Screenshot of BBC’s documentary

INDIA — In 2002, when Narendra Modi, the present Indian PM, was the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, deadly riots broke out with Hindus attacking the Muslims in the state with over a thousand dead.

The violence followed the burning of a train on 27 February 2002, resulting in the deaths of more than 50 Hindu pilgrims. Subsequent inquiries showed that the fire was caused by an accident, but at the time, rumours persisted that it was the Muslims who set fire to the train. The incident caused widespread communal riots to break out in Gujarat, lasting as long as a year.

Alarmed at what happened, the UK government on its own accord, set up a team to find out. The report was kept “restricted” until recently when the BBC produced a documentary exposing the details of the findings by the British team back in the 2000s.

The documentary called “India: The Modi Question” which is only viewable in UK, focuses on Modi’s role as the state’s Chief Minister in the organised massacre against the Muslim minority in 2002. The first episode of the two-part series aired on Tuesday (17 Jan), and the second part is due to be broadcast one week later (24 Jan).

It was alleged that Modi, at the time, condoned the violence and state police, together with state officials, also allegedly directed the rioters, giving them information about Muslim-owned properties for the rioters to act upon.

In an interview with BBC, former foreign secretary Jack Straw (2001-2006) recalled, “I was very worried about it. I took a great deal of personal interest because India is an important country with whom we (the UK) have relations. And so, we had to handle it very carefully… What we did was establish an inquiry and have a team go to Gujarat and find out for themselves what had happened. And they produced a very thorough report.”

The report mentioned that the “extent of the violence was much greater than reported,” and there was a “widespread and systematic rape of Muslim women” as the violence was “politically motivated.” It further stated that the riots aimed to “purge Muslims from Hindu areas… That undoubtedly came from Modi,” the BBC documentary alleged.

The documentary has a series of images of the text of the report, and in one statement, the inquiry report said that “Narendra Modi is directly responsible”. It referred to the chain of events as a “systematic campaign of violence” which has “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.”

In the documentary, a former British diplomat said, “At least 2000 people were murdered during the violence where the vast majority were Muslims. We described it as a pogrom – a deliberate and politically driven effort targeted at the Muslim community.”

The report also stated that the violence was organised by an extremist Hindu nationalist group – the VHP. It added that the VHP and its allies could not have done so much damage without “the climate of impunity created by the state government”.

“These were very serious claims – that Chief Minister Modi played a pretty active part in pulling back the police and in tacitly encouraging the Hindu extremists,” former British Foreign Secretary Straw told the BBC.

These allegations against Modi were shocking and have set a “particularly egregious example of political involvement” by preventing police from doing their job to protect communities, Straw added. He further confessed that he was left with “fairly limited” options as a minister. “We were never going to break diplomatic relations with India, but it is obviously a stain on his reputation.”

Following the 2002 Gujarat riots, the British government slapped a diplomatic boycott on Modi for his claimed failure to put an end to the bloodshed. It ended in October 2012.

During the same time, according to the BBC, an inquiry was also set up by the European Union, which also carried out an investigation. It reportedly found that “ministers took an active part in the violence and the senior police officers were instructed not to intervene in the rioting.”

In the documentary, BBC also gave Modi a chance to give his side of the story. In response to BBC questions with regard to the violence, Modi responded with, “I think you have to correct your information first. The state is very peaceful.”

On further questions over his alleged mishandling of law and order management in the state, he said, “This is absolutely misguided information and I do not agree with your analysis.” “You British should not preach (to) us human rights.”

However, when asked if there was anything in the entire episode that Modi would like to do differently, Modi said, “One area where I could have done things differently is — how to handle (the) media.”

The UK inquiry report cited in the documentary concluded, “While Modi remains in power, reconciliation will be impossible.” But the Indian Supreme Court in June last year said that there was “no larger conspiracy behind Gujarat riots.”

The top court rejected murdered ex-MP Ehsan Jafri’s wife, Zakia Jafri’s plea against the clean chit given to Modi by the Special Investigation Team (SIT). The Supreme Court also said that “(Charge) of larger criminal conspiracy at highest level stands collapsed like a house of cards”.

UK Prime Minister disagrees with points raised by UK PM over BBC documentary

A Member of British Parliament, Imran Hussain, asked the UK’s Prime Minister in regard to the BBC documentary:

“He [Modi] was in the FCO’s own words, ‘directly responsible for the violence’. Given that hundreds were brutally killed and that families across India and the world, including here in the UK are still without justice, does the prime minister agree with his diplomat in the foreign office that Modi was directly responsible and just what more does the foreign office know of his involvement in this grave act of ethnic cleansing?”

Rishi Sunak said in response:

“Mr Speaker, the UK government’s position on this has been clear and long standing and hasn’t changed. Of course, we don’t tolerate persecution where it appears anywhere but I am not sure I agree at all with the characterisation that the honourable gentleman has put forward,”

India government censors BBC documentary

Nevertheless, Modi’s government ordered YouTube and Twitter on Saturday (21 Jan) to take down videos and tweets linking to the BBC documentary.

India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued the directions “for blocking multiple YouTube videos” and “over 50 tweets” linked to the videos of the first episode of the BBC documentary, an adviser to the ministry announced.

The ministry issued the directions under the IT Rules (2021) that give the ministry the authority to take down posts that it deems undermine the sovereignty and integrity of India, and has “potential to adversely impact India’s friendly relations with foreign countries as also public order within the country”.

Both YouTube and Twitter have complied with the directions.

Arindam Bagchi, the spokesperson for the Indian foreign ministry, said that the BBC documentary is a “propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative. The bias, the lack of objectivity, and frankly a continuing colonial mindset, is blatantly visible.”

“If anything, this film or documentary is a reflection on the agency and individuals that are peddling this narrative again. It makes us wonder about the purpose of this exercise and the agenda behind it and frankly we do not wish to dignify such efforts.”

BBC defended itself saying, “The documentary was rigorously researched according to highest editorial standards. A wide range of voices, witnesses and experts were approached, and we have featured a range of opinions – this includes responses from people in the BJP [India’s ruling party]. We offered the Indian Government a right to reply to the matters raised in the series – it declined to respond.”

This isn’t the first time a documentary on Modi has stirred debate. Disney-owned Hotstar, India’s largest on-demand video streaming service with more than 300 million users, blocked an episode of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” that was critical of Modi. An uncensored version of that episode aired on YouTube in India.
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