‘In India, Telling the Truth Can Be a Crime’: Australian Lawmakers, Activists on BBC Documentary on Modi

After the screening of the BBC documentary in Canberra, Australian Greens senator Jordan Steele-John raised concerns over PM Albanese failing to speak with PM Modi on the deteriorating human rights situation in India.

New Delhi: On the day when Prime Minister Narendra Modi held bilateral talks with his Australian counterpart in Sydney, a BBC documentary on his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots was screened at the Parliament House in Canberra.

The screening was organised by a group of lawmakers and human rights activists.

After the 40-minute documentary was screened, a panel discussion was held, which included Australian Greens senator Jordan Steele-John, David Shoebridge, Aakashi Bhatt, daughter of former IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt, and Dr Kalpana Wilson of South Asian Solidarity Group, among others.

“In India, telling the truth can be a crime. This film is a small taste of what people in India have been experiencing with the administration there,” said Greens senator David Shoebridge.

“I’ve spoken to so many [people] across the [Indian-Australian] diaspora and many say that it’s so hard speaking out. They say, I’m scared my family will be at risk, I’ll be at risk if I travel back. So they look to the [Australian] prime minister and other political leaders to do that work for them,” he said.

“Twenty years ago, Australia went through a process of unquestioningly embracing China and refusing to raise human rights. I’d hope we’d learned that lesson,” he added.

Australian Greens Senator David Shoebridge. Credit: By special arrangement

“What you see barely scratched the surface. Gujarat was burning for months, and Muslims were mercilessly targeted,” said Aakashi Bhatt.

“Hindutva poses a threat to our democracies in the region, and must be addressed,” said Mohan Dutta of Massey University.

Expressing concerns over the Australian prime minister failing to speak with Modi on the deteriorating human rights situation in India, Jordan Steele-John said, “What I’ve felt in the last couple of days watching the [Australian] prime minister’s interactions with Prime Minister Modi was disappointment. Since then it has hardened into anger at how our prime minister has failed to raise the human rights concerns that have been so clearly articulated to him and the foreign minister.”

“Many want him and [foreign minister] Wong to speak as critical friends, as the head of a nation that deeply values its relationship with India, and is willing to be critical and speak frankly to the situation of human rights in India. And welcome it in return.”

Australian Greens Senator David Shoebridge, Sumathi Vijayakumar, Periyar Ambedkar Thought Circle, and Australian Greens Senator Jordan Steele-John. Credit: By special arrangement

“It’s clear that Modi has used the strategy in his political rise to call out double standards of white Western nations. It’s important to call that out. We need to speak frankly and expect to be spoken to frankly, in return, in particular, in terms of how we treat journalists, and how Muslims and minorities are treated, including in this building,” he added.

“There was one sentence that Aakashi said, and that should have been enough to raise concerns about the rule of law: about her family home being demolished. That alone should get our PM to question his response. How can our PM meet with the government of India and not put those issues on the table? That’s a fundamental lack of leadership. And to invite that criticism back,” said Shoebridge.

Dr Kalpana Wilson, South Asian Solidarity Group. Credit: By special arrangement

“We have to go beyond the idea that there is apathy in the international community and look at who his allies are. One aspect is that there’s an alliance between far-right regimes across the world, and they see Modi and what he does as a model for what they aspire to. Some of the most vocal allies have been voted out, like Trump and Bolsonaro. We’re seen Indians also reject hate by Hindu supremacists, with resistance at the grassroots level to what supremacists are doing,” said Dr Kalpana Wilson.