By K Raveendran
It is no joke that under Indian laws anyone can be hauled up at any time, anywhere, because there are some laws that can be slapped against anyone who the authorities are not well-disposed towards. In fact, these laws have become a tool of repression and reprisal at the hands of the rulers. These range from the law that bans obscenity to the one against acquiring wealth disproportionate to one’s legitimate means.
The law against obscenity anyone who acts or says anything outrageous and obscene in public is punished, but the term ‘obscene’ is not defined anywhere. So there is nothing that prevents the law enforcer to slap the law and equally sweet nothing that is available to the accused to defend. The law against illegal acquisition of wealth is mostly enforced to settle scores with opponents rather than to ensure rule of law. On the contrary, it is invariably used to subvert the rule of law. There are any number of instances when the law has been used overnight against friend-turned foes of the ruling party and we are all familiar with how central agencies have been let loose to intimidate. Nobody asks why the laws were not invoked when the accused was in the good books of the law enforcers, although the alleged offence stood committed.
The ‘raids’ against BBC fall perfectly into this category. Modi government claims it is not a raid, but survey, whatever that means. There is no mention of the word ‘raid’ in the Income Tax Act. But under section 132 of the IT Act, officials are empowered to undertake thorough inspection of the premises and places of business and seize documents, computers and devices, assets and anything that is supposed to have been concealed. None of these would constitute a raid, irrespective of how the aggrieved party feels.
Tax sleuths conducted the raids, or searches as the government would have us believe, at multiple locations, including Delhi and Mumbai and according to media reports, staff members were herded up to a certain spot and ordered to hand over their phones, laptops and other devices; no one was allowed to leave or enter. BBC has denied any wrongdoing and said it was fully cooperating with the officials.
According to the government, the international broadcaster has been flouting the provisions of Transfer Pricing Rules (TPR), which relates to the accounting of profits generated by multinational companies. IT department claims there has been persistent non-compliance by BBC for years and that the broadcaster has been consistently defying several notices issues in this regard.
The big question then is why did the authorities keep quiet all this while and woke up only after BBC carried the ‘offending’ serial against Narendra Modi. It is a fit case for someone to approach the Supreme Court questioning dereliction of duty by the IT officials concerned and explore if there was any complicity on their part under some deal. The officials must be held accountable for loss of tax revenue for the country for their non-compliance with the enforcement of IT rules.
There is no denying the fact that the government and the BJP have been caught wrong-footed in the entire controversy. There are a number of BBC documentaries which are critical of world leaders, but these die a natural death after the initial euphoria. But the overzealous Modi loyalists have given the show much greater currency than it would have merited otherwise. Their obsession with the show has ensured that it has generated larger than life appeal and more people would have seen it now than the broadcaster would have ever hoped.
Even without people seeing it, the controversy has created negative publicity for Modi and trained global attention towards the desperation of loyalists. Opposition has already accused the Modi government of clamping undeclared emergency and resorting to intimidation tactics to muffle criticism.
The issue has erupted into a global controversy with Amnesty International expressing concern over the ‘blatant affront to freedom of press. “The overbroad powers of the Income Tax Department are repeatedly being weaponized to silence dissent. Last year, tax officials also raided the offices of a number of NGOs, including Oxfam India. These intimidatory acts, which undermine the right to freedom of expression in India, must end now,” Akar Patel, chair of Amnesty International’s India Board, said in a statement.
US newspapers Washington Post, New York Times and others pointed out there is no subtlety to the timing of the raid and noted Modi is notoriously thin-skinned on his alleged role in deadly sectarian riots that wracked his home state of Gujarat in 2002. The US government itself was non-committal, saying it is aware of the developments but was not in a position to comment.
The net result is that perceived damage caused to Modi’s reputation and credibility stands multiplied by several times than what the BBC show would have achieved on its own. (IPA Service)