The clue to the Indian government’s thin-skinned response to the BBC’s two-part documentary, India: The Modi Question, is in the name. The documentary lays out the evidence for the argument that the anti-Muslim bigotry that characterises India today is rooted in Narendra Modi’s alleged decision to rein in the police in Gujarat in 2002, giving anti-Muslim rioters a free hand, leading to the killing of hundreds of people.
The first part explores the 2002 pogrom as the ideological foundation of Modi’s power and political persona. The second part surveys the actions of Modi’s government after his re-election in 2019, and tries to show how both formal policy and informal violence have been deployed by the state to reduce Muslims to second-class citizens. It was the documentary’s unequivocal framing of India’s recent history as “Modi v India’s Muslims” that has infuriated Modi’s government.
Paradoxically, this is a characterisation that Modi and his allies have often embraced for domestic political advantage. Modi’s image as a Hindu strongman who had the nerve to put a malcontented minority in its place has helped him win two terms in office and remake the republic in his majoritarian image. Why then did the central government issue directions for blocking multiple YouTube videos and Twitter posts sharing links to the documentary? Why did it play whack-a-mole online and resort to desperate measures such as seizing laptops on university campuses where students were planning to screen the film?
One reason for this reaction was that the film was produced by the BBC. Post-colonial states will grudgingly acknowledge the credibility of the BBC even as they accuse it of condescension or, in the words of the Indian government’s spokesperson, “a colonial mindset”. This credibility is based on the BBC’s institutional memory, its ability to reach into its archive and produce evidence for its narratives.
In the first part, for example, we were shown a BBC reporter, a young woman called Jill McGivering, reporting on the riots and interviewing Modi in the aftermath. The Modi on show here is not the groomed and costumed persona that Indians have become accustomed to since he became prime minister in 2014. This is a rough-and-ready Modi, willing to be caught on camera laughing and taunting a young female reporter, and doing his best to intimidate her. McGivering reappears in the documentary, 20 years older, reflecting on Modi’s charisma and menace. This persona plays well with his base, but it isn’t how this famously image-conscious, multiply-made-over politician wants to be remembered.
Even less welcome is the documentary footage of the anguish of Muslim men and women who have been attacked, bereaved or imprisoned. The men who defend Modi in this documentary emphasise time and again the courts and tribunals that have cleared him of criminal conspiracy. They speak of the need for closure, the importance of moving on. But the testimony of Zakia Jafri, Mariam Ansari, Kismatun, Safoora Zargar and many others, backed up by video clips of Muslims being subjected to horrific violence, bring back ghosts that makes “closure” impossible.
Individual stories of trauma and tragedy can be discredited by citing exculpatory verdicts won in court, but when these voices, ragged with pain, are brought together, as they have been here, they become a Greek chorus, a voiceover on an unfolding tragedy and Muslim suffering that becomes a spectre at the prime minister’s feast.
This year India hosts the G20 summit. Modi has used the moment, in this pre-election year, to announce India’s imminent leadership of the world. He has cast India (and by implication, himself) as a kind of universal mentor, a Vishwaguru. It’s not a claim that goes well with a recent past riven with bigotry. Modi has profited and continues to profit electorally from his reputation as an anti-Muslim strongman, but electoral dog-whistling is only for domestic consumption. He knows that a reputation for alleged ethnic cleansing puts India’s geopolitical standing at risk.
The Indian government trades on the fact that western countries will overlook a lot to ally with a democratic India as a counterweight to China. Britain’s former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, says as much in the documentary, and that role’s current incumbent has bent over backwards to distance himself from its narrative. James Cleverly cited the BBC’s independence as a way of disclaiming responsibility, and emphasised his government’s commitment to investing in India in every possible way.
Soon after both parts of the documentary were released, the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, was asked in the House of Commons if he agreed with the diplomats cited in the documentary, and with the charge of ethnic cleansing. It is unreasonable to expect Sunak to comment on a controversial documentary involving a major country and a potential ally. He made the appropriate boilerplate response about it being settled policy that the UK government did not tolerate political persecution anywhere.
He didn’t stop there, though. He went on to say: “I am not sure I agree at all with the characterisation that the honourable gentleman has put forward.” This went beyond diplomatic deflection. This suggested that Sunak disagreed emphatically with both the questioner and the documentary he was citing. Unlike Cleverly, he chose to offer an opinion. On Indian websites, this was accurately interpreted as the British prime minister coming to Modi’s defence. Sunak’s seeming deference to Modi’s narrative, is proof, if any was needed, of the value of the historical documentary and the indispensability of the BBC.
• Mukul Kesavan is a historian and writer
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