Raging Controversy

Cedric Prakash Cedric Prakash
30 Jan 2023
The BBC said that it used a “wide range of voices, witnesses and experts” for the film, including “responses from people in the BJP

It is a controversy, like none other before. It has shaken the Government, the political party at the helm, their cronies and other ilk, at the very foundations. It is a controversy that will continue to rage for a long time to come and perhaps it will never die. Will it have an impact (positive or negative) on the body politic of Indian society? Will it effect change at any level? Tough but important questions at this juncture. The answers may unfold gradually over a period of time. The one fact about it, however, is that it is a raging controversy. The ghosts of the Gujarat carnage, it is said, can never be exorcised -- they will continue to haunt the perpetrators and those who were complicit with their criminal silence, forever.

The focus of this raging controversy is a two-part documentary produced by BBC, the independent British news channel. Titled India: The Modi Question, the first part of the film was aired on BBC2 on 17 January and the second part, a week later, on 24 January; both parts are about an hour-long. The first episode of the documentary alleges that the police were ordered to turn a blind eye to the Gujarat Carnage of 2002. The second part details how Muslims have been systematically targeted in India under the present dispensation. It shows how perpetrators of heinous attacks on the Muslims do so with impunity, knowing full well that they have all the immunity from those who govern the nation.

At the very start of the Documentary, the BBC screens two strong and telling statements: “More than 30 people in India declined to take part in this series because of fears about their safety” and “The Indian Government declined to comment on the allegations made in this film”. One can conclude several things from these statements; these include that many people know the truth, they would like to do so but they are frightened to do so: yes, fear is palpable in several sections of Indian society today. 

Secondly, the BBC wanted the Government’s comments on the film, so presumably Indian authorities were given a chance to watch the film earlier and rebut it if necessary. The Government declined to do so which could easily imply that the BBC film had incontrovertible footage and evidence, the factuality of which cannot be challenged by anyone. Besides, among those interviewed in the film were also those who sided with the Government – which provides the entire film with a high degree of objectivity and lack of bias!

But is there anything new in the two-part BBC Documentary? In one sense, there is nothing new! What is shown throughout is the terrible reality that gripped the Muslims of Gujarat in 2002 and continues to do so – in direct and indirect ways all over the country since 2014 and till today. 

Movies like Rahul Dholakia’s ‘Parzania’ and Nandita Das’ ‘Firaaq’ have already highlighted the Gujarat 2002 reality. But then those were films, which were in essence acted out with the settings and the props ‘tailored’ for films. Then there is the three-and-a-half-hour ‘Final Solution’, the very detailed documentary by Rakesh Sharma – which was also banned. 

There are several other independent reports, analyses, editorials and op-eds, books and pamphlets and raw film footages that simply reiterate what the BBC has so professionally stringed together that has certainly raised the hackles of several! The truth cannot be hidden: everyone is aware of the facts.

The BBC documentary, however, has a scoop: the first episode reveals a previously unpublished report: a classified and confidential document of the UK Government produced by its Home Office on the Gujarat carnage. In ordinary parlance such documents are referred to as ‘top secret’ and are not easily accessible.

The statements in the internal brief are indicting. The document states, among other things, that the 2002 violence “was planned, possibly in advance” by Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist organisation adding that, “the attack on the train at Godhra on 27 February provided the pretext. If it had not occurred, another one would have been found.” Further, the report cites evidence for starting the violence was pre-planned, “Police contacts confirmed that rioters used computerised lists to target Muslim homes and businesses. The accuracy and detail of the lists, including businesses with minority Muslim share-holding, suggest that they were prepared in advance.” 

The most defining statements say, “the VHP and its allies acted with the support of the state Government. They could not have inflicted so much damage without the climate of impunity created by the state Government. 

Footage in the film clearly shows how the police stood by as Muslims were targeted: victims of arson and loot, rape and murder. “A conservative estimate based on information from reliable human rights contacts puts the number of deaths at 2000 … The killing was accompanied in many areas by widespread and systemic rape of Muslim women, sometimes by police…. police contacts accept that implicit state Government pressure inhibited their response.” Further the document says that “the violence was politically motivated” and the aim “was to purge Muslims from Hindu areas”. It concluded that “the riots were impossible without the climate of impunity created by the state government …”

A key person who features in the documentary was the then British Home Secretary Jack Straw. In a no-holds-barred 29-minute interview which he recently gave to Karan Thapar of ‘The Wire’ after the release of the BBC film, Straw says that the British government conducted the extra-ordinary investigation of its own because many citizens of Gujarati Muslim origin were worried about their loved ones in India and “were making representations” to that effect to the then Tony Blair government. “The simple fact is that in Britain, including in my constituency, there were hundreds of thousands of people from the Indian State of Gujarat, mainly Muslims. There was a lot of concern, and there were also people that I knew whose families were affected by these inter-communal riots directly and they were making representations to us. (This was) one of the reasons why the then High Commissioner ordered this investigation”. 

