Full Text: IT Raids on BBC an Attempt to Boost Modi's Image Among His Supporters, Says N. Ram

Former editor-in-chief of 'The Hindu' tells Karan Thapar in an interview that BBC's credibility is "far greater" than that of the Narendra Modi government.

On February 15, Karan Thapar interviewed N. Ram, former editor-in-chief of The Hindu, soon after Income Tax authorities descended on BBC offices in Delhi and Mumbai to carry out ‘surveys’ in connection with alleged financial irregularities. Barring Modi supporters, many in India and abroad saw the IT raids against BBC as an “act of revenge” for releasing a two-part documentary series, ‘India: The Modi Question’, which has been critical of Modi’s role as chief minister during the Gujarat 2002 riots.

In this 31-minute interview, the veteran journalist suggests that BBC raids were more about sending a message by the government to Modi’s supporters, who view him as a strongman who can take on anyone or any organisation. He asserts that BBC’s credibility is “far more greater” than the Modi government internationally.

Ram says India’s image as a democracy has taken a serious beating with the BBC raids. He also questions the silence on the part of the UK government, particularly of its Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The interview covers a broad sweep of issues in connection with BBC raids, freedom of the press in India, Modi government, among others. Below is the full transcript of the interview. It has been slightly edited for clarity and style.


Hello and welcome to a special interview for The Wire. Are yesterday’s tax ‘surveys’ on BBC offices in Delhi and Bombay, which reportedly continued through the night and will also continue during the day, today, justified? Or, are they an act of harassment or intimidation? Let’s be blunt and honest, an act of revenge by the Modi government? Which of the two? That’s the key issue I shall discuss today with one of India’s foremost journalists, the former editor-in-chief and former publisher of The Hindu, N. Ram.

Mr. Ram, let me start with a general question, I’ll come to details and specifics thereafter. As the former editor-in-chief and publisher of The Hindu, how do you view the income tax ‘survey’ conducted on BBC offices in Bombay and Delhi yesterday, which reportedly continued through the night and are believed to be continuing during the course of the day, today as well, during which time the phones and laptops of BBC employees were reportedly confiscated? How do you view these tax surveys? 

Karan, this is completely unacceptable. This is censorship, creeping censorship which selectively targets critical media organisations and individuals, and this is really part of a pattern. The Editors Guild of India has come out with a very good statement putting it in context showing that it is part of a pattern – and for example, pointing out that in June 2021, there were surveys, more in the nature of raids, against Dainik Bhaskar and Bharat Samachar.

Dainik Bhaskar was critical about the handling of the deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic. Not normally critical of the government, but in this case, very very critical and they paid for it. Then you had the surveys in September 2021 at the offices of Newsclick and News Laundry. The Enforcement Directorate later raided in February 2021 the offices of Newsclick. And of course, we know what happened to The Wire, although it is a different issue you know.

Also read: BBC Raids: Revenge Is What the Voters of the BJP Keep Looking For

I’ve been wondering what is the purpose. It looks like, on the surface, a comedy of follies, but what could be the objective? I think there’s a good insight in Mukul Keshavan’s article in The Guardian which talks about, you know Prime Minister Modi’s struggle to be both an anti-Muslim strongman and global leader, that he has to play one message to his domestic constituency and internationally it goes against that. This must be – you know, we are speculating here a bit – aimed at this domestic constituency because it has got a terrible press abroad, but ironically even in India.

Also read: With BBC Tax Raid, the Modi Cult Makes India the ‘Smother of Democracy’

Absolutely! Now a statement issued by the Income Tax department says that the survey was conducted – I’m now quoting from the statement – “in view of the BBC’s deliberate non-compliance with the transfer pricing rules and its vast diversion of profit”. Journalists yesterday also indicated on television that the survey was confined to the BBC’s financial offices and its news department was not affected. To what extent do these two bits of information make any difference to your view of what happened and is happening? 

Yeah, they would say that. Wouldn’t they? They’re trying to justify this. Usually, if you make an allegation that something was wrong with the finances, the financial integrity of an organisation is a kind of defence. And nothing is ever proved in these cases. It is the process, as the lawyers say, the process is the punishment. It is harassment and nothing comes at the end of it. So, you know, these allegations will be rebutted. They are very vague and sweeping allegations.

