BBC documentary: Thames not on fire, why is the Jamuna?


Sky high excitement about the BBC documentary, “India: The Modi Question”, caused me to connect with friends in London who I imagined would help me balance the column by comparing the British reaction to the war dance going on here.

First, let me clarify. This section of the column concerns the first part of the documentary which focuses on Godhra and, quite brazenly accuses the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi for having a hand in the killings. Reports of this episode having been telecast in London disturbed New Delhi. In one leap of uninformed decision making, New Delhi banned and blocked the screening of the documentary in India.

Ban a TV show, and you are guaranteed a record audience. These audiences materialized, falling back on every ingenious trick to download the contraband. What boosted the demand even more was the vocabulary employed by the spokesman. He accused the BBC of a “colonial mindset” which threatened India’s sovereignty and integrity.

Is the colonial affliction in the mind of the BBC? By diligent research and a range of interviews giving both sides of the story, it made a documentary which no Indian journalist even attempted? There have been brave hit-and-run cinema efforts but no journalism. Or is it an Indian malaise? On the pain of being repetitious, may I point to the NDTV setting aside a prime-time slot every week for a news episode canned by the BBC. Does India’s premier channel imagine that its BBC association enhances its prestige?

The overreaction in India is not without its irony. In the first paragraph to this column I had mentioned friends in London I contacted to gauge how widespread was the damage among BBC viewers in Britain.

Let me reproduce verbatim the conversation with a Labour party member of South Asian origin.

Q: How is the BBC documentary faring in Britain?

A: Which documentary? What’s it about?

Q: India: the Modi question. Part one blames Modi for having encouraged the riots by restraining the police from stopping the carnage. It was telecast in Britain last night. Surely there is some reaction in the British papers?

A: Nothing that I have seen.

The mist lifted only partly when I asked someone from the BBC. Yes, the India episode was telecast but only on BBC II which is even less inviting at 9.00 pm. So, there you are. The British TV viewer far from taking a malicious interest in India being shown in dismal light, took no interest in the show at all. The jitters, the banning, the consequent inflated viewership for the episode – all took place here.

The hullabaloo that followed telecasting of part one of the documentary which blamed Modi for having helped the riots were singularly absent during the part two telecast even though it was much more damaging to the regime for a simple reason: it focused on beef lynching, love jihad, hijab, disproportionate number of Muslim youth in jail without trial for years and decades – all contemporary, works in progress. The government escaped public ire because the public got to see the episode only sparingly. Why? Because there was no high voltage official reaction.

The official signals are mixed: hyper reaction to the first episode and dismissive indifference to the second which as I have said, being contemporary, is much more damaging.

This is not the way Navin Kumar of the growing portal “Article 19” sees the events. He sees the BBC effort not being different from the “Godi media”, or a media which is Modi’s lapdog.

Navin Kumar’s reasoning is straightforward. Elections to nine state assemblies are round the corner and joblessness, price rise, dubious record with the Chinese on the border are the unflattering bundle of issues Modi carries on his head. Modi and his cohorts are most comfortable with divisive, identity politics heavily focused on Hindu-Muslim issues which acquire an added edge of nationalism when Kashmir and Pakistan are added to the mix. How the BJP drums up its campaign will establish how prescient Navin Kumar has been.

New Delhi’s drawing rooms, particularly short on information in recent decades, have broadly divided themselves into two categories of chatterati. One is addicted to the social media like The Wire, The Print, The Citizen, News Laundry etcetera.

The other, with more tinsel upholstery, derives its intellectual staple from the channels and mainstream newspapers plastered with page one ads of the Prime minister, Chief Ministers, captains of industry and star students from the coaching class industry.

If there are a handful of takers for Navin Kumar’s conspiracy theory, there are others who see the documentary as a response to some persistent nagging by South Asian voters populating the constituencies of MPs belonging to the two main political parties. Remember, constituencies in the UK are much smaller, enabling greater direct contact between individual voters and party leaders.

Assuming this factor was at play, why a 21 year gap between Godhra and the screening of the episode? Jack Straw, who was the Labour Party Foreign Secretary at the time of the massacre, was revealing in his interview with Karan Thapar after the Godhra episode was telecast last week.

When the Gujarat pogrom erupted, as the country which had played a role in India, “we felt obliged to find out what had happened in Gujarat.” The British High Commission in New Delhi mounted a detailed inquiry, but the final report remained a confidential document in the Foreign Office presumably because Britain was averse to risking excellent relations with New Delhi. Modi, then only a Chief Minister was rapped on the knuckles. His visa was cancelled.

The Gujarat story was resurrected now possibly because the 2002 report was probably leaked to the BBC. A 21-year-old report had to be padded with recent details which makes for part two of the documentary.

There is no end to speculation. The latest being that the BBC was the cat’s paw for the foreign office: Modi was being punished for having veered away from the Western line on Ukraine.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

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Photo Credit: Screenshot of the Documentary video