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Opinion | Why BBC's Modi Documentary is So Much Old Wine in a New Bottle

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When I first heard about the BBC documentary which questions Prime Minister Narendra Modi's leadership during the 2002 Gujarat riots when he was the state's chief minister, I was intrigued by its timing. My instinctive reaction was: "But why now?"

Twenty years after the event, what had suddenly happened to warrant a two-part documentary? Had some new explosive evidence emerged to necessitate revisiting the story? And, indeed, if it had dramatically stumbled on a smoking gun (which it didn't) wouldn't it have been more newsy to run it as a news story — rather than as a minor detail in a long documentary? BBC insiders are hard put to explain but some suggest that it looks like one of those "anniversary" stories timed to mark the 20th anniversary of the riots next month.

The problem is that it has nothing new to say. And that's because after all these years nothing is left to be said. Pretty much everything that needed to be said by both sides has already been said — including by the BBC in its extensive reporting over the years? The debate is over. Everyone — or nearly everyone — has moved on. Modi has since won two general elections with massive majorities and the BJP's footprints now extend across the national electoral map.

Most crucially, a series of investigations, including one set up by the Supreme Court, have rejected his personal role in the riots which followed the death of 59 Hindu karsevaks who were killed in a fire in the train in which they were travelling. A Muslim mob was accused of setting it on fire near Godhra station as revenge against the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The karsevaks were returning from Ayodhya after a pilgrimage.

Rest is history. And, essentially, the BBC documentary, India: The Modi Question, is a rehash of that history poring over familiar details and the many twists and turns in a story that despite its tragic dimension (more than 1,000 people were reportedly killed, most of them Muslims) and impact on Hindu-Muslim relations has lost its urgency. Even many of those who suffered wish to move on, and don't like to be reminded everyday of those dark moments.

BBC's intervention will only help reopen old wounds and further complicate already complicated Hindu-Muslim relations. The Aligarh Muslim University Vice-Chancellor Tariq Mansoor has said that the BBC got it wrong. "Indian Muslims want to move on from the past — we do not live there anymore. The BBC has assembled 20 years of biased reportage, peppered it with outdated condiments and garnished it with loads of misplaced victimhood," he wrote (Indian Express, 22 January 2023).

The BBC claims that the documentary contains hitherto undisclosed details from the report of the British government's inquiry into the riots. This apparently refers to a statement of former UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw who was in office between 2001 and 2006, and appears in the documentary. He says that the UK government instituted an inquiry and a team visited Gujarat to investigate the riots at the time. The inquiry report, according to the documentary, alleged Modi's involvement in failing to control the riots. This has been touted as a new revelation.

Nonsense. As someone who reported the story extensively from London at the time I can say with some authority that Straw's so-called "revelation" is old hat — an open secret. To be honest, I struggled to spot any new detail. Jury on the yet-to-released second episode is still out, though don't bet on any great new revelation.

Responding to criticism, the BBC put out an anodyne pro-forma statement, saying the documentary was "rigorously researched according to the highest editorial standards". It said that the Indian government was invited to take part in the film but it was turned down.

Despite its giveaway partisan title and the overall tone, the documentary desperately tries to appear "balanced", presenting both sides in the debate: Every allegation is allowed to be rebutted by the BJP and its supporters. The point that Modi was cleared by the highest court in the land is also repeatedly and forcefully made by BJP and state government spokespersons.

As for the Indian government's reaction, it is natural that it should be upset and was right to put its protest on record. A day after the film was aired, the government called it "a propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative". External Affairs Ministry's official spokesperson Arindam Bagchi, said, "The bias, the lack of objectivity, and frankly a continuing colonial mindset, is blatantly visible. If anything, this film or documentary is a reflection on the agency and individuals that are peddling this narrative again. It makes us wonder about the purpose of this exercise and the agenda behind it."

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was also quick to distance his government from the film. He said he did not agree with its "characterisation". He also rejected remarks made by the Pakistan-origin British MP Imran Hussain who raised the question about Modi's alleged role and called the riots "ethnic cleansing".

"The UK government's position on this has been clear and longstanding and has not changed. Of course, we don't tolerate persecution anywhere but I'm not sure I agree at all with the characterisation," Sunak said.

This should have been enough to lay the BBC's ghost to rest. Having made its point and got the British government to clarify its position from none other than the country's prime minister, New Delhi should have relaxed, dismissing the documentary for what it was worth instead of drawing international attention to it by escalating it into a confrontation.

The decision to ban it from YouTube and Twitter appeared particularly excessive and ended up fuelling public interest in it. More people are now curious to find out what makes it so incendiary that it has been banned. It has also handed ammunition to the Opposition and free speech-wallahs to accuse it of "censorship", etc.

Then more than 300 eminent citizens — retired judges, bureaucrats, diplomats, and retired Army officers — jumped into the fray calling the BBC "the archetype of British past imperialism in India setting itself up as both judge and jury, to resurrect Hindu-Muslim tensions that were overwhelmingly the creation of the British Raj policy of divide and rule".

This is not the first time that the BBC has run into trouble with Indian authorities. Successive governments going back to the Congress days have had problems with BBC's journalism resulting in its expulsion from India more than once. Indeed, BBC has had problematic relationships with much of the Third World, especially former British colonies who look upon it with suspicion as an arm of the British establishment and its colonial mindset. But the truth is that there is no love lost between the BBC and British establishment, including the Sunak government, which accuses it of left liberal bias. So, India has company if that's any consolation.

Meanwhile, it's best to draw the line under the episode. "Duniya me muhabbat ke siva aur bhi gham hain…" There are more pressing issues to attend to than bothering about the BBC.

The author is an independent commentator. Views expressed are personal.

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