Govt Calls BBC Film ‘Propaganda Piece With Bias’, Channel Says Govt Had Declined to Respond

Kanwal Sibal, who was foreign secretary during the 2002 riots period, questioned the timing of the UK government report, cited in the documentary, and claimed it was outcome of ‘mischief’ by the UK Mission.

New Delhi: The Union government on January 19, Thursday slammed a BBC series on Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “propaganda piece with bias”, designed to push a particular discredited narrative, that shouldn’t be “dignified” with a response. In a statement, BBC said its film was ‘rigorously researched according to highest editorial standards’ and that the Indian government did not respond when it was offered the chance to.

The BBC’s two-part series called ‘India: The Modi Question’ has witnessed sharp responses from many. The documentary looks at “the tensions between Prime Minister Modi and the country’s Muslim minority”, as well as “investigating claims” concerning his role in the large-scale communal violence that erupted in Gujarat in the months of February and March, in 2002, that left “over a thousand dead.”

“Do note that this has not been screened in India. So, I am only going to comment in the context of what I have heard about it and what my colleagues have seen. Let me just make it very clear that we think this is a propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative. The bias, the lack of objectivity, and frankly a continuing colonial mindset, is blatantly visible,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi.

“If anything, this film or documentary is a reflection on the agency and individuals that are peddling this narrative again. It makes us wonder about the purpose of this exercise and the agenda behind it and frankly we do not wish to dignify such efforts,” he stressed.

Kanwal Sibal, who was foreign secretary during the 2002 Gujarat riots period, on Thursday asked why the UK government inquiry report which has been cited in the documentary has been released 20 years after the riots.

In the first part of the BBC documentary, a UK government report, earlier marked as “restricted”, that has never been published or revealed so far, has been shown in detail.

It was aired on BBC Two on January 17 evening. It cited the UK government report and held that “Narendra Modi is directly responsible” for the 2002 Gujarat riots.

This inquiry report had claimed that over 2,000 people, of whom a vast majority were Muslims, were killed in the riots, which were more in the nature of a “pogrom”. It also held that the events indicated a “systematic campaign of violence” which had “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.”

Reacting to a tweet from senior journalist Suhasini Haidar on the issue, Sibal tweeted: “I was FS during that period. Am aware of mischief by UK mission. Sent their diplomat to Gujarat & circulated highly slanted “report” to EU envoys in Delhi. Was informed by a EU envoy which prompted me to issue warning to missions in Delhi to not interfere in our internal affairs.”

Sibal didn’t elaborate on the issue further in his tweet. However, talking to The Wire, he spoke at length on the subject.

When asked why he felt it was “mischief by the UK mission”, and what made him believe that the report was “highly slanted”, and if he was privy to any information then which convinced him to say that, he said: “I know it. It was not a question of this and that. I know it. And I had sternly warned the missions. In fact, it must be somewhere in the papers of that period that I had issued a warning to them not to interfere in the internal affairs. I have this recollection, but it was many years ago, the EU delegation maybe told me they need to go or whatever it is. I warned them to desist from interfering in our internal affairs.”

Also read: Godhra, Where the Fall of India’s Democracy Began

‘EU ambassador was warned over a luncheon meeting’

Recalling further, he said: “Then I had a luncheon meeting with the EU ambassador. It was, of course, about India-EU relations but I warned him.”

The BBC documentary said that the inquiry was set up as the UK government was “alarmed” by what had happened in Gujarat.

It also quoted then UK foreign secretary Jack Straw as saying: “I was very worried about it. I took a great deal of personal interest because India is an important country with whom we [the UK] have relations. And so, we had to handle it very carefully. What we did was establish an inquiry and have a team go to Gujarat and find out for themselves what had happened. And they produced a very thorough report.”

On Straw being quoted in the documentary, Sibal said: “Jack Straw didn’t personally go there. He would depend on the reports of the mission. But you see the point is that I am assuming this is how diplomacy works. He would depend primarily on the report from the High Commission here apart from some other sources who might be feeding them like the British Foreign Office.”

“At the end of the day, it is the Mission that any foreign ministry would rely on in terms of accuracy and objectivity of the report.”

Former foreign secretary believes only one UK diplomat had travelled to Gujarat

When asked how did he establish that the inquiry committee members, who had travelled to Gujarat and interacted with people there, were indeed wrong, he said: “Not they. It’s a diplomat from the UK High Commission.”

If there was just one person who conducted the inquiry, he replied, “This is what I understand. You know now its 20 years ago. Obviously it can’t be a delegation if he went quietly and privately in order to not get noticed too much.”

Responding to Sibal’s tweet, Bhaswati Mukherjee, who was then joint secretary of Europe West, tweeted: “I do recall. I was Joint Secy Europe West and some EU envoy had already started an outreach to former CM of Gujarat. The British tried to warn them off as if we were still their Colony.”

On how this was connected to the riots, Sibal said: “That was different. That was when they were engaging Gujarat for commercial reasons. They wanted to have more and more interaction.”

Also read: Gujarat 2002 Riots Among Content Dropped by NCERT From Class XII Textbook

What is the point of bringing out this report at this stage?

The former foreign secretary said, “The information at that time, which I cannot verify as I had not seen any paper about it, was that the British High Commission was active in persuading them not to go so as to, how should I say, take the heat off of the chief minister [Narendra Modi].”

On any particular reason as to why he believes that the BBC documentary has now quoted from what he calls a “highly slanted report”, he said: “Come on, come on. Are you being naïve? Why have they brought out this report now in the BBC despite the Supreme Court’s judgment. What is the point in bringing this out at this stage? I mean if 20 years later they want to do mischief, you think of that time when the issue was very much in public eye and there was a lot of controversy in India.”

He didn’t point to why he felt the timing of the report was off, and if it was due to the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha elections. But he said: “I can understand at that time they took upon themselves the moral responsibility of [how] India behaves or the Indian chief minister behaves. But 20 years on, what is there?”

Separately, Lord Rami Ranger, a member of the UK House of Lords, accused the BBC of biased reporting.

“@BBCNews You have caused a great deal of hurt to over a billion Indians It insults a democratically elected@PMOIndia Indian Police and the Indian judiciary. We condemn the riots and loss of life and also condemn your biased reporting,” he tweeted.

BBC statement

Late on January 19, BBC released a statement which appeared to fight back against the “propaganda” allegation noting that the Union government had declined to respond to the matters raised in the series.

“The BBC is committed to highlighting important issues from around the world. The documentary series examines the tensions between India’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority and explores the politics of India’s PM Narendra Modi in relation to those tensions. This has been the source of considerable reporting and interest both in India and across the world in recent years.

“The documentary was rigorously researched according to highest editorial standards. A wide range of voices, witnesses and experts were approached, and we have featured a range of opinions – this includes responses from people in the BJP. We offered the Indian Government a right to reply to the matters raised in the series – it declined to respond.”

Note: This article has been updated with BBC’s response.