India’s partly-free status is a known fact. As prime minister Narendra Modi’s government raided the Mumbai and Delhi offices of the British Broadcasting Corporation, aka BBC, over three days beginning 14 February, this status is set for a further downgrade. Beeb’s two-part documentary India: The Modi Question was the immediate provocation. The documentary focuses on Mr Modi’s complicity in the 2002 three-day Hindu-Muslim riots in the Indian state of Gujarat, which resulted in over 1,000 official deaths, nearly 4,000 as per other sources. Mr Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat.

Video Courtesy: YouTube/Guardian News

The Misuse More Pronounced

The BBC’s well-researched documentary raises weighty questions on India’s present political leadership. However, the latest raids on BBC offices raise many more questions on misuse of powers by Mr Modi’s populist regime to browbeat independent news media. The misuse is more pronounced as Mr Modi and his cohorts have never wasted an opportunity to declare India as a proud democracy, the largest in the world.

The latest raids on BBC’s offices prove this declaration is phoney at best. Since Mr Modi assumed office in 2014, media professionals have been seeing risks for their careers and lives rising. Mirroring this alarming phenomenon, India is ranked the 11th in the Global Immunity Index of the Committee to Protect Journalists. This index measures the number of unsolved journalist deaths.

The Mutual Back-Scratching

In the 2022 annual press freedom index of the Reporters Without Borders too, India has descended to its lowest 150th rank among 180 nations. India is now a few steps above Russia. Yet, the United States and the United Kingdom showed no signs of being alarmed. The two self-proclaimed guardians of democracy chose to emit guarded reactions couched in hollow diplomatese, careful not to rub Mr Modi the wrong way.

The American president Joe Biden was too occupied with Mr Modi’s proposed state visit to the United States later this year. Mr Biden was busy discussing the proposed visit with India, and showed no inclination to confront Mr Modi with questions on free speech. In a mutual back-scratching approach, Russia chose to stay mum over the raids. Many other G20 nations took note of the fact India is G20 summit host in September this year and ignored the BBC raids. us-for-free-press-but-seals-lips-on-search/cid/1916792

Responding With a Shocker

America has other concerns as well. Mr Biden sees India as an effective counterweight to China. Thus, he does not want to displease Mr Modi by questioning the state of free speech. As India has moved up the global economic sweepstakes by becoming the fifth largest economy, America feels questioning Mr Modi will be counterproductive. This is why Mr Biden chose to look the other way when BBC offices were raided.

Responses from Britain was more shocking and repulsive. When an opposition lawmaker questioned a feeble and flaccid prime minister Rishi Sunak over India’s ban on BBC’s Modi documentary, he responded with a shocker: “I am not sure I agree at all with the characterization the honorable gentleman has put forward.” When Mr Sunak went on to highlight BBC’s independence in the same breath, he was contradicting himself.

Eyeing Lucrative Defence Deals

Hypocritical he is, Mr Sunak did not condemn India’s raids on BBC offices either. Perhaps, the huge Air India order for Airbus was playing on his mind. BBC is owned and funded by British tax-payers. This funding is an implicit approval for its independent content. However, the country’s double-speak prime minister is not okay with Mr Modi’s characterisation. This duplicity is behind the United Kingdom’s silence on India’s raids on its own venerated media institution.

France too chose to remain silent over BBC raids in India and the Modi government’s bid to throttle free speech. Prime minister Emmanuel Macron is eyeing a lucrative defence deal from India for additional Dassault jets and 26 Rafale Marine Fighter jets. At this profitable juncture, Mr Macron does not want to rub Mr Modi the wrong way by condemning either the ban on BBC’s documentary or the raids on its India offices.

Short-Term Geopolitical Gains

Muted responses of the West to the BBC raid drive home a stark reality. In a democracy, which values free speech alone, India can do justice to the global role the world expects it to play. Refusing to condemn India’s BBC raids means refusal to accept this role and reality. The fact the BBC raid is happening in a year India holds the presidency of the G20 and hosts the final G20 Leaders’ Summit in September is an irony.,the%20fourth%20quarter%20of%202023

Sure, the West is not condemning India’s BBC raids for immediate and short-term geopolitical gains. The West should do well to remember the dark years of India’s former prime minister Indira Gandhi. She invoked emergency laws to muzzle free press, muffle free speech and throttle democracy. Many of Mr Modi’s party veterans were jailed then. Mr Modi wastes no opportunity to assail opposition Congress for the Emergency.

Can Mete out Similar Treatments

Now, Mr Modi has invoked the same emergency laws to ban the BBC documentary on 2002 Gujarat riots. Worse, topping this ban, his government has raided the BBC offices, euphemistically labelling the raids as ‘tax surveys’ and ‘routine checks’. High time national heads in the West saw through this duplicity. What is stopping them from condemning Mr Modi’s assault on media freedom and free speech?

Nothing but commercial and geopolitical interests. Politicians of the West are so consumed by these interests, they cannot appreciate a simple logic. A populist regime, which does not blink an eye over raiding an independent media player from Britain, can mete out similar treatment to other dissenting independent media entities, internal and external. Invoking emergency laws will be a mere official wink and nod away.

The Shared-Values Shibboleth

When populist leaders invoke emergency laws to throttle independent media, in the name of imagined foreign threats, democracy is in danger. When raids are inflicted on these free-speakers, the danger becomes all-too real. The BBC raids could have been hastened by the documentary’s disclosure that a 2002 report from the British government had averred Mr Modi was ‘directly responsible’ for creating conditions for the murderous riots.

Why are the Western nations ignoring these disclosures and not speaking out against the BBC raids? By not condemning the BBC tax raids, are they condoning the raids? Are they saying it is okay to muffle free speech by unleashing state machinery on venerated media institutions, under the guise of fighting foreign threats? In an era of rabid nationalism, when everything is politicised, the West’s silence on BBC tax raids is perhaps a political necessity for them.

Reason why the ‘shared values’ shibboleth is hollow. Simply, the diplomatese means nothing but common commercial interests and mutually beneficial business deals. Self-professed guardians of free speech, the likes of the United States, are analysing forever how their words can help them further their geopolitical bargaining power. They are in awe of the vast market India offers for their products. Why would they condemn either the ban on BBC documentary or the tax raids? This is the tragedy of today’s geopolitics.

In Conclusion

Mr Modi knows how this tragedy will play out in real life. He has seen this when India abstained from the United Nations General Assembly vote on all Ukraine-related resolutions since the onset of the war. The reason for the abstentions: buying Russian oil at the best deal. He has seen the West failing to condemn the raids on Amnesty International and the freeze on its bank accounts, which forced its exit from India. Perhaps, Mr Modi feels assured even now of the West’s silence over what he does to independent media and free speech. This self-assurance is India’s worse tragedy.