By Arun Srivastava
The alacrity with which the Modi government used the law that cites ‘emergency’ provisions to stop Indians from watching the BBC Documentary “India: The Modi Question” — a narrative of the Gujarat pogrom that was carried out in 2002 by Hindutva bigots and the role of the then chef minister of the state, Narendra Modi— is quite intriguing.
Censorship is not a new weapon to deny information to the people. Indians have been witness to the 1975 Emergency of Indira Gandhi and its wide coverage by the BBC. At that time, the RSS and Jana Sangh cadres would vouch for the BBC revelations about the excesses of the emergency. But now, the same saffron leaders and cadres are up in arms against the BBC, and accuse it of being biased towards Modi. The BJP is crying conspiracy and accusing the BBC of having a ‘colonial mindset’ and insulting the country’s highest judiciary, which gave a clean chit to PM Modi.
In 2013, while addressing a public meeting, Modi had said that erstwhile people did not rely on the news coverage of the Doordarshan and they looked to the BBC for “true and accurate” information. BBC is certainly not the pliable media of India under Modi rule. There have been plenty of occasions when it exposed the wrongdoings of the British government. If at all the mandarins of the Information ministry or Home ministry were sure that it damaged the reputation of Modi, the government should have filed legal complaint against BBC. Instead, Modi government slapped a ban on its exhibition on social media giant Twitter as well as YouTube.
Even after slapping the ban, people across the country have been watching the documentary on archived links. Obviously this has defeated the very purpose of imposing the ban. Modi’s move is primarily meant to send message to his staunch followers and section of the middle classes somewhat soft towards him, that an international conspiracy has been hatched to defame him and tarnish his image.
Part one of the two-episode documentary highlights the 2002 Gujarat riots, one of the worst incidents of communal violence that shook the conscience of Indians and broke their trust in the system of governance. At that time, Narendra Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat. The documentary shows how riots broke out after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in Gujarat was set on fire killing 59 people. The Hindu fanatics allegedly retorted and during three days of their gory operation, killed at least 2000 Muslims. They killed the Congress MPEhsan Jafri and raped a heavily pregnant BilkisBanu, killing several members of her family, to avenge the burning of the karsevaks.
Just after the documentary was telecast in the United Kingdom, it generated hype back in India, prompting the Indian government to block it. On January 17, the BBC released the first episode of ‘The Modi Question’, and on January 25, just a day ahead of the Republic Day, it aired the second part of the documentary.
Incidentally, the information which the two-part documentary provided has already been in the public domain in India and people are aware of the facts that propelled the political trajectory of Narendra Damodardas Modi. They have even accepted Modi’s clarification that he had nothing to do with the massacre of the Muslims. It was 12 years after the gruesome massacre that the politically conscious and agile Indians voted him to the office of the prime minister. In 2013, a Supreme Court panel rejected the claim of his involvement in the deadly riots saying that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him.
Even after getting exonerated by the Supreme Court, what prompted Modi to slap ban on the documentary, is the question.
Though by and large, the people did not show their averseness to the release of the two-episode documentary, debates are raging on the importance of the documentary after 20 years of the sordid incident, which had rudely shaken the democratic and secular credentials of the country. The BJP leaders and rightist intellectuals and academics have already described the documentary as a “propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative”.
Though some political activists, student organisations and politicians have organised public screenings of the documentary in non-BJP ruled states, some are also worried that the film would be used for polarisation of Hindu votes. Some fear that just a year ahead of the Lok Sabha election of 2024, the BBC has handed over an effective instrument to the BJP and Modi government to reignite the Hindutva feeling. Moreover, the Modi government’s allegation that some people were out to malign the image of the country has caught the imagination of Indians soft towards the Prime Minister.
Could the latest development have the potential to obliterate Rahul Gandhi’s efforts to counter the hate narrative of Modi and his ilk? Would it hinder Gandhi’s hard work towards helping people come out of the grip of ultra-nationalism? The documentary, by projecting the Muslims as the worst sufferers of the pogrom, could further their ghettoization before the 2024 general elections. This would certainly not help the secular and socialist forces.
Modi government has played a major gamble by deciding to block all online links broadcasting the BBC documentary critical of him. He has taken the risk of being accused of trampling on democracy. He has resorted to this act without bothering about accountability.
Reacting to the latest developments, Rahul has said: “If you read our scriptures; if you read Bhagwad Gita or Upanishads; you will see it is written that the truth cannot be hidden. The truth always comes up. You will suppress the press, you can control the institutions, you can use CBI, ED but the truth is the truth. The truth shines bright. It has a nasty habit of coming, so no amount of banning, oppression, frightening people is going to stop the truth from coming up.”
What he says may be right. But he has to keep in mind that the Modi narrative of hate and divisive politics have yet not been completely erased from the minds of the common people. Even the liberal forces and intellectuals have to tread cautiously. It has to be ensured that they do not fall into the trap of the RSS and BJP once again. Importance of the 2024 Lok Sabha is known to the BJP and RSS, more than any other liberal, centrist, secular or any party perusing caste politics.
No doubt the documentary will revive the memories of 2002 massacres but at the same time it could act as a catalyst to polarise the Hindu votes. One ought to not forget that Modi came to rule Gujarat till 2012 using this communal element and psyche. Even the results of the recent assembly election of Gujarat sent the strong message that the memories of 2002 are still alive in the minds of the people. Incidentally, while campaigning Modi’s lieutenant Amit Shah had reminded the people of Gujarat about the impact of the pogrom. Without mincing words he had said that the people who used to indulge inriots have been silenced after 2002 episode.
The documentary reveals a previously unpublished report from the British Foreign Office that held Modi “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” enabling the violence and said it had “all the hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing”. In a statement, the broadcaster said: “The documentary series examines the tensions between India’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority and explores the politics of Modi in relation to those tensions.” It was “rigorously researched” and “a wide range of voices, witnesses and experts were approached, and we have featured a range of opinions, including responses from people in the BJP”, it added.
Already efforts are being made from the government level to set a fresh narrative that a time when Modi has been emerging as a global achiever, a concerted attempt is being made to malign his image. This is catching the imagination of the common Indian people. It is also alleged that the BBC is using Indian Muslims as cannon fodder against India’s leadership. Some rightist experts hold the view that the BBC kept the film ready, and it was waiting for the right time to hit the iron. The only new addition to the prevailing information is at that time the British government had conducted its own investigation into the cause of the Gujarat violence and found Modi “directly responsible”. (IPA Service)