BBC's documentary on Gujarat riots shows another side of Modi

The crowd gathered to watch the BBC documentary, 'India: The Modi Question', screened by DYFI at Poojappura, Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday. Photo: Onmanorama

Thiruvananthapuram: The first part of the BBC documentary that the BJP government had sought to erase from the internet space in the country, 'India: The Modi Question', was screened with heavy police protection in two venues in Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday; one at Poojappura by the DYFI and the other at Manaveeyam Veedhi near Vellayambalam by the Youth Congress.

In both instances, the police blocked the roads on all sides to facilitate the roadside screenings attended by scores of people.

While at Manaveeyam Veedhi the BJP and Yuva Morcha activists were arrested and removed, at Poojappura the police had to resort to the use of powerful water canons at Sangh Parivar activists hell-bent on disrupting the screening. The sound of moving ambulances pierced the screening venue at Poojappura. Police sources said a woman protester was injured.

Things returned to normal after the screening was over by around 7.30 pm in both venues.

For an Indian audience, the BBC documentary, which explores Narendra Modi's direct involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots, offers nothing new.

The documentary contained slain Congress leader Ishan Jafri's desperate, but still unproven, call to Chief Minister Modi and his allegedly rude response. Former Gujarat home minister Haren Pandya's claim, which Gujarat Police claims to be untrue, that Modi was the real culprit and that he wanted Hindus to be allowed to vent their ire for what happened in Godhra. Pandya's mysterious murder a year later, after he spilt the beans to a citizens' probe.

There was also Babu Bajrangi's claim that Modi secured bail for him by changing the judge. Bajrangi was once caught in a sting operation boasting of maiming and burning Muslim women and children. There was also the claim of another Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activist that Modi had allowed them three days to run riot. "And on the third day he stopped everything," the man who looks like a senior VHP functionary says, all of it captured on hidden camera by an Indian journalist and reproduced in the BBC documentary.

The crowd gathered to watch the BBC documentary, 'India: The Modi Question', screened by DYFI at Poojappura, Thiruvananthapuram, on Tuesday, January 24, 2023. Photo: Onmanorama

Both these men later disowned their comments, saying they were merely speaking from a script given to them by the journalist.

Then there was the clean chit given to Modi by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) in 2013 and also the Supreme Court's endorsement of the SIT report in 2022.

The documentary also has the claims made by top police officers R B Sreekumar and Sanjeev Bhatt and what came of them after Modi became the most powerful man in India.

There was nothing in the documentary that was not known before.

Nonetheless, what makes the BBC documentary unique is that it is based on a secret dossier drawn up by the British government after a detailed undercover probe.

This report titled the 'Gujarat Pogrom', and based on the testimonies of top sources the British government has not revealed, says that Modi had a direct role in the Gujarat massacre.

It describes the riots as a systematic, politically-driven, rape of Muslim women. "It had all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing," the documentary quotes the official British report as saying.

It says Modi met top police officials on the night of the Godhra killings when 59 Hindu pilgrims were burnt alive in a train and asked them not to intervene when the Hindus went about wreaking vengeance.

Police block BJP and ABVP activists from disrupting the documentary screening at Poojappura. Photo: Onmanorama

The then British foreign secretary Jack Straw, who was privy to the report, said Modi had played a proactive role in pulling back the police.

The report also speaks of a "culture of impunity", which was lorded over by Modi.

Even so, the documentary does not conclusively state that Modi was responsible. All the top police officials BBC got in touch with refuted the contents of the secret dossier.

Still, it is clear that the BBC is convinced of Modi's complicity. The documentary makes a subtle connection between Modi and violent extremist elements.

At the beginning, when a bird's eye view of a lighted Ahmedabad City in the night is shown, we can hear aggressive religious and patriotic slogans faceless Hindu extremists raise like they were war cries when a demagogue exhorts Hindus to create a Hindu rashtra even if it would mean the killing of non-believers.

Later in the documentary, in a chilling reminder of the earlier call to kill, we hear the same slogans uttered in the exact manner of a war cry by none other than Modi himself at election rallies and public functions.
The connection is made.

For those used to the chic statesmanlike image of Prime Minister Modi, the BBC documentary offers glimpses of a different side. This shade of Modi comes through especially during the old 2002 interviews he had with BBC reporters.

This is not the Modi with designer looks but the younger Modi with dishevelled hair and an artlessly kept beard.

Any poser about the breakdown of law and order in Gujarat, especially his purposeful inaction, makes him evidently intolerant. With glowering eyes fixed on the interviewer, he terms these charges, in good but accented English, as propaganda and calls his interviewers misguided.

So self-righteous Modi seems to be that he even defiantly says he has done an "excellent job". Taken aback, the journalist asks whether he would describe a situation where hundreds had died as excellent. If at all the question had rattled him, Modi does not show it. Without a moment of pause, and his sharp gaze still unwavering, he shoots back. "I am not happy." Meaning, he could have done better. It was a rare admission of failure.

When he is asked whether there was anything he would have done differently, pat comes the answer. "Yes. I did not know how to handle the media." There is not a hint of a smile on his face.

Later, one of the BBC journalists who was at his receiving end, Jill McGiverning, says that she found Modi "charismatic, strong and menacing".

The BBC documentary also does a fine balancing act. The anti-Modi diatribes are offset by the articulate responses of right-wing columnists like Swapan Dasgupta.

The first part ends with Modi storming into Delhi after the 2014 landslide, and all his accusers falling by the wayside.

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