That the British government found Narendra Modi culpable in the 2002 Gujarat riots is the most significant takeaway from the first episode of the two-part BBC television investigative documentary, India: The Modi Question, which was broadcast in Britain on January 17.
Soon after the riots, the British foreign office had undertaken an investigation. The BBC documentary claims that the probe’s conclusions—hitherto classified—are being disclosed for the first time.
According to the show, the inquiry carried out by a United Kingdom diplomat was headlined: “Subject: Gujarat Pogrom”. Its summary read: “Extent of violence much greater than reported. At least 2,000 killed. Widespread systematic rape of Muslim women. 138,000 internal refugees. The targeted destruction of all Muslim businesses in Hindu and mixed Hindu-Muslim areas.”
It went on to state: “Violence planned, possibly months in advance, and politically motivated. Aim was to purge Muslims from Hindu areas. Led by VHP (Hindu extremist organisation), under the protection of the state government. Reconciliation impossible while Modi remains Chief Minister.”
The report then entered into detail: “Their (the Hindu mobs’) systematic campaign of violence has all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.” Furthermore: “The VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) could not have inflicted so much damage without the climate of impunity created by the state government.”
Finally, and most devastatingly, the British Foreign Office report stated: “Narendra Modi is directly responsible.”
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Almost contemporaneously the European Union, too, had initiated a probe. According to the BBC, “it reportedly found that ministers (of the Gujarat government) took active part in the violence and that senior police officers were instructed not to intervene in the rioting”.
According to the report: “Reliable contacts have told us that Modi met senior police officers on the 27th of February (2002) and ordered them not to intervene in the rioting.”
The BBC, however, also admits in the show that “police contacts deny this meeting happened”. It explains that by accepting that such instructions were issued, the police would in effect concede that they implemented the orders and consequently implicate themselves.
The documentary also highlights a series of denials by Modi’s supporters. Even though R.B. Sreekumar, head of police intelligence in Gujarat, and Sanjiv Bhatt, another police officer, had maintained that Modi indeed imposed the diktat, witnesses for the Chief Minister countered that neither Sreekumar nor Bhatt was present at the concerned meeting. In 2022, both were accused of fabrication. Bhatt is in any case serving a life sentence on another matter.
The documentary mentions how during the riots Congress party MP Ehsan Jafri’s house was surrounded by Hindu fanatics baying for his blood. A first-hand account speaks of how he phoned Modi to plead for police assistance. The Chief Minister denied receiving the call. Jafri was hacked to death.
The documentary has also recorded that Haren Pandya, a minister in the Gujarat government, testified to a Jesuit priest that Modi did issue the aforementioned orders. But his attendance at the meeting was also contradicted. The programme has BJP MP Subramanian Swamy giving his opinion on Pandya’s death to the BBC, calling it “tragic and suspicious”.
Regarding the documentary, a former Indian foreign secretary remarked: “I do not recall any other friendly head of government getting such criticism on the BBC.” It, therefore, raises the obvious question: why did the BBC decide to air this explosive film on the Gujarat riots now? The British government is presently engaged in delicate negotiations with its Indian counterpart to arrive at an ambitious trade treaty.
The answer lies in the fact that while the BBC is a public broadcaster operating under a Royal Charter and is funded by licence fees from every TV household in Britain, it is zealously protective of its editorial independence. It is not required to run the impending broadcast of the film past the British foreign office—which would most certainly have objected to the idea.
Jack Straw, who was Foreign Secretary under Prime Minister Tony Blair when the riots occurred, was the one who set up the investigation. Previously as Home Secretary, he instituted the Freedom of Information Act in 2000. In 2015, he was a member of a panel established to review the Act. Straw’s proximity to the UK’s Information Commission might have played a part in declassifying the foreign office’s clandestine investigative report.
The BBC, of course, enjoys disproportionately greater clout with British administrative and quasi-state authorities compared to other media organisations. A request from any other media outlet would likely have been thwarted by the Foreign Office on the grounds that disclosure at the current juncture—when Modi is in power in India—would cause awkward ripples in bilateral relations.
Straw, who is a commentator in the documentary, says about the inquiry’s report: “It was very shocking. 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. That was a pretty egregious example of political involvement really to prevent the police from doing their job, which was to protect both communities, the Hindus and the Muslims.” He goes on to underline: “It is obviously a stain on his (Modi’s) reputation. There is no way out of that.”
While the film is mostly based on compelling archival footage and interviews, seen alongside the foreign office report, the portrayal of Modi is that of a chilling communalist. His attitude towards a BBC woman interviewer when he called elections in 2002 to capitalise on Gujarati Hindu sentiments following the riots, was, as the person described it on air, “quite menacing”. The interviewer had asked: “So the Muslims who would say they are still terrified, they are still frightened to go back to their homes, they still feel that the people who murdered their relatives have not been brought to justice. What would you say to them?”
Modi had replied aggressively in broken English: “I am not agree with your analysis. I am not agree with your information. This absolutely misguided information to you. From where you have pick up this kind of garbage I do not know.”
Interviewer: “And the independent reports that have already been published to what has happened…”
Modi interrupted: “They have no right to talk about the internal matter of any government. I am very, very clear in my mind. If they have done, they have done wrong.”
Interviewer: “… Do you think you should have done anything differently?
Modi: “Yes. One area where I was very, very weak. That was how to handle the media.”
Through practically all of the interaction, he glowered angrily at the woman, wagging his left index finger at her while speaking.
Modi visited Britain in 2003 at the invitation of Hindu fundamentalist groups, much against Whitehall’s wishes. The British Home Office had said then: “We are aware he is visiting the UK. He is not visiting at Her Majesty’s government invitation nor does the government plan to have any contact with him while he’s here.”
The late Ambassador Satyabrata Pal (who died in 2019 following a freak accident a few years earlier) was the Indian deputy high commissioner at the time. He wrote, “The external affairs minister (Yashwant Sinha) had gone to Prime Minister Vajpayee, who had concurred that the visit was undesirable and must be aborted.” But apparently because of pressure from the Sangh Parivar, it went ahead.
While Modi was in the UK, an application in a London court for a warrant of arrest against him failed narrowly. The British barrister who moved the court in the matter, Imran Khan, appears on the documentary to say: “Knowing what we now know and the information that we now have, if we had that at that time, I am pretty sure summons would have been issued for Modi’s arrest.”
The UK imposed a diplomatic boycott and a de facto travel ban against Modi around 2005. At about the same time, the US administration also revoked his visa.
Later, in November 2022, while explaining the grant of immunity to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in a lawsuit in the US, the latter’s State Department spokesman cited the suspension of the cancellation of Modi’s visa as a precedent—albeit temporary since he is head of government of a country Washington wants to do business with.
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In a caption, the documentary states: “More than 30 people in India declined to take part in this series because of fears about their safety.” It also records: “The Indian government declined to comment on the allegations made in this film.”
The film signs off with the comment: “History is being rewritten,” in reference to the present circumstances in India. The second part of the film—focussing on the period since Modi’s re-election in 2019—will be aired on January 24.
Expressing strong objection to the BBC documentary, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, Arindam Bagchi, said that it was “a propaganda piece, designed to push a particular discredited narrative”.
London-based Ashis Ray has been a foreign correspondent for 45 years, working mainly for BBC and CNN, where he was editor-at-large. He has also been an academic visitor at St Antony’s College, Oxford.