Rajiv Gandhi was somewhere in West Bengal when the Intelligence Bureau alerted him about the assassination of his mother and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. His first impulse was to check the veracity of the report by tuning into the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio. He believed the report only when he heard it on the BBC. He flew into New Delhi to be sworn in as Prime Minister.
Mark Tully was the BBC correspondent in New Delhi. He enjoyed a cult status that no other radio journalist ever obtained. I was a regular listener to the morning bulletin of the BBC that had an in-depth analysis of the main event, sometimes with spot interviews. It helped me to attend the editorial conference at the Hindustan Times and, later, at the Indian Express, where editorial subjects were discussed and finalised.
In other words, the BBC was my window to the world. To give the devil its due, I learnt this technique of being one up on my colleagues from none other than the legendary editor and historian Khushwant Singh, who began his day, listening, not to Gurbani but the BBC.
A few years ago, BBC Television telecast a documentary that focussed on the Great Bengal Famine, a recurrent theme in Nobel-laureate Amartya Sen’s books and articles. In his autobiography Home in the World (Allen Lane), he describes the situation in Kolkata and Shantiniketan, where he was staying at that time with his maternal grandfather and Sanskrit scholar KM Sen when the poor died of hunger.
Sen squarely blames the British rulers, especially war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill, for the death of at least three million people. The BBC underlined what Sen and many others had been saying that the deaths could have been averted had food-grains been made available to the needy. The TV channel did not shy away from calling Churchill as the villain of the piece.
Nobody in his right senses would say the BBC documentary was an example of the channel’s “colonial mindset” or dub it as “propaganda”. Nobody in Britain objected to the documentary which helped the viewers understand what happened in Bengal in 1943 when the British were lording it over in India, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, which were a part of an empire where the Sun never set.
There have been innumerable instances of a BBC documentary raking up a controversy as, for instance, when it did one on the Falklands War and when it critically examined the “greatness” of Margaret Thatcher. Christians were upset over a documentary which gave credence to the fanciful theory that Jesus spent a few years in Kashmir. Nobody sought any ban on the documentary. It is an accepted principle in journalism that one cannot remain equidistant from both God and Mammon.
What occasioned these thoughts is a two-part documentary titled “The Modi Question” that the BBC broadcasted during the last fortnight. Spokesmen of the government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party called it propaganda that smacked of the “white man’s burden” and the BBC’s “colonial mindset”. The government used certain powers, which are now being scrutinised by the apex court, to ask Twitter and YouTube to delete contents of the documentary.
While they complied with the government’s order, there are innumerable social media platforms where the content is available and is watched by tens of thousands of people. It was the government’s over-reaction that fetched such mileage to the documentary. Otherwise, few would have seen the documentary released in Britain, not India.
It was during the recent elections in Gujarat that Home Minister Amit Shah claimed credit for silencing the “rioters”. He also referred to the good lesson that they were taught.
Anybody who knows anything about Gujarat and the lexicon of the Hindutvavadis knows for sure whom he referred to as “rioters”. And also, how the “rioters” were given a lesson. If the BBC documentary gave credit to those who gave a lesson to the “rioters”, how can it be faulted? The BJP never upbraided the Home Minister for his statement which amounted to an admission of guilt.
I always wondered why the “killing” of 57 karsevaks returning from Ayodhya at Godhra in Gujarat did not evoke any reaction in Madhya Pradesh, which is just a few kilometres away, whereas it evoked a violent reaction in Ahmedabad, about 150 kms away. In other words, nobody believes that the Gujarat riots were spontaneous. The riots were planned to avert an electoral disaster that awaited the ruling party.
Questions have been raised as to whether it was appropriate to rake up an old issue. Congress MP and Chief Minister-aspirant Shashi Tharoor is one who mentioned this point in his otherwise sensible statement. I had once watched him taking part in a debate at Oxford. He used all his debating skills, acquired at St. Stephen’s in Delhi, to argue that the British rule was an unmitigated disaster.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was so impressed by his speech that he praised him using his Twitter handle. He even sought reparation from the British for what they did to India. I wrote an open letter to him at that time questioning some of his theories. He later converted his speech into a book against the British which won a Kendriya Sahitya Akademi award.
He begins the book giving a description of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, certainly as black as the black hole of Calcutta. But he forgot to mention the fact that though General Dyer was the one who ordered the shooting of unarmed people, not one of the trigger-happy men was British in origin. Not only that, the kith and kin of each of those killed was given Rs 5000 to Rs 6000, a huge sum by 1919 standards, when as a school manager my maternal grandfather drew a monthly salary of less than Rs 10.