We know that the BBC is not a for-profit organisation. It may have some commercial operation outside the UK. As everyone knows, it is funded by the license-free system in the UK and the documentary was on BBC Two and accessible only to a domestic audience and so on. So, you say something else, so that for the time being people are a little puzzled, and it looks like a defence. But, it is a very poor defense, because it is part of a pattern. And which have these organisations targeted? We’ve not heard of any enforcement action against the Adani group. 

Can I interrupt at that point? The audience will have heard you say of the claim made by the IT Department that these are sweeping allegations, it is a poor defence. Would I be right in concluding that you are, therefore, skeptical of the claim made by the IT Department, that the BBC is guilty of deliberate non-compliance with the transfer pricing rules, and you’re also skeptical of the second claim that it is guilty of a vast diversion of profits? You’re skeptical of both of that?

Yes, I would. We’ve not seen any evidence of it. It is suddenly pulled out after the BBC, the two parts were, you know, put out in the UK. So, the timing is, of course, suspicious, more than suspicious the timing is telling, but you know these claims have been made and we’ve seen that in the past nothing has ever been proven, including Enforcement Directorate actions against leading politicians or the opposition. Nothing is ever proven you just make it for the time being to put up a caricature of a defence, I would say in this case. And the other thing, Karan, is let these fellows come out with their names to go on record. The media shouldn’t accept, you know, somebody’s making strong comments or making allegations without being named, anonymous. 

I should point out that what I quoted you was an official statement released by the Income Tax department. There are other sources who’ve said other things going into further detail. Those sources remain unnamed and I’m not quoting them. What I quoted was the official statement put out by the IT department, but let’s come to that very important point you made a moment ago about the timing. The survey happened exactly – precisely three weeks to the date – after the second part of the BBC documentary “India: The Modi Question”. Exactly three weeks later this survey happened. Do you suspect that there’s a connection between the two-part documentary, the government’s clear anger, and this survey? Are the three connected?

Yes, clearly connected. If you pulled 100 Indians or people abroad who have seen this, who are familiar with the circumstances, I would bet that 99 of them would see the connection, because it stares you in the face, and again, I emphasise, this is part of a pattern. You criticise the government beyond a point… and the other point, Karan, is a friend of mine you know, we’re discussing it and he said if a credible organisation makes these allegations that’s all the more damaging. That’s really what inflames them what, you know, pushes them into over-the-top action. And I can’t think of a more credible media organisation in the world than the BBC.

Again citing Mukul Keshavan, he says they are highly credible because they can reach out into their archives and find evidence to back the narrative they are developing in a story and that’s one of the factors that gives them credibility. But their independence, the financial model for the BBC, many of us don’t like what’s being put out if you hold a certain view on a particular war, for example you know, but the BBC has that credibility. And that’s what I think. 

I’m going to, for the sake of the audience, underline and repeat what you said when you referred to the BBC as the most credible organisation in the world, your words were “I cannot think of a more credible organisation in the world than the BBC”. In other words, you’re saying that the Modi government has taken on the most credible media organisation in the world. Tell me how does the Modi government’s credibility in the eyes of the West, compare to the BBC’s credibility in the eyes of the West? 

That’s a hard question. I think Western powers want to woo the Modi government as a counterweight to China, but having said that I would say that the BBC’s credibility – since you put me a direct question – is clearly greater internationally speaking than the BJP government’s or the Modi government’s credibility. Particularly, these facts have come to the fore whether you’re talking about what happened in Gujarat in 2002, and what’s happening today that connection what I referred to as a genetic connection between the two, or the latest action Modi government’s credibility must have taken a huge hit, has taken a huge hit.

Look at the editorial in the New York Times a few days ago or the articles in The Guardian and many places, as against that. So certain Western governments are leaning heavily towards the Modi government but that’s not a reflection of credibility. It’s a question of geopolitics. 


And so on. 

Then, let me… 

The BBC’s credibility is greater. 

