The Modi Cult turns India into the “Smother of Democracy” with the BBC Tax Raid.
The government’s persistent attacks on press freedom and democracy have already received enough attention, but the most recent offensive poses three important issues.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, the government’s ruling party, launched a snide attack on the British public broadcaster little than an hour after an Income Tax Office raiding party swooped down on the BBC’s offices in Delhi and Mumbai.
Speaking in his official capacity as the BJP’s national spokesperson, Gaurav Bhatia called the BBC a “corrupt, claptrap corporation” and provided a brief, though peculiar, list of its alleged wrongdoings. One of the three “charges” he levelled on Mahatma Gandhi was that he “failed in his attempt to liberate India in 1946,” even though it is debatably more of a factual statement than an insult given that India only achieved freedom in 1947.
Some BJP leaders have charged the BBC with insulting the Supreme Court of India by airing a programme that highlights Narendra Modi’s dubious involvement as Gujarat’s chief minister during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots.
We must applaud the BJP and its overzealous spokespersons for making the connection between the tax raid on the BBC and the unofficially made “official” assertion that the Modi documentary has nothing to do with it. As things stand, only a fool or a supporter of the government would attempt to claim that within a month of the documentary’s airing, the Income Tax authorities simply happened to come upon proof of tax avoidance by the BBC.
The continual attacks by the Modi administration on press freedom and democracy have received enough verbal and written attention, but the most recent offensive poses three important issues.
The first is that Western democracies, which extol press freedom and the significance of “shared values,” are too preoccupied with finding corporate opportunities and geopolitical pawns to give a damn about what the Modi administration is doing locally.
The British people own the BBC, hence the British government should have publicly reacted to Modi’s attempts to coerce the BBC. Sadly, Rishi Sunak was more concerned with how Britain would profit from Air India’s huge procurement of Airbus aircraft. Although they have no direct stake in the BBC, the US and France, whose leaders spoke to Modi on the day he sent out his taxmen, should be aware that the tools being used to attack one media outlet will eventually be used against others.
One US-based reporter was refused entry into India despite having legitimate paperwork, while French correspondents in India are already experiencing difficulty getting their press visas completed. Nevertheless, like their British counterparts, Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron are indifferent with the situation of media freedom in India. That shows how confident Modi is in the West’s continued quiet that such a blatant attack on the BBC could occur with only a fortnight till the G20 foreign ministers meeting in India.
Crossing the Modi rekha is risky.
Second, the tax raids serve as a warning that while general criticism may result in some form of retaliation, concerns about Modi’s reputation will invariably result in the use of heavy weapons. The BBC’s documentary’s opening segment was forbidden, not because it denigrated the Supreme Court (which it did not), but rather because it brought attention to the Great Leader’s disgraceful involvement in 2002. Interestingly, given that the BJP is fond of claiming that the Supreme Court has the final say, this is what one of its benches had to say about Modi’s position as Gujarat’s chief minister during the year 2004 when more than a thousand unarmed civilians were slain under his watch:
“The modern day ”Neros” were looking elsewhere when [the] Best Bakery and innocent children and helpless women were burning, and were probably deliberating [over] how the perpetrators of the crime can be saved or protected… Law and justice become flies in the hands of these ”wanton boys”. When fences start to swallow the crops, no scope will be left for the survival of law and order or truth and justice. Public order as well as public interest become martyrs and monuments.” [emphasis added]
The Supreme Court did not rule that Modi had acted honourably or honestly in his capacity as chief minister in dealing with the anti-Muslim violence; rather, it simply determined that there was not enough evidence to convict him of conspiracy, as Zakia Jafri had argued in her plea. The court’s 2004 response to that question, which states that Modi’s top objective was to defend the pogrom’s perpetrators, is now indelible in India’s political and judicial history. There is still a bloody odour here. All the G20 perfumes, to paraphrase Lady Macbeth, “would not sweeten this small hand.”
The BBC broadcast served as a vital historical context for the anti-Muslim policies that Modi has continued to pursue as prime minister, not as a lesson in abstract moral and political dilemmas. The initial reaction of his regime was apoplexy and abuse. The ban then came into effect, although being illegal. Then came the tax raid. This is not the last word either.
Similar to this, comments made by the opposition to Modi’s connections to controversial industrialist Gautam Adani in parliament were removed from the official record. BJP leaders also telephoned editors late at night to request that Modi’s name be removed from media accounts of the debate. Many did so. Those who didn’t are undoubtedly preparing for the repercussions. We are currently in a state of genuine free fall as press freedom has been reduced to a slave to the demands of the Modi cult.
Media as a weapon in the battle against the media
Third, the ease with which the majority of the Indian media repeated the official line that the tax raid on the BBC was motivated by “transfer pricing” indicates that editors, owners, and reporters have evolved into the biggest foes of press freedom. The transfer pricing claim’s dubious nature was demonstrated by the 48-hour period during which no minister or official of the government was willing to put their name behind it. Also, a five-minute conversation with any tax attorney would have made it abundantly plain to the media that the raid was obviously malicious.
Yet, the majority of media outlets and publications gave this “harmless” argument significant deference. Given the stance of the biggest media organisations in the country, this is hardly surprising. Last November, a media tycoon publicly praised Amit Shah and Narendra Modi. Modi would be the “prime minister of the globe” by 2024, according to an anchor at one of his TV networks.
Back in 2002, Modi admitted to the BBC that his sole regret regarding the anti-Muslim violence was that he had not handled the media as effectively as he should have. Twenty-one years later, he is still adamant about making amends for this mistake.
The Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation, which provides funding for independent media startups, has been investigated. Media outlets have also come under scrutiny. Journalists have also come under fire, including renowned fact-checker Mohammad Zubair. Kashmiri reporters have also been imprisoned and are essentially prohibited from leaving the country. Welcome to the democratic smother.