Within an hour of a raiding party from the Income Tax Office swooping down on the BBC’s premises in Delhi and Mumbai, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party launched a boorish attack on the British public broadcaster.
Speaking in his official capacity as a national spokesperson of the BJP, Gaurav Bhatia described the BBC as ‘bhrasht, bakwas corporation’ (corrupt, claptrap corporation) and listed a short – though very odd – inventory of its supposed misdeeds. Insulting Mahatma Gandhi by saying he “failed in his attempt to liberate India in 1946” is one of the three ‘charges’ he levelled – though that is arguably more a statement of fact than an insult since India actually won its freedom only in 1947 .
Other BJP leaders have accused the BBC of insulting the Supreme Court of India by producing a documentary reminding viewers about the questionable role Narendra Modi played as chief minister of Gujarat during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots.
Since the unofficially made ‘official’ claim is that the tax raid on the BBC has nothing to do with the Modi documentary, we must thank the BJP and its over-eager spokespersons for connecting the dots. As it is, only a fool or an apologist for the government will try and pretend the Income Tax authorities just happened to stumble upon evidence of tax evasion by the BBC within a month of the documentary’s telecast.
Enough has been said and written about the Modi government’s ongoing attacks on media freedom and democracy but the latest offensive raises three noteworthy points.
‘Shared values’ with Xi, Putin, but it’s great doing business with ya
The first is that Western democracies which swear by press freedom and the importance of ‘shared values’ are too busy looking for business deals and geopolitical props to care a farthing about what the Modi government is doing on the ground.
The BBC is owned by the British people, and Modi’s attempts to strong-arm the Beeb ought to have drawn some kind of a public response from its government. Unfortunately, Rishi Sunak was more interested in how Britain would benefit from Air India’s huge order for aircraft from Airbus. The US and France, whose leaders spoke to Modi on the day he unleashed his taxmen, have no direct stake in the BBC but ought to know that the weapons being deployed against one media platform will eventually be deployed against others. Already, French correspondents in India are having a tough time getting their press visas processed and at least one US-based reporter was denied entry into India despite having valid papers. Yet Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron remain as unconcerned about the state of media freedom in India as their British counterpart. That such a brazen attack on the BBC could come with just a fortnight to go before the G20 foreign ministers meet in India is an indication of how confident Modi feels about the West’s continuing silence.
Cross the Modi rekha at your peril
Secondly, the tax raids are a reminder that while garden variety criticism may trigger retribution of some sort, questions about Modi’s personal reputation will invariably lead to the heavy guns being deployed. The first part of the BBC’s documentary was banned not because it insulted the Supreme Court (which it did not) but because it reminded the world about the shameful role the Great Leader played in 2002. Incidentally, since the BJP loves to say the Supreme Court is the final word, this is what one of its benches said in 2004 about Modi’s role as Gujarat chief minister when more than a thousand innocent people were killed on his watch:
“The modern day ”Neros” were looking elsewhere when [the] Best Bakery and innocent children and helpless women were burning, and were probably deliberating [over] how the perpetrators of the crime can be saved or protected… Law and justice become flies in the hands of these ”wanton boys”. When fences start to swallow the crops, no scope will be left for the survival of law and order or truth and justice. Public order as well as public interest become martyrs and monuments.” [emphasis added]
In 2022, the Supreme Court merely decided there was insufficient evidence to charge Modi with conspiracy – as Zakia Jafri had urged in her petition – and not that he had behaved honourably or honestly as chief minister in dealing with the anti-Muslim violence. The answer to that question the court had already provided in 2004 and is now an indelible part of India’s political and judicial history – that Modi’s priority was to protect the pogrom’s perpetrators. Here’s the smell of blood still. To paraphrase Lady Macbeth, “All the perfumes of the G20 will not sweeten this little hand.”
The BBC documentary reminded the world about the moral and political questions which still bedevil Modi not as an abstract history lesson but as a necessary backstory to the kind of anti-Muslim policies he has continued to pursue as PM. His government’s first response was apoplexy and abuse. Then came the ban, unconstitutional though it was. And now the tax raid. Nor is this the final word.
Similarly, the opposition’s references to Modi’s nexus with controversial businessman Gautam Adani in parliament were expunged from the official record and BJP leaders telephoned editors at night to demand that media reports of the debate also expunge Modi’s name. Many complied. Those who didn’t are probably bracing themselves for the consequences. Now that press freedom has become a prisoner to the demands of the Modi cult, we are truly in free-fall.
Media as force multiplier in the war on the media
Third, the ease with which the bulk of the Indian media echoed the unconvincing official spin about ‘transfer pricing’ being the reason for the tax raid on the BBC tells us editors and proprietors and reporters have become the worst enemies of press freedom. The fact that no government official or minister was willing to put his or her name behind the transfer pricing claim for 48 hours was proof of its dubious nature. And a five minute chat with any lawyer specialising in tax matters would have made it clear to the media that the raid was clearly malafide. Yet, most channels and newspapers treated this ‘benign’ explanation with great deference. This is hardly surprising, given the attitude of the country’s largest media houses. One media baron publicly sang the praises of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah last November. An anchor at one of his TV channels has declared that come 2024, Modi would be the ‘prime minister of the world’.
Modi had told the BBC way back in 2002 that the only regret he had about the anti-Muslim violence was that he had not handled the media as well as he ought to have. Twenty-one years later, he is hell bent on rectifying this error.
Media houses have been harassed, the Independent and Public Spirited Media Foundation which funds indy media startups has been probed, journalists have been targeted including the celebrated fact-checker Mohammad Zubair, Kashmiri reporters have been jailed and virtually barred from travelling abroad, Welcome to the smother of democracy.
This article was first published on The Wire.