I’ll just repeat that. The BBC’s credibility is clearly greater than the Modi government’s credibility internationally. Those were, I believe your precise words, I wrote them down as you were speaking. Let me then against that background ask you, and I’ll ask you bluntly, are these tax surveys which for the rest of the world by the way are equivalent to raids, we in India insist our surveys are not raids but the world is reporting them as raids, are these tax surveys or raids in your eyes some form of revenge, or is it an attempt to intimidate the BBC, or is it arguably possibly both? Both revenge and intimidation.  

Let’s look at whether it has intimidated the BBC. I don’t think the BBC will be intimidated by these raids or the so-called surveys, which are really more in the texture of raids. They are not. Is it revenge? It could be a little bit, but again I think it must be aimed at a domestic audience that I think that framework that you’re trying to be both anti-Muslim strongman and a global leader, particularly at this at the time of your presidency of the G20.

Hindu Sena activists demonstrate outside the BBC’s office in New Delhi. Photo: Twitter video screengrab.

I think there’s a profound contradiction here. It’s a hard question because it could be revenge, part of it could be revenge, I don’t think it’s intimidated the BBC at all. In this case because what’s the evidence they’re going to find let’s see, but it is clearly aimed at the domestic audience, which has responded. you know they responded including a spokesman person of the BJP. 

I’ll come to that spokesperson in a moment’s time. But let me, for a moment, put a sort of Devil’s advocate question to you. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the government has got genuine tax-related questions and issues with the BBC. My question is this: Is it even then right for the government of democracy, a country that proudly claims it’s the biggest democracy in the world to treat, what is perhaps the world’s most highly respected media organisation in this way, and particularly in the wake of the controversy after the BBC documentary? Are they no better ways of pursuing your tax concerns rather than these public, intimidating, and clearly designed to humiliate surveys or raids? 

Yes, I think that is indefensible. If there are these concerns there must be a record to go back into your archives and produce/have you raised this with the BBC before? What is the BBC’s response? Put it all in the public realm and then we can judge this, at that point. This is sudden. Suddenly you raised an issue so far as I’m concerned. I have not seen anything to suggest but these concerns were pursued with the BBC earlier. There must be a record, there must be a paper trail on this. So you suddenly pull it out of your hat and say these make these accusations. So where were these concerns before the day before the raid and so on? Have you raised them with them in a civilised way of doing it or a sensible business-like way of doing it would be to raise these concerns. If you had them, assuming again, these concerns are genuine or real or existed before you actually decided on this raid. 

So just to clarify, you’re saying if I’ve heard you correctly, that treating an organisation of the credibility and stature of the BBC in this way is indefensible. there are better ways of pursuing concerns, if you have legitimate concerns there’s a big if there but this is not the right way of pursuing legitimate concerns.

Yes, exactly that’s exactly what I meant. You put it better than I did. 

Let me then come to some of the claims made yesterday at a formal press conference by Gaurav Bhatia, an official BJP spokesperson, and I assume that these claims were made by him to justify the treatment of the BBC. He made three claims on television.

First, he said the BBC has called Holi a “filthy festival”. Then, he said that the BBC had once described a Kashmiri terrorist chief, he didn’t name him but everyone assumes he’s talking about Burhan Wani, as “charismatic” and “youthful”. Thirdly, Bhatia said that the BBC had once claimed that in 1946 Mahatma Gandhi failed to liberate India. Now, it’s quite clear that in 1946 Mahatma Gandhi did not liberate India which happened a whole year later in ‘47. So if the BBC made the claim, it’s not inaccurate, it’s actually correct. But apart from Mr. Bhatia’s conclusion is that this all three claims cannot be tolerated. What do you make of the charges Mr. Bhatia leveled?

I think they are impenetrable charges we have not seen any of this and the BBC doesn’t make statements like that. If some individuals admit a statement is part of a variety of voices, I don’t know about that, but we’ve not seen anything on it and suddenly he makes these allegations. Very often they turn out to be disinformation. So, I think that this reinforces the point. They’re trying to play to a domestic audience and trying to whip up emotions in this. I don’t think the BBC is going to say editorially that Holi is a filthy festival or the other things what does he mean by that; is the BBC one entity? The whole thing, it’s got one voice?