Were any of the victims of Gujarat or the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 or the 1983 Nellie massacre in Assam given compensation like this? Tharoor wants reparation for what happened over a two-hundred period, while he wants a pogrom that happened just twenty years ago to be forgotten.
Ask any police officer and he will tell you that a “rioter” is a coward. There can be a spontaneous reaction to a rumour or an incident but it can be suppressed by the police easily because the rioter will run away at the first instance. There have been instances when the police looked the other way when riots happened. I saw this phenomenon in Patna soon after Mrs Gandhi was assassinated.
Why the BBC sought to focus its attention on the Narendra Modi question was because it obtained classified information about what the British High Commission in Delhi passed on to London. That is what the media always do. Bofors became a big scandal only when a Swedish radio reported something questionable about the gun deal.
Neither Modi nor his leaders at the time questioned the credibility of the radio station, as they used the report to drive Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to a corner from where he could not escape. Later, the nation lost a wonderful leader when Gandhi and 14 others were killed at Sriperumbudur when the nation was busy electing a new government at the Centre.
When Barack Obama in his autobiography The Promised Land made some remarks about Rahul Gandhi, nobody protested, while some apologists of the ruling party tried to make a mountain out of a molehill. The former President says Gandhi has “a nervous, unformed quality about him, as if he were a student who’d done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject”.
Recently, Mike Pompeo, former US Secretary of State, published his memoir titled Never Give An Inch: Fighting For The America I love. He referred to Sushma Swaraj as a “goofball” and “heartland political hack”. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, whom he praised for his command of seven languages and who speaks better English than him, thought it necessary to issue a statement to criticise Pompeo.
How is it that Indian leaders have become so intolerant? Those who have seen the film The Kashmir Files know that it is pure propaganda. It does not take into account the fact that many more Muslims than Hindu Pandits suffered at the hands of terrorists in the Valley. Those who are familiar with contemporary events in Kashmir know the role played by the late Jagmohan in the migration of the Pandits.
When an Israeli film director said that the film was not worthy of inclusion in the competitive section, he was attacked left and right by the government spokesmen. It even forced the Israeli Ambassador in Delhi to issue a statement to distance his government from the director’s statement. Did it show the Government of India in a good light?
We are the largest democracy in the world. Two other democracies are Britain and the US. In Britain, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was recently fined by a police constable for not wearing his seat belt. He gladly paid the fine. In the US, the income tax authorities raided the White House for certain documents and there was no resistance. Can such incidents ever happen in India?
The BBC documentary does not pronounce a judgement. It gives the views of even the ruling party which says that the Supreme Court had exonerated Modi. The fact of the matter is that what the court said is that there is no prosecutable evidence about his involvement in the riots, though he was the Chief Minister at that time. As such, there is no charge against him.
The Indian judicial system has not found anyone guilty of destroying the centuries-old Babri Masjid. In fact, all those against whom cases were filed, stand “exonerated”. Does this mean that the Masjid came down on its own like the idol of Rama Lalla that appeared on its own inside the mosque when a certain gentleman from Kerala was the District Magistrate and who, later, became a Member of Parliament?
It is a fact that the USA refused to give Modi a visa to visit the US when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Why was this done? Has the US government ever apologised to Modi for refusing him a visa in the wake of the Gujarat riots? True, it has also not explained why the visa was denied.
Anyway, the Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence that we still follow mandates us to believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Let’s, therefore, treat Narendra Modi as innocent. Why is his government and party afraid of anyone attempting to tell the truth about Gujarat?
The BBC’s motto, adopted in 1927 is ‘Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation’. Let them deliberate on whether they adhered to this motto when it broadcasted The Modi Question.
In contrast, India is guided by the Upanishadic dictum, satyameva jayate nānṛtaṃ, which means “truth alone triumphs; not falsehood”. When the mantra was adopted for the national emblem, the last word was dropped for reasons of brevity but India stands committed against falsehood. It is, therefore, in the nation’s interest that falsehood should not triumph.
Swami Vivekananda had the courage to say in response to a question, “let a thousand missionaries come to India”. Likewise, let the nation have the courage to say, let a thousand documentaries be made on India for we have nothing to hide. That is when India will become the Vishwa Guru.