Why BBC documentary on Gujarat riots really angers Modi

Ashraf Engineer

January 28, 2023


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

The now famous BBC documentary, ‘India: The Modi Question’, on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the 2002 Gujarat riots during his tenure as chief minister, evoked a curious – if predictable – response from the Union Government. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ordered the links to be taken down from YouTube and Twitter under the emergency provisions of the Information Technology Rules (2021). The documentary, it said, cast “aspersions on the authority and credibility of the Supreme Court of India, sowing divisions among various communities, and making unsubstantiated allegations regarding actions of foreign governments in India”. These links had been posted by well-known parliamentarians, civil rights activists and even actors, among them Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien, Hollywood actor John Cusack and senior advocate Prashant Bhushan. The government called the documentary a propaganda piece and reflective of a colonial mindset. But the documentary itself covers well-trodden ground. There’s very little that’s new in it. So what exactly are Modi and the government afraid of? And what does the ban mean for India’s image on the global stage?


The documentary essentially traces the arc of Modi’s chief ministership and examines the riots that happened in that tenure. It asks questions like why did Modi fail to stop the massacre and rapes? Did he actually ask the police to allow the violence to unfold? Why was justice either delayed or denied after the riots? Who killed Haren Pandya, a former state minister critical of Modi?

Let’s take a look at the emergency provisions invoked to ban the documentary.

Under the IT Rules (2021), the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting can issue immediate content takedown notices to social media intermediaries like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Such notices are to be issued if the ministry thinks that the content can affect India’s sovereignty, integrity, defence, security, friendly relations with other countries or public order.

Since 2021, these provisions are said to have been used at least seven times.

The only option under the law for users is to approach the courts. But it’s not that black and white. The blocking orders are confidential, which means that the plaintiffs can’t know the provisions under which their content was flagged. Neither do they know why the government decided that the content should be taken down.

Let’s come now to what’s new in the documentary. Soon after the riots, the British government sent a team to investigate what had happened. The documentary accessed the team’s report, which held Modi responsible for the killings and violence. Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary at the time, said that while they knew about this, they couldn’t have broken diplomatic relations with India.

The question that arises is why did Western leaders, from David Cameron and Boris Johnson to Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Francoise Holland and Emmanuel Macron do business with Modi if they knew what was going on?

But, most important of all, the ban on the documentary is telling of how this government views democracy and the freedoms guaranteed to us by the Constitution. Modi’s view of how the media should be approached has been clear during his tenure anyway but what he thinks of it is also evident in the documentary itself. In an excerpt of an interview taken after the riots, he responds aggressively to the journalist who nevertheless asks if there was something he could have done better. Modi stares back and says: “Yes, one area where I was very weak — how to handle the media.”

See what’s happened after Modi became prime minister: he hasn’t addressed a single press conference and doesn’t give unscripted interviews or ones where he will be asked tough questions.

But, here’s the thing: the best way to heighten interest in a piece of content is to ban it. Look what happened with Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’. It’s easily the book that got the most interest and it wasn’t even his best. So, the BBC documentary is being circulated by messenger apps and via downloads. Recently, Jawaharlal Nehru University students made it a point to watch the documentary while the management tried hard to stop them. They even cut off power to the area where the screening was to be held. Undeterred, the students watched it on their individual laptops and cellphones. Meanwhile, members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, which is affiliated to the Sangh Parivar, allegedly pelted stones at them.

So, the only thing Modi has achieved by blocking the BBC documentary is to reinforce his image as an intolerant autocrat.

But here’s my thought on why Modi reacted the way he did. Any piece of content that portrays Modi as a champion of Hindutva and anti-Muslim actually fortifies his image among his supporters. It’s what they want from him. So, a documentary that says he did little to stop the anti-Muslim carnage would not bother him. What Modi does acutely care about is his international image. He hungers to be seen as someone who matters not only because he happens to be the prime minister of India but as someone respected internationally in his own right. It’s why he spends so much time on foreign tours, goes the extra mile to get pictures shot with world leaders and multinational bosses.

The BBC documentary strikes at the heart of this desire. It portrays him as the opposite of someone who should be respected on the world stage, as someone you’re forced to engage with only because he is India’s prime minister. It tears his international image, in which he’s so invested, to shreds. What this documentary portrays is that he’s an authoritarian, not a moral, leader and that he’s anything but a vishwaguru.

It peels away the layers of how the world actually sees him – as someone they have no choice but to work with because he heads the world’s largest democracy and one of the fastest growing economies, not because he has something valuable to contribute in terms of wisdom and vision to the world.

Modi and his supporters have just realised that having a following in India is not the same as wielding respect across the world.

Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at editor@allindiansmatter.in. Catch you again soon.