Also read: Tax ‘Survey’ on BBC: The Modi Government Is Behaving Exactly Like Indira Gandhi During the Emergency

The BBC is a news organisation which reports many things sometimes interpret or I don’t there’s not too much editorialising but there could be some opinions expressed in some fashion. Yeah, we don’t know anything about it. But for the official, this spokesperson of a major political party, the leading political party, in the country today, to make that, you know, I mean well, I wouldn’t dignify it, I wouldn’t take it too seriously.  


It only shows they are having a hard time defending the action.

Now, in fact, Mr. Bhatia went one step further he called the BBC, and I’m quoting him, “the most corrupt cooperation in the world”, and then he translated the initials BBC as “Bhrasht Bakwaas Cooperation”, meaning corrupt rubbish cooperation. Is it fitting for the spokesman of the ruling party of India to refer to the BBC in this fashion? 

A crude and vulgar comment is what I’d say about this. I mean such language used must shock people. I mean who would believe that the BBC is the most corrupt organisation. It’s a not-for-profit organisation and funded by a license-free system. It is independent and is regulated by OfCom. You may have your differences with it but to characterise in this way is shameful, disgraceful, and you know vulgar that’s what. You know I’m actually understating my condemnation of such uncivilised words. 

Now separately, Mahesh Jaitmalani – who in his own capacity is the leading lawyer but used to be a member of the BJP’s National Executive and now is a nominated Rajya Sabha MP and was sent to the upper house by the Modi government – claimed on India Today that the BBC has clandestine links with the Chinese company Huawei. He also said that the BBC pension fund has invested in the stocks of Chinese companies owned either by the government of China or in co-partnership with Chinese entrepreneurs and the government. Now, first of all, it’s not wrong for the BBC pension fund to be invested in such companies. Loads of other pension funds would be as well, and secondly, this doesn’t mean that the BBC is getting Chinese money or there’s a Chinese hand behind the BBC which is what Mr. Jaitmalani went on to claim. How do you respond to the allegation made by Mahesh Jaitmalani?  

Again, I found it an impenetrable argument. I listened to it, I was part of a programme where this was featured. The first thing is India has good diplomatic relations with China, and they had some differences over the boundary question but it has good relations. Secondly China is one of India’s, top one or two trading partners. In fact, in 2021, Karan, a difficult year for India-China relations, two-way trade was 125 billion dollars. So you know India has very deep trade relations with China and also there are other business relations that’s the first point.

Secondly, I couldn’t understand Mr. Jaitmalani because you’re talking about BBC, you know he was making an allegation unconnected with the action against the documentary because that was BBC Two and we know that it’s financed by the license-free system. There was no commercial operation involved other than the license-free system for, you know, the documentary aired to a domestic audience. So, I don’t know what he was talking about. It appeared to be an attempt to divert attention by hurling this charge which has no evidence and has been produced, and as you say. If those things that happened those transactions had happened what’s wrong with it? How does it colour the BBC’s depiction of India or 2002 or what’s happening today on Modi versus the Muslim question? 

Absolutely! Now as you pointed out in this interview, what happened yesterday to the BBC, what continued last night, and what is allegedly reportedly continuing through the course of today as well, has made banner hit lines in every major democracy. And my question is simply how much damage will that do to India’s image and standing? 

I think it has already done a lot of damage on top of other things that have come, but since you’ve taken on this highly credible media organisation I think this has done more damage than any previous attack on press freedom or media freedom or free speech and any previous episode of censorship, in fact, more than blocking access to episode one in the first instance. So, I think this has done enormous damage and I’m astonished at this time. Surely, this wouldn’t have taken place these income tax raids so-called survey without approval from the top people in the government.

Screenshot of Income Tax official arguing with a BBC reporter inside the BBC’s Delhi office on February 14. Photo: Twitter

If it did they should come out and distance themselves from this action by the income tax authorities, but nobody believes that because it clearly came from the top, and it’s done enormous damage precisely because the BBC is a highly credible organisation with whom you need not always agree. Very often I don’t on its worldview and so on. So there are many instances that I don’t agree with the way they project it, but that’s no reason for not watching it. That’s the channel you’d go to first.

