India enjoyed a free and vibrant media. Narendra Modi’s brazen attacks are a catastrophe

Kenan Malik

In January, the BBC broadcast a two-part series, India: The Modi Question, which looked forensically at the role of Narendra Modi in fomenting the Gujarat anti-Muslim riots of 2002 in which at least 1,000 people were killed. Now the prime minister of India, Modi was then the chief minister of Gujarat. The response in India was swift. Kanchan Gupta, an adviser to the ministry of information and broadcasting, called the documentary “propaganda and anti-India garbage” that “reflects BBC’s colonial mindset”. The BJP government invoked emergency laws to ban the documentary and any online links to clips. When students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University tried to screen the documentary, the university authorities cut off electricity to the whole campus.

Then, last week, the authorities raided BBC offices in India, supposedly to investigate “tax evasion” by the corporation’s Indian operation. On Friday, the government claimed to have discovered “evidence of tax irregularities”. Most local journalists are deeply cynical. The raid on the BBC, the Press Club of India observed, was “a clear cut case of vendetta”.

The cynicism about Delhi’s motives is well earned. Since Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP party came to power in 2014, he has pursued a relentless campaign to curb the independence of India’s media. “Criticise us and we’ll come after you,” is the banner under which the government operates. As the Editors Guild of India put it, the BBC raids (which the government, in BJP Newspeak, calls not “raids” but “surveys”) are part of a well-established “trend of using government agencies to intimidate and harass press organisations that are critical of government policies or the ruling establishment”. The government – and many BJP-controlled state administrations – have also sought to intimidate journalists through the use of sedition and national security laws.

In 2020, Siddique Kappan, a journalist from Kerala, reporting a story of a 19-year-old Dalit woman who died after being allegedly gang-raped by four men, was charged by police in BJP-controlled Uttar Pradesh with sedition, promoting enmity between groups, outraging religious feelings, committing unlawful activities and money laundering. Still awaiting trial, he was finally released on bail this month after two years in jail….