View from ‘Dawn’: India’s reaction to the BBC documentary shows it is a democracy only in name

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New Delhi’s extreme reaction to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s documentary on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has laid bare the BJP regime’s increasingly authoritarian and intolerant disposition. Since the airing of the first episode, the Indian government has used aggressive language to dismiss the film as “propaganda” and resorted to blocking any clips uploaded to YouTube. It has now gone a step further to invoke emergency powers to block tweets and posts about the documentary – a move that shows how easily the Indian government can crack the censorship whip to stifle criticism against the ruling party. The two-part series shows the rise of Modi, his links to the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, where he served as chief minister at the time. The riots were one of the most violent moments in post-partition India, where 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed after the Godhra train burning. It is this moment that the documentary examines closely, and that is being seen as most offensive to the Indian authorities. The documentary talks of a secret probe undertaken by the UK Foreign Office into the riots, with a subsequent report holding Modi “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that enabled the violence. Former foreign secretary Jack Straw, too, tells the filmmakers that Modi “had a pretty active part in pulling back police” and “encouraging” Hindu extremists. The BBC shows archival footage of a journalist pressing Modi for answers about the riots in an old interview, in which his response and attitude are chilling.

The revelations in the documentary, coupled with the reaction of the Indian government, point to the growing darkness that has enveloped the nation. While it is often described as the world’s largest democracy, these tactics – whereby the press is stifled and bullied both by the government and through the court – show that it is one only in name. The BJP government’s track record of handling communal tensions is historically poor, and many accuse its leaders of stoking violence. The reaction of the government to this documentary, sadly, inspires little confidence that things will improve. Why the UK probe was not made public and why the international community is largely silent when it comes to the Indian government’s human rights violations are questions the world must ask, especially of the Western powers.

This article first appeared in Dawn.

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