New Delhi: In escalating official criticism of the BBC’s recent coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the 2002 Gujarat riots, external affairs minister. S. Jaishankar has accused the British public broadcaster of playing politics and asked why it had not made a documentary on the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres.
Unlike the 2002 violence, which happened when the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power, the 1984 killings had taken place during Congress rule. In raising this accusation, the minister was presumably making the case that the BBC was biased in favour of the Congress.
However, a quick search of video and text records on the internet makes it clear that the BBC not only covered the 1984 violence as it unfolded and immediately after but kept returning to the subject repeatedly. In 2010, the channel actually broadcast a documentary-length programme, ‘1984: A Sikh Story‘, which focused on the storming of the Golden Temple in June 1984 and the genocidal violence against ordinary Sikh families in Delhi and elsewhere in November 1984.
Based on the personal journey of an Indian-origin journalist, Sonia Deol, it investigated the storming of the Amritsar shrine and the killing of over 2000 Sikhs in Delhi following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
Coincidentally, the BBC’s documentary on 1984 came some 26 years after the Delhi massacres – roughly the same gap between the 2002 violence and its Modi documentary – though the MEA at the time does not seem to have accused the channel of raking up the past.
Jaishankar’s charge is especially ironic, media watchers say, because a large reason for the BBC’s avid following in India from the mid-1980s onwards was precisely its reporting on Indira Gandhi’s assassination and its bloody aftermath.
In 2013, the BBC’s reliability drew praise from Modi himself, who contrasted the channel’s popularity with that of Indian public broadcasters, widely seen as official mouthpieces.
Last month, the BBC released a two-part documentary on the Gujarat riots titled India: The Modi Question, which looked at the role of Modi as chief minister during the 2002 riots as the backstory to accusations that his government today is biased against Muslim Indians. The BBC drew on footage and interviews from 2002, including of Modi himself, as well as a leaked UK foreign office diplomatic report on the violence that year which held Modi directly responsible.
The documentary was ‘banned’ on Indian social media, with the government asking YouTube and Twitter to take down any links or uploads of the video. A Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson subsequently termed the public broadcaster the “most corrupt organisation in the world”.
This month, the BBC’s offices in India were ‘surveyed’ by Income Tax Department authorities for three days in what was widely seen as retaliatory action. The government claimed that the British media organisation had understated its profits.
In an interview with news agency ANI on Tuesday, Jaishankar claimed that the timing of the documentary on the Gujarat riots was “not accidental” and was related to politics.
“If you say I am a humanist and must get justice for people who have been done wrong, this is politics at play by people who don’t have courage to come into political field,” he said.
The former career diplomat-turned-politician noted that the BBC documentary was not about freedom of speech but politics. “There is a phrase called ‘war by other means’. This is politics by other means”.
He stated that BBC had not focused on the 1984 anti-Sikh violence which followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination. “You want to make a documentary, many things happened in Delhi in 1984. Why didn’t we see a documentary on that?”.
Jaishankar also insinuated that BBC had not covered the Gujarat riots critically in 2002, while they were unfolding but was doing so only now as a means of influencing the forthcoming elections in India. This was a strange charge as the 2023 documentary contained a lot of footage that the BBC shot and broadcast in 2002 itself. “You do a hatchet job and say this is just a quest for truth which we decided to put out 20 years later. Do you think timing is accidental? I don’t know if election season has started in India, but for sure, it has started in London and New York,” Jaishankar said.
BBC and 1984
Jaishankar’s assertion about the BBC – and by extension the rest of the western media – ignoring what happened in Delhi in 1984 runs counter to the actual record. The BBC’s Delhi bureau was headed by its most well-known and respected journalist, Mark Tully, who had covered the anti-Sikh violence, as did newspapers in the US and UK – much to the consternation of the minister’s counterparts back in the day. Britain’s LWT channel also reported on the 1984 killings, recalls Karan Thapar, who worked for the channel at the time.
The BBC has been expelled twice since Indian Independence, both times during Indira Gandhi’s premiership. In 1970, it was out of the country for two years after outrage at the broadcast of two Louis Malle documentary films on India. The BBC, including Tully, was again expelled in 1975 during the Emergency period.
When Indira Gandhi was assassinated, the first announcement was not made on India’s state broadcaster, but on the BBC. Rajiv Gandhi learnt about his mother’s death at the hand of her personal bodyguard, after he tuned into the BBC World Service in Calcutta.
Based on their reporting, Tully and his BBC colleague Satish Jacob wrote one of the seminal books in 1985 on the events leading up to Operation Blue Star and its aftermath, including the assassination and the anti-Sikh riots.
On the 30th anniversary of Operation Blue Star in 2014, Tully did a two-part documentary, Gunfire over the Golden Temple, for BBC World Service on the military initiative and its devastating aftermath.
In an accompanying article in the UK’s Telegraph, he wrote, “Anti-Sikh riots broke out immediately in Delhi and spread to other parts of the country. More than 2000 people were killed in Delhi alone, almost all of them Sikhs. But no leader of the ruling Congress party who has been accused by eyewitnesses of leading gangs of rioters has ever been convicted”.
He also observed that the major criticism was from members of the Sikh diaspora in the United Kingdom, describing his coverage of Operation Bluestar as “anti-Bhindranwale”.
On October 31, 2014, BBC Radio 4 released another documentary, Assassination: When Delhi Burned based on the visit by two Indian-origin UK citizens to the location of anti-Sikh riots, which they had survived. A professor at Warwick Medical School, Swaran Singh, travelled to Tilak Vihar after 30 years with the BBC documentary team and narrated the role of Congress politicians in the riots.
“On the surface the survivors have rebuilt their lives but dig a little deeper and you discover lives haunted by the events of 1984. Many widows have died prematurely and many young men have drifted into alcohol, drugs, petty crime and, in some cases, have committed suicide. The shiny new India is tarnished by its unwillingness to do justice for these people,” Singh said in an article on Warwick’s website.
While these documentaries marked special anniversaries, the tragic memories of 1984 have been kept alive with in-depth articles on BBC platforms over the years.
An oral history feature that records eyewitness accounts of critical global events lists the statements of Indians across the country on the riots and deaths which targeted the Sikh community after Gandhi’s assassination. “My father and my uncle had to cut their hair so that nobody could identify them as Sikh. My brother and I were forced to dress up like girls and had to tie up our hairs as girls do, just to hide our identity as Sikh children,” recounted Inderbir Singh Duggal on the BBC website.
MEA can’t make up its own mind on 1984
While Jaishankar has now railed against BBC for not making a documentary on 1984, it can be noted that the Ministry of External Affairs had in 2017 objected to a resolution in the legislative assembly of Canada’s Ontario province that described the 1984 massacre of Sikhs as a “genocide”. Jaishankar was the foreign secretary in 2017.
The MEA spokesperson had termed the resolution “misguided” and based “on a limited understanding of India, its constitution, society, ethos, rule of law and the judicial process”. This despite defence minister Rajnath Singh referring to the killings as a genocide.
On the Gujarat 2002 riots, the BBC has steadily covered developments over the years, contrary to the impression given by Jaishankar that the documentary was a one-off coverage “put out 20 years later”. For example, on the 10th anniversary of the 2002 riots, a BBC journalist wrote about her recollection of the reporting on the violence.
In 2018, BBC Hindi also returned to the site of another devastating incident of violence in modern India, the Nellie massacre, which took place in Congress-ruled Assam in 1983.