Gujarat riots documentary: BBC’s motives are less clear

Bharat Bhushan

The airing of part one of a BBC documentary “India: The Modi Question” has raised political hackles in India. It suggests that the then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi was directly responsible for the riots, which left 2,000 people dead, mostly Muslims. It has since been taken down from YouTube and other social media platforms, though it is still available on the internet. The government’s spokesperson has criticised the documentary as “propaganda” and claimed, “The bias, lack of objectivity and continuing colonial mindset is blatantly visible.”

Discomfiture at the BBC’s invocation of the Gujarat carnage of 2002 on its twentieth anniversary is acute. However, only two months ago, on November 26, 2022, home minister Amit Shah recalled the riots in an election rally at Mahudha in Kheda district in Gujarat. He claimed that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had taught the 2002 rioters “a lesson” and established “eternal peace” (akhand shanti) in Gujarat. It was a clever dog whistle which recalled the devastating riots without explicitly referring to the violence by which “eternal peace” was established. Four days earlier, Shah had spoken of the 2002 events at an election rally in Banaskantha, “In 2001, Narendra Modi came to power and after 2002, there was no need to put curfew anywhere. Everyone fell in place. Is there a mafia now?” he asked.

Now, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its government at the Centre want to choose who will recall history, when and for what purpose. While the purpose of the BJP’s public recall of the memory of 2002 is clear to everyone who has followed the electoral successes of the BJP from then onwards, the BBC’s motives are less clear. If it is aimed at influencing the Indian elections, it will achieve little. The documentary says nothing new that will make a difference to the voters. The BJP already wears its communal colours in the open and wins elections because of it.

Perhaps one aim of the BBC documentary is to remind us that the ghosts of 2002 were never laid to rest — they included British citizens who were killed during the riots, and their families are still looking for justice and closure. They are still looking to prosecute those guilty in the UK. Unlike some other countries, the United Kingdom has no statute of limitation or time limit to prosecute someone for a capital crime.

However, it also makes a political point by reiterating that the liberal world sees PM Modi’s leadership as flawed. UK PM Rishi Sunak must deal with whichever leadership the Indian voters choose. His temporising in the midst of negotiations for a UK-India free trade agreement is also understandable. But the presence of former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in the documentary lends credence to the existence of an inquiry conducted by British diplomats, pinning responsibility on the state’s then chief minister. Straw’s views are backed by an anonymous British diplomat (face never shown and speaking with an actor’s voice) who visited Gujarat in the aftermath of the riots, which suggests that a section of the British establishment shares this perception.

Although Prime Minister Modi implies on screen that he has learnt to manage the media better than in 2002, the documentary reminds us that critical media voices will not disappear. His carefully orchestrated intimacy does not convince the international world with world leaders for the cameras: hugs, selfies, or poses suggesting deep, meaningful conversations. The world’s leaders appear with him on the world stage only because the world’s largest democracy has chosen him as its leader.

The range of opinions he invokes in the Western establishment includes views like those expressed by the US State Department spokesperson in November last year. In this, the “sovereign immunity” given to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia in the abduction and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was compared to past precedents when similar immunity was given to “President Aristide in Haiti in 1993; President Mugabe in Zimbabwe in 2001; Prime Minister Modi in India in 2014; and President Kabila in the DRC in 2018.” It seems that the monkey of the 2002 riots remains on Prime Minister Modi’s back, and his immunity will last only so long as he is in office.

However, critics of the documentary are correct in thinking that it is intended to embarrass Prime Minister Modi. This has been released at a time when the presidency of G-20 has passed to India, and the government’s propaganda machinery is projecting it as if it were an international ratification of PM Modi’s global leadership. Such preening may bear electoral dividends domestically, but it may not go down internationally, especially as he has not committed to the agenda of the West – to the extent of, for example, taking sides against the war in Ukraine and marginalising Russia.

Criticism by the West seems to have cut deep, as is evident from the enormous effort to delegitimise the documentary. Some Indians may agree with the government that the BBC documentary aims to ” undermine the stability of Indian democracy and the integrity of India’s institutions.” But it is a reminder that until the victims of the 2002 communal riots are given closure, a sense of justice instability will remain endemic. The integrity of India’s democratic institutions is also being questioned within the country as never before.

As of now, Prime Minister Modi’s critics have no option but to wait for the other shoe to fall – the documentary’s second part. It seems inevitable that India’s bragging rights as the mother of democracies will be called out again by reminding it of glaring injustices within the country and the government seeking to re-calibrate citizens’ rights according to their religion.

‘They were taught a lesson in 2002’ – Union Home Minister said the same thing as the BBC, no?

The Broken Middle

One nation, one version