Absolutely! I’ve got two more questions to put to you before I end the interview. The government and the Prime Minister, Mr. Modi in particular, repeatedly boasts that India is the world’s largest democracy. Of late the Prime Minister has started to claim that India is, in fact, the mother of all democracies. Many people would dispute and question that very seriously, but that is the claim Mr Modi now makes that India is the mother of all democracies after the treatment of the BBC. How will that claim be viewed internationally?

I think it’ll be viewed as coming from somebody whose government is authoritarian. He doesn’t tolerate dissent, criticism, opposition, which tries to impose a certain what they call a Hindu nationalist agenda on everyone domestic, as well as those who comment on India. So, I think it’ll be viewed with, not only with skepticism but it’ll be viewed with you know the lack of, it lacks credibility it completely lacks, something that completely lacks credibility when you make that. We will be seen in the company of Turkey, Turkey’s regime or Hungary’s regime and so on. You may have elections but this is what happens to people who are in the opposition or critics. 

Okay, this year India is the chair of the G20, again this is something that the Prime Minister repeatedly reminds us about and is terribly proud of, and on the 1st of March all the G20 foreign ministers will be meeting in Delhi that’s less than 15 days away. Was this the right time for this punitive action against the BBC?  Is it going to work in our interest or is it going to embarrass us even more?

Yeah, I think clearly this is not the right time, this is in contradiction with what they want to project. But I’m gonna say one thing you know if you are the UK government if you are Prime Minister Rishi Sunak isn’t it very strange that we’ve not heard anything from you so far that you’ve not protested against this, you’ve not raised this issue? I think it’ll be raised by the opposition, by Labour politicians and various others by the media, but isn’t it disgraceful that the UK government, the Tory government headed by Rishi Sunak, has so far at least not been reported having raised this issue? What are you doing making these allegations? What are these about? Because their defence maybe ‘we’ll wait and see’, but I would have expected a self-respecting government, a government which looks after the interests of its democratic institutions to raise their concern publicly, not secretly not in a sealed cover, but publicly, and Rishi Sunak I think has been found very short on this issue, but we know that the Conservatives don’t like the BBC. Many of them don’t like the BBC.  

In this context, I should point out to the audience that newspapers are reporting several of them, not just one, that the British High Commission has true sources not in a statement but through sources let it be known that they are monitoring, whatever that might mean the way the BBC is being surveyed, but even the high commission has not gone on report publicly. No spokesman has come out publicly and they are sitting here in Delhi.

Yeah. If it happened something like that happened to an Indian institution in the UK would not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or perhaps the Prime Minister’s Office come out with a statement of concern? I think they would. So the UK government, I think this is a pathetic response or a non-response to something that is very serious that’s happened with all these allegations suddenly being held against a highly respected national institution, which is really an international institution today.

I’ll just repeat that last word, that last phrase of yours. “This is a pathetic response from the United Kingdom about what is happening to one of the most respected British institutions there is.” In other words, you feel that Rishi Sunak, very arguably the British High Commission in Delhi, have let down the BBC, and by letting down the BBC they’ve also let down good journalism.

Yes, thank you for that elaboration for clarification I think that’s very true. that’s exactly how it should be formulated and thank you very much for that.

Thank you, Ram, for this interview, and thank you for so openly saying and I’ll just repeat it for the audience,” I cannot think of a more credible organisation in the world of media than the BBC”. And you also said and I’ll repeat it for the audience,” the BBC’s credibility is clearly greater than the Modi government’s credibility internationally”.

That is something that we should all remember, because the damage that has been done is to our country, to our country’s reputation, to our country standing as a democracy, and that means the damage has been done to something that matters to all of us as Indian people. that is the sad conclusion and that damage has been done, it seems by our government’s ham-handed handling of this situation. I thank you for your open, blunt, clear-cut interview. take care and may I add, please stay safe.

Thank you, Karan.