London: The second (and final) episode of the BBC documentary series India: The Modi Question was aired in the UK on BBC Two last night. It says that it inspects “the troubled relationship” between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India’s Muslim minority, after Modi was re-elected in 2019 with an increased majority over his government’s mandate in 2014.
The report, which aired a few hours ago in the UK, looks at the sudden reading down of Article 370 and the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (considered discriminatory and unconstitutional amongst a sizeable section and still to be heard by the Supreme Court) as well as the North-East Delhi communal violence in 2020. The final episode in this BBC series looks at independent reports, testimonies and comments from affected parties, academics, members of the press and civil society, and cites the government and police’s defence on each issue. It also includes detailed comments by three persons representing the BJP’s point of view, most prominently journalist and former BJP MP Swapan Dasgupta.
The documentary claims that despite Modi promising a “new age of prosperity” and a “New India”, the country, under his rule, has been “marred by religious turmoil”. Though all the charges against him regarding the Gujarat riots were cleared by the highest court of India, it is inevitable that the “concerns will not go away”, the new episode claims.
Three years after coming to power in 2014, there were widespread cases of lynchings against Muslims. Under the name of the Pink Revolution, transporting beef had become “increasingly controversial” following which beef was made illegal in many Indian states, as cows are considered sacred by Hindus. The documentary, focusing on the issue of cow vigilantism, narrates the story of Alimuddin Ansari, who was killed by cow vigilantes in 2017, the same day when Modi spoke out after his long silence. Soon after that, there was a ‘surprising development’, avers the film.
The documentary speaks of how BJP spokesperson Nityanand Mahato was found guilty of Alimuddin’s murder, and sentenced to life in prison. But one of Modi’s ministers helped him and the other convicted men with their legal fees. And welcomed them with a garland of flowers.
“They are the rulers of the whole country and when rulers of the country support these people, we poor people can do nothing,” pleads Ansari’s wife in the film. Over four years later, the men are still free, concludes the film.
According to Human Rights Watch, cited in the film, over three and a half years between May 2015 and December 2018, cow vigilantes “killed 44 people and injured around 280 in cow-related violence, out of which most victims were Muslim.”
When Swapan Dasgupta was asked about the frequency of lynchings rising alarmingly as a generalised practice in India, he termed this an “unwarranted assumption.” Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism was “backed by a record number of Indian voters”, Dasgupta asserts in the prime minister’s defence.
“The fundamental aim is to Hinduise the way that India functions and irrevocably change the political, social and cultural nature of India. Essentially, the gloves are off,” Chris Ogden, an expert on Indian politics and associate professor at the University of St Andrews, can be heard saying in the film.
On the controversial and drastic reading down of Article 370 in August, 2019 and the unprecedented conversion of a state into a union territory and its bifurcation by New Delhi, the film says that it was “nine weeks after Modi PM’s swearing in” that “troops were sent in to Kashmir”. The result was a “communications blackout” as “direct control” of the region was seized by New Delhi.
However, as per the film, the government claims that its policies “are bringing peace and development” to the region.
With these developments, a new policy of “Indianisation” is taking place, according to scholar, author and longtime India-watcher Christophe Jaffrelot. The film claims that “nearly 4,000 people were detained in the first month alone” (after control over the union territory of Jammu & Kashmir was established) following the reading down of Article 370.
CAA and North-East Delhi violence
On the large-scale protests that broke out against the CAA, meant to link religion with India’s citizenship, which rang alarm bells amongst significant sections, and then the communal violence in Delhi in February 2020 which claimed at least 53 lives, the film says, “Hardline Hindu clerics made threats against the Muslim protestors.”
Faizan, a 23-year-old Muslim man, was “beaten to death by the police”, claims the documentary, citing a viral video. Faizan’s mother can be heard saying in the film, “I want justice for my son. He was innocent and was killed for no reason.”
The film states that “two thirds of the dead [in the 2020 Delhi violence] were reportedly Muslims”.
The film cites an investigation by Amnesty International which concluded that “the police committed serious human rights violations, including torture and ill treatment, excessive and arbitrary use of force on protestors, and active participation in the violence.”
Aakar Patel, chair, Amnesty International India is heard saying that “the Amnesty report on the violence in Delhi showed that the police did not act as it should have acted. Where it did act, it often named the wrong people. Often the victims were named as the perpetrators of the violence. And we called for a proper investigation into these acts which has not happened so far.”
The Delhi police is quoted in the film as maintaining that the Amnesty report was “lopsided and biassed against the police” and “maliciously made a case of human rights violations”.
During the course of the rioting, police arrested over 2,000 people, both Hindus and Muslims.
“Muslims have got the message that they should not expect the state to protect them,” journalist Alisan Jafri is heard saying in the film.
Arundhati Roy says, “We are talking to each other saying, ‘Do you think it will happen?’ ‘Do you think it is really going to be like Rwanda?’ Why do I speak to you in this film? Only so that there is a record somewhere that all of us did not agree with this. But it is not a call for help, because no help will come.”
Today in India, the BBC film concludes, “reporters face violence, intimidation and arrest for doing their jobs. Campaigners say press freedom has declined since Narendra Modi came to power, and is now in crisis. Human rights campaigners say they are also under attack.”
Amnesty in India says it was forced to suspend operations by the government. The government said the group had broken the law by “circumventing rules around foreign donations.”
Thousands of NGOs have shut in India after 2015, claims the film. In concluding moments of the film, Dasgupta can be heard saying, “Our democracy may not be perfect, but it keeps on improving.”
When Modi came to power in 2014, India was considered to be a free country by the US think-tank Freedom House. Now it is only “partly free”, the film says.
Why has there not been more international outcry? According to Jaffrelot, “[The] West is looking at India as the best way to balance China. And that is the reason why they will not criticise, they will not condemn most of the decisions which have been made. Human Rights are not very high on the list anymore because there is a bigger challenge (China).”
The film’s description says that Modi and his government reject any suggestions that their policies reflect any prejudice towards Muslims, “but these policies have been repeatedly criticised by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International. That organisation has now closed its offices in Delhi following the freezing of its bank accounts in connection with an investigation into financial irregularities, according to the Indian government, a charge rejected by Amnesty.”
Video recordings of the first episode of this BBC series were ordered to be taken off online portals and social media platforms in India invoking ‘emergency’ powers by the Union government in an act criticised as censorship, done “to protect Narendra Modi’s image”, according to media organisations, civil society and Opposition parties. The censoring was felt necessary despite Modi being shown putting forth his point of view and denying allegations in interviews to the BBC in the documentary.
The first episode of this documentary series, aired in the UK last week, brought out chilling details from a so-far unseen report of the UK government on the Gujarat violence of 2002 when Modi was the chief minister of the state. The UK government report was shown to hold Modi “directly responsible” for the violence.
Kalrav Joshi is a multimedia journalist based in London. He writes on politics, culture, technology and climate.