NEW DELHI: Indian tax authorities raided the BBC‘s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai on Tuesday, weeks after the broadcaster aired a documentary critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s actions in the Gujarat riots.
Police sealed off the New Delhi office, which occupies two floors, and half a dozen officers were stationed outside to prevent people from entering or leaving.
Press freedom in the world’s biggest democracy has suffered during Modi’s tenure, rights activists say, and the country’s opposition parties along with journalists described the move as vindictive and as an expression of undeclared emergency. The raids have raised fears of censorship in India.
A BBC spokesperson told CNN that the organisation was “fully cooperating” with authorities. “We hope to have this situation resolved as soon as possible,” the spokesperson said.
The two-part documentary “India: The Modi Question”, aired by BBC, criticised Modi, the then-chief minister of the western state of Gujarat in 2002, alleging that the Hindu nationalist CM ordered police to turn a blind eye to the violence that left more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead.
Broadcaster says it’s ‘fully cooperating’ with Indian authorities
At least 220 more went missing, almost 1,000 women were widowed, while more than 600 children were left orphaned, according to government figures.
The BBC said Jack Straw, who was British foreign secretary in 2002 and features in the documentary, claims Modi had “played a proactive part in pulling back the police and in tacitly encouraging the Hindu extremists”.
India’s government blocked videos and tweets sharing links to the documentary, using emergency powers under its information technology laws.
Government adviser Kanchan Gupta had slammed the documentary as “hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage”.
University student groups later organised viewings of the documentary despite campus bans, defying government efforts to stop its spread.
Police arrested two dozen students at the prestigious Delhi University after stopping a screening there in late January.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, the Editor’s Guild of India said it was “deeply concerned” by the development. The raids were a “continuation of a trend of using government agencies to intimidate and harass press organisations that are critical of government policies or the ruling establishment,” it said.
Mr Modi has denied accusations that he failed to stop the violence. A special investigation team appointed by India’s Supreme Court in 2012 found no evidence to suggest he was to blame. Critics say the court was misled by a motivated prosecution, which hid facts and crucial evidence.
The pogroms remain one of the darkest chapters in India’s post-independence history, with some victims still awaiting justice.
India has fallen 10 spots to 150 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, since he took office in 2014.
Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2023