Responding to certain refutations by the Indian authorities, Straw made it clear that the investigation had absolutely nothing to do with interference into the internal affairs of India or with any colonial ‘mind-set’; it had everything to do with the citizens he represented in Parliament – many of them had their roots in Gujarat and were Muslims. He affirmed that “the constituency which I represented, in... textile area of Lancashire -- fifty years ago probably about 5% of the population was non-white and today it is 40% and rising. We are forever linked to India. It (the investigation) was nothing about post-colonial. It was everything to do with our constituents.”

On expected lines, once the documentary was released, the Government of India went on the offensive.  The day after the film was released, a foreign ministry spokesperson told the media that in the documentary “the bias and lack of objectivity and frankly continuing colonial mindset are blatantly visible.” 

The spokesperson also questioned the legitimacy and authority of the British officials to conduct an inquiry of their own into the riot that was an internal law and order problem of India. He refrained from responding to the accuracy of the facts in the report.

The Government then did something unprecedented: referring to the two-part BBC film, as a “propaganda piece”, the government ordered Twitter to take down more than 50 tweets linking to the documentary while YouTube was instructed to block any video uploads. The Government used emergency powers under its information technology laws to block the documentary and its clips from being shared on social media. The Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued directions banning any clips from the episode being shared under legislation introduced in 2021 that allows for the “blocking of information in case of emergency”. 

An adviser at the Ministry said the government had ordered Twitter and YouTube to take down dozens of accounts that had been airing clips of the documentary on the basis that it was “undermining the sovereignty and integrity of India” and “making unsubstantiated allegations”. The official tweeted, “Videos sharing BBC World hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage, disguised as ‘documentary’ on YouTube, and tweets sharing links to the BBC documentary have been blocked under India’s sovereign laws and rules.” The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement that, “The order flagrantly contradicts the country’s stated commitment to democratic ideals”.

The BBC in a statement strongly defended the making of the film. The documentary, it stated, was “rigorously researched according to highest editorial standards….The documentary series examines the tensions between India’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority and explores the politics of India’s PM Narendra Modi in relation to those tensions. This has been the source of considerable reporting and interest both in India and across the world in recent years.” 

The BBC said that it used a “wide range of voices, witnesses and experts” for the film, including “responses from people in the BJP”. Saying that it was committed to highlighting important issues from around the world, the BBC asserted that, “we offered the Indian government a right to reply to the matters raised in the series – it declined to respond.” 

The screening of the documentary in the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi -- one of India’s premier universities -- was disrupted by the authorities, who allegedly cut the power and internet lines to the office of the students’ union which had organised the event. Later media reports said stones were thrown at some students watching the film. Later students from the Jamia Millia Islamia were detained and prevented from screening the film. On 27 January, the Delhi Police detained 24 students from the Delhi University's Arts Faculty for planning to screen the controversial film. Screenings of the film are reported from other parts of the country, while opposition leaders, journalists and activists continue to share links to the BBC documentary on social media. 

A veteran journalist, in a far-reaching interview to Karan Thapar of The Wire, strongly condemned this censorship. Whilst a US State Department official, referring to the ban on the film, said that the US supports free press around the world and that it is a matter of utmost importance to highlight democratic principles like freedom of expression.

Apoorvanand, the well-known academician and activist who teaches at the Delhi University, has written a very perceptive analysis of the documentary and the crime against humanity which unfolded in 2002. Writing in The Wire (23 January) in an article titled ‘BBC Documentary on Gujarat 2002 Reminds Us That We Are Not Interested in Truth’, he says, “People in India can fight cases of property matters for 20 years but do not believe in fighting for justice when collective injustice is meted out.” He concludes his article saying: 

Crimes should not be forgotten because more often than not, they tend to get repeated. Blood spilled on the roads must not be ignored and dishonoured. It has its own way of coming back to us, reminding us of our task as humans, as the poet Sahir Ludhianvi once wrote:
“The blood you wanted to confine to the slaughterhouse
Today has come flowing to the bylanes and markets
The blood itself gives us a clue about where the executioners dwell
Each drop emerges with a lamp on its palm…”
May every drop of blood that has been shed so far lead to the emergence of a lamp on one’s palm…May this raging controversy enlighten the people of India to walk on the path of truth, justice, non-violence, peace and love. Before it’s just too late!

(Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights & peace activist/writer. Contact cedricprakash@gmail.com)

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