A BBC documentary focused on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s relationship with the country’s Muslim minority has led New Delhi to accuse the broadcaster of a “colonial mindset” and threatens to disrupt U.K.-India ties. India: The Modi Question examines Modi’s role as chief minister of Gujarat during a three-day period of communal violence in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people died, including 790 Muslims. Despite not airing in India, the documentary returns the events to the public eye, which has angered India’s ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The first part of the documentary was released last week, with a second installment scheduled to air Tuesday. Over the weekend, India blocked the film and banned people from sharing clips on social media, citing emergency powers under its information technology laws. Twitter and YouTube have complied with the move. (In effect, this serves the BBC’s interests by protecting the documentary from copyright violations.) The ban has only brought more attention to the program, with many people, including opposition politicians, protesting the move and providing links to download it.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whose family traces its roots to pre-Partition India, now faces a dilemma. He wants to improve relations with India, starting with a trade agreement he hopes will demonstrate that the United Kingdom can negotiate trade terms with other countries superior to those allowed by the European Union. But a deal is not guaranteed, in part because no British government can offer what India seeks—more visas for students and business executives, including the right to stay longer in the country. Furthermore, India isn’t about to open its legal or financial services sectors to British firms, as the U.K. wants.
The controversy comes at a delicate moment for the U.K.-India relationship. Many Western governments now see India as a partner and as a potential rival to China. But New Delhi has always pursued its own interests; during Modi’s nearly nine years as prime minister, India has also become an increasingly illiberal place, where activists are jailed and minority rights are undermined. As Britain’s first prime minister of color and its first Hindu prime minister, Sunak has a difficult balancing act as he seeks closer relations with India. And for Modi, the documentary brings back ghosts of the past as India prepares for national elections next year.
In its assessment of Modi’s leadership, India: The Modi Question revives the most controversial episode of the prime minister’s political career. The first installment centers on the 2002 riots as a pivotal event in India’s modern history, which has drawn a vehement reaction from the government. In February 2002, a train caught fire in northern Gujarat, killing 59 people, most of them Hindu fundamentalist activists. The cause of the fire remains a subject of debate; the BBC documentary states that Muslim protesters started it. Nearly 100 Muslims were arrested and 31 eventually convicted for setting the train on fire.
At the time, Modi had been Gujarat’s chief minister for less than five months. He allowed the bodies of those who died on the train to be brought to Ahmedabad, the state’s largest city, an action his critics consider provocative. Horrific violence followed: Mobs systematically attacked Muslim-owned businesses, burned Muslims’ homes, and raped Muslim women. A former member of parliament was killed in front of his home. The BBC documentary assigns blame to Modi, citing a secret British diplomatic investigation that concluded that Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity.”
In the wake of the 2002 riots, the Indian public was aghast, and global condemnation was swift. Then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee represented the BJP but ruled in coalition and faced pressure from opposition parties and civil society groups to seek Modi’s resignation. Vajpayee said only that Modi should follow the duty of a ruler. Modi then dissolved the state assembly and called for fresh elections, which he won. The BJP lost India’s 2004 national elections in part because of the party’s conduct in Gujarat. Yet Modi kept winning and by mid-2013 staked his claim to lead the BJP in national elections the next year. He won handsomely—the first time in 30 years that a political party had secured an absolute majority in India’s parliament. He improved his tally in 2019.
The BBC documentary relies on archival footage and interviews with experts in India and survivors of the riots, but its interview with Jack Straw, who was Britain’s foreign secretary at the time of the riots, is perhaps the most significant. He mentions that the U.K. High Commission in India conducted its own investigation into the violence. Its report to the U.K. government found that the extent of violence was “much greater than reported,” with an aim to “purge Muslims from Hindu areas.” The report concluded that the number of deaths was far higher than the official tally of 1,044 deaths, that the police were told not to act, and that the violence “undoubtedly came from Modi.” One unnamed British diplomat cited by the BBC called the violence a “pogrom.”
The documentary also shows footage from a BBC interview with Modi soon after the riots. When asked about the lessons he has learned, Modi says he needs to learn how to handle the media. He has taken that to heart: Since becoming prime minister, Modi has not held a single impromptu press conference and has avoided talking to any critical interviewer. The second half of the broadcast reportedly covers his relations with Muslims as prime minister. In Modi’s India, life has become harder for Muslims. They are sometimes prevented from congregating to pray, at least one state has banned women from wearing hijabs in the classroom, and unprovoked mob attacks against Muslims have become more common, to name just a few examples.
With India’s government upset about the BBC documentary, it will be harder for Sunak to reach the trade deal he seeks. Last week, the documentary came up in the British Parliament, when Labour Party lawmaker Imran Hussain mentioned it during Prime Minister’s Questions, asking Sunak if he agreed with British diplomats who said Modi was directly responsible for the violence in 2002. Sunak said Britain does not tolerate persecution anywhere but that he disagreed with the way Hussain described Modi. Although Modi’s supporters said this reflected Sunak’s defense of Modi, the British leader didn’t go that far; he only disagreed with Hussain’s critique.
Coming on top of unrest between Hindus and Muslims in Leicester, England, last year, the BBC documentary could cause a headache for Sunak. He did not sign up for any of this when he stood for the leadership of Britain’s Conservative Party, and he now must tread a careful path. After all, the BBC documentary relies on a secret British government report written by diplomats, whom Sunak cannot undermine, as much as he wants to strengthen ties with India. That hasn’t stopped other Tory supporters from commenting: Rami Ranger, a member of the British House of Lords and a major Conservative Party donor, called the timing of the film “sinister” and asked the BBC to stop screening it.
Ultimately at issue is that Modi has never apologized for the violence in Gujarat. The European Union and the United States initially said he would not be welcome on their shores, but by 2012—when it became apparent that he might lead the BJP—those de facto bans were removed. A Special Investigation Team report in India essentially ensured that Modi would not face censure or prosecution in the country. His supporters have repeatedly cited this as evidence of his innocence. Last June, India’s Supreme Court upheld Modi’s exoneration by the report. Meanwhile, many of those found guilty for the violence have been released, most recently 11 men convicted for gang-raping a pregnant Muslim woman; they had served 14 years of their life sentences.
Sunak finds himself in an uncomfortable position as the BBC prepares to air the rest of the documentary. The Conservative Party might seek to clip the BBC’s wings, but it is an independent body and has vigorously defended the film. Modi may thank his good fortune that he does not face a similar broadcaster in India.