Kishwar Desai | Whiff of duplicity! Why did BBC sit on Gujarat â€˜leakâ€™ for 21 years?
The BBC story with a narrative that was obviously antagonistic towards the Indian Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, is nothing new. These narratives have been around for a long time, and especially led by many who would rather paint India as divisive nation — than see it as a country that has faced and resolved many challenges and is now on a progressive path. Meghnad and I had encountered this many years ago when we setting up the Gandhi statue outside of Parliament — and there were those who fiercely opposed us if we invited Prime Minister, Shri Modi for the ceremony. In any case, he was able to come after the unveiling and we met at the feet of the statue at Westminster, but it was under threat of protests and so on. The Conservative government at the time was well aware of it — and was able to deal with it.
Yet this is the same country that will invite corrupt rulers from Africa and there will be song and dance to greet them — and no threats of protest.
It is obvious that, whatever the historic reasons for the antipathy the BBC may have towards Mr Modi — it is really up to the Indians in the UK to battle this out, because the cause for discontent with the democratically elected PM is disguised under many reasons: but foremost it is the discomfort among those from a neighbouring nation who would hate to see India or Indians doing well. So we just have to live here with a thick skin and stand up for India and the values we hold dear. But yes, it would help if many more of us were able to balance the negative narrative with feel-good stories about India coming out more regularly.
So this fortnight, London, or rather BBC, came to India. India then went hammer and tongs against London and the BBC. The BBC programme concerning Mr Modi and the Gujarat riots has caused a ruckus as one would expect, of course. It is difficult to say which party was more angry — the BBC as to what it said about the Gujarat riots of 21 years ago or the Indian commentators of today who were fulminating about the arrogance etcetera of the old colonial masters to criticise independent India.
It will no doubt run and run as such things tend to do. The news has more impact away from home in each case than the impact at home. Of course, the interesting part of the story is that the BBC claims it had been leaked a confidential report written by the foreign office employees at that date and transmitted as a top secret evaluation. What it took the UK government to suppress the sensitive document about happenings in a local area of India and for the BBC to wait 21 years, and indeed till eight years after the politician in question became Prime Minister of India is anyone’s guess.
Even so, it was interesting to see Jack Straw, a former foreign secretary returning to public life after a long absence, to confirm that indeed the dispatch leaked by the BBC may have been genuine. The irony, of course, is that Mr Straw himself was under a bigger cloud in his days for having collaborated with US authorities to violate human rights of Islamists during the Iraq war. Indian TV channels were too polite to mention this.
No surprise then that the British PM Rishi Sunak rose in the House of Commons to say very carefully that he did not agree with the characterisation of Mr Modi. But the fact is, the Indian government would have been happier with a stronger condemnation — especially as His Majesty’s government is negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with India and, not to put too fine a point on it, in these post-Brexit days, beggars cannot afford to be choosers. Mr Sunak dismissed the BBC story but could he have done anything more?
The truth is that at this time he, too, needs the media more than anyone else, as he still has to get through a very tough year. Though it is true that his party has no time for the BBC as it is. Funded by a compulsory license fee for any one owning television, the BBC is loathed by the Conservative Party which has been threatening to abolish the license fee and make the BBC find its own way of paying for itself. Perhaps, the BBC will have to have commercials or run a lottery for its subscribers. Or may be some Indian multi-billionaire will buy it out, were it up for sale.
In any case, our life in the UK remains hard. Indeed, we have had to find cheer in the news that our rate of inflation has come down from 11 per cent plus to a low of 10.5 per cent. How anyone can tell the difference is your guess not mine. But then the times are desperate. We wait eagerly for the month of May not just for sunshine but for the coronation of Charles the Third, better known as the Father of the Spare.