a viewership in the documentary across the world as it could and not confine it to Britain alone.

The presenter of the “Impact” report began by saying “nearly 21 years since the Gujarat riots in 2002, a new BBC documentary takes a fresh look at the legacy of the events and how it has affected India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was the chief minister of the state at the time”. It is significant that the BBC did not characterise the documentary as a product of only one of its channels but the network as a whole.

Apparently, the documentary has been at least two years in the making. The BBC has close ties with the establishment and promotes Britain’s foreign policy positions, notwithstanding its claims of being independent. Thus, it is clear that at least an influential section of the British establishment decided to focus on a controversial part of Modi’s record in public life.

The documentary emphasises a British Foreign Office report “marked as restricted” on the Gujarat riots. In the “Impact” programme, the BBC claimed that it had been “in possession” of this report for two decades and had used some parts of it earlier but it is only now that it decided to fully use it. Generally “restricted” is a low-level security classification of official documents. All that it means is that it should not be publicly available because the disclosure of its contents may cause embarrassment to the government of the concerned country. Documents with restricted classification generally do not contain material which would damage the security of a state or imperil its interests in a major way. In view of the connections which the BBC has always had with the British establishment, it is not surprising that it had the Foreign Office report. Therefore, the questions which Indian policymakers have to address are: Why did the British establishment decide to make a documentary which would target the Modi government? Why did the BBC decide to release it at a time when the Modi government wishes to make a special mark through its G20 presidency? Why has the BBC wanted to draw international attention to it?

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The government has used its powers to ensure that the documentary is not available in India on social media platforms. This is a normal bureaucratic and even political response in case it is feared that a document or documentary’s contents could disturb public order. But such responses should be arrived at after a full and careful consideration of the real threats to peace and public order. They should not be routine responses to controversial documents or documentaries even if their contents are offensive — as indeed this documentary is in some respects. While the social media organisations have complied with the order, it is possible that the courts may have to get involved if the government’s orders are challenged.

The ruling dispensation and its supporters are angry at the continuing colonial attitudes of those in Britain who have produced such a documentary which has not taken into account that the Indian judicial process has fully exonerated Modi and has refused to accept the idea of a wider conspiracy behind the Gujarat riots. However, do these expressions of anger and pointing out continuing colonial attitudes in Britain serve any real purpose? Indeed, it can be argued that such responses show a streak of the continuing colonial attitudes of some Indians themselves. Would it not be better to show complete indifference to such BBC reports and documentaries? Should that not be the response of self-confident people who have faith in their own institutions?

This documentary can in no way damage Modi or the BJP electorally. The British establishment and the BBC surely would be aware of this fact. The target, therefore, appears to be to injure Modi and the BJP’s international reputation. It could also be a signal to the aggressive tone that Indian diplomacy acquired in recent years on matters of concern to the Western world. India’s diplomatic tradition was to be firm on matters concerning its interests but only very occasionally resort to acerbic language. The greatest strategic challenge India faced in its seventy-five years of independence was in 1971. Even then its tone and use of words was calm and balanced. Courtesy, humility and firmness are signs of strength. That has also always been our cultural tradition.

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It was always on the cards that the G20 presidency would lead to greater comprehensive scrutiny, including on issues of social peace. The way to respond to this scrutiny is by displaying assurance in our institutions and sober responses and not getting agitated by every critical documentary and statement. That could begin with the BBC’s second part of the documentary “India: The Modi Question” which is to be telecast on BBC 2 on January 24.

This, of course, does not mean that gratuitous insults to India or its leaders should be forgotten or forgiven. But paroxysms of pique serve little purpose.

The writer is a former diplomat

First published on: 23-01-2023 at 16:30 IST
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