Although most of the documentary is based on archival footage, it includes a startling revelation about a secret British probe into the Gujarat riots.—AFP
Although most of the documentary is based on archival footage, it includes a startling revelation about a secret British probe into the Gujarat riots.—AFP

LONDON: A recently relea­sed BBC documentary on Narendra Modi has created a storm in India, where the government has resorted to blocking content discussing the film on social media.

The two-part documentary titled India: The Modi Question was aired on the BBC on January 17, with episode two scheduled for release on Tuesday. Part one tracks the rise of Mr Modi, the prime minister of India, his association with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as well as his controversial role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat, where he served at the time as chief minister. Massive religious riots broke out in 2002 after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set on fire, killing dozens. In the aftermath, more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in the outbreak of violence.

“Seen by the west as an important bulwark against Chinese domination of Asia, he has been courted as a key ally by both the US and the UK. Yet Narendra Modi’s premiership has been dogged by persistent allegations about the attitude of his government towards India’s Muslim population,” reads the intro for the documentary, adding that the film investigates the “truth behind these allegations and examines Modi’s backstory”.

The documentary includes an old clip of Mr Modi giving a rare press interview to a British journalist, who later described him as “charismatic, powerful, [and a] quite menacing figure.” In the archival clip, Mr Modi dismisses the questions asked by the journalist regarding the rights of minorities, and dismisses the questions as “false propaganda”.

New Delhi tells two social media giants to block first episode; next installment to air on Tuesday

Although most of the documentary is based on archival footage and Mr Modi’s own public videos, it includes a startling revelation about a secret British probe held into the Gujarat riots.

The previously unpublished report, obtained by the BBC from the UK Foreign Office, raises questions about Mr Modi’s role during the riots of 2002. The report claims that Mr Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that enabled the violence.

Jack Straw, who was foreign secretary under Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair from 2001 to 2006, talks about the probe and its findings in the film. “I was very worried about it. I was taking a great deal of personal interest, because India is a really important country with whom we have relations. We had to handle it very carefully,” he told the BBC.

Mr Straw said, “What we did was to establish an inquiry and have a team go to Gujarat and find out for themselves what had happened. And they produced a very thorough report.” He added, “It was very shocking. These were very serious claims that chief minister Modi had played a pretty active part in pulling back the police and in tacitly encouraging the Hindu extremists.

“That was a particularly egregious example of political involvement, really to prevent the police from doing their job, which was to protect both communities, Hindus and Muslims. The options open to us were fairly limited. We were never going to break diplomatic relations with India. But it is obviously a stain on his reputation. There’s no way out of that.”

India’s reaction

The Indian government has slammed the documentary, with Indian foreign ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi saying it “lacked objectivity and was propaganda”.

“We think this is a propaganda piece. This has no objectivity. This is biased. Do note that this hasn’t been screened in India. We don’t want to answer more on this so that this doesn’t get much dignity.”

In addition, India’s Information and Broadcasting Ministry told two social media giants to block the first episode of the BBC documentary, acco­rding to Indian media reports.

“The ministry told Twitter to remove over 50 tweets on the documentary by Britain’s national broadcaster, the people said,” NDTV reported.

On Twitter, pro-Modi British citizens and pro-BJP media criticised the documentary and questioned why an “anti-Modi narrative” was being peddled.

But journalists critical of Mr Modi and the BJP regime said the documentary was revealing, and the government’s knee-jerk reaction to block tweets and YouTube videos was “not a good look for India”.

In the UK, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak brushed aside a question asked by Imran Hussain, the Labour MP for Bradford East, who said the documentary showed “the extent of Narendra Modi’s involvement in the Gujarat massacre that paved the way for the persecution of Muslims and other minorities that we see in India today.”

Mr Sunak said, “The UK government’s position on that is clear and longstanding, and it has not changed. Of course, we do not tolerate persecution anywhere, but I am not sure that I agree at all with the characterisation that the Hon. Gentleman has put forward.”

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2023

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