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At a recent interaction on Inmathi’s YouTube channel, French journalist Francois Gautier and former BBC Tamil Editor T Manivannan discussed with G Ananthakrishnan the fallout of the Narendra Modi government’s ban on the BBC documentary, India: The Modi Question.
“I think it was a mistake to have banned the BBC documentary. With the internet, you can always see the episodes. If you search the internet, you will find links. It reinforces the image that Mr Modi is a dictator, and no freedom of expression is allowed in India,” said Francois Gautier, who has supported the Prime Minister on various occasions. Gautier blamed media advisors for giving the wrong advice to the Prime Minister.
Manivannan said he could not disagree with Gautier. “In this digital age, banning anything is counterproductive. If you ban a book, you get a pdf distributed. Banning anything that you don’t like is not going to be productive and is not the democratic way,” he said.
On whether the documentary, which relies on archival footage and a newly-revealed UK government inquiry report on the violence in Gujarat in 2002 adds new insights, Gautier said it was a difficult discussion to have because in 2002 he had supported Modi. He had known then, he said, that the burning of the pilgrims in the Sabarmati Express by a Muslim mob was real. “I knew that this was what triggered the pogrom against Muslims in Ahmedabad and other parts of Gujarat.” Everyone from the Brahmins to Dalits came to the streets and “started killing Muslims right and left.”
“I didn’t think Mr Modi encouraged the killing,” he added.
The only question was whether he delayed calling in the Army for 24 hours. “I supported Mr Modi because I felt the burning of the 58 Hindus was a very brutal event. They were burnt like animals, and if my own wife or daughter had been killed like that I would have gone to the streets in anger.” He could not pin the whole blame on Modi, and still did not, Gautier said.
What has happened in Godhra is festering, like a wound, and is like a curse on Mr Modi. Not in India, as there is a certain degree of nationalism and pride in what he has done so far, but abroad, this has never been resolved. Even though he is going to be re-elected in 2024, it will continue to haunt him. Gautier didn’t think Mr. Modi encouraged the killing
Manivannan said the BBC documentary sadly did not add much to what was already known about the Godhra riots. The documentary was pegged on the discovery of a newly-revealed UK government report which was transmitted to the UK government possibly by diplomatic cable. “That is the only thing that we know of something new in the first part of the documentary.”
To Gautier, the timing of the documentary’s release added to what looked like a conspiracy. The timing of the two parts before the G20 led to a conspiracy theory. “Mr Modi is so proud that India is hosting the G20 for one year, and he is so keen to be seen as a respectable leader, whereas he is still universally hated for the Godhra riots.”
Asked about many people talking of a three-day window mentioned in the film during which the Gujarat government did not act to stop the riots, Gautier said, during the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, under Congress rule, special forces took 48 hours to reach Mumbai from Delhi, when the damage had already been done.
Modi was likely angry at the burning of the pilgrims on the Sabarmati Express, but “you have to take into account the ineffectiveness of the Indian special forces of the Army, difficulty of transporting troops from Delhi to Mumbai and so on. it would have been a few hours,” said Gautier. “I would not put the whole blame on Mr Modi knowing that yes, there is a doubt that he delayed calling in the Army to stop the riots in Ahmedabad and other parts.”
Manivannan too recalled that in 1984, it took three days to quell the anti-Sikh riots. The ruling Congress took a lot of blame for not being able to contain the violence. “Nobody can absolve the ruling governments, whether Congress or BJP government. There was a delay.”
On the global outlook on the riots and beyond, Gautier said, on forums like the BBC, New York Times and Le Monde either it was not mentioned that 58 Hindus were burnt to death by a Muslim mob, or it was doubted whether it was done by a Muslim mob at all or it was an accidental fire on the train. This had led to conspiracy theories among Indians against foreign media.
Many inquiries have proved that the episode happened, people were arrested and were sent to jail; there was a mob led by a local Congress councilman that attacked the train because it was coming from Ayodhya, said Gautier. Razing of the [Babri] mosque “which was actually an empty mosque was nevertheless an insult to Islam” and the knowledge that the pilgrims were coming from Ayodhya provoked the anger of Muslims. “This is always omitted from most western accounts,” Gautier added.
The French journalist said Modi was hated in the world, which the Prime Minister did not seem to realise. In France, every newspaper man, every editor and every publisher, was hostile when he tried to write a biography of Modi. Governments also formed such views fuelled by the image of the Godhra riots.
Gautier said the doubts surrounding Modi’s role in the riots had never been resolved. “He came to power on his second mandate and was re-elected in Gujarat. But what has happened in Godhra is festering, like a wound, and is like a curse on Mr. Modi. Not in India, as there is a certain degree of nationalism and pride in what he has done so far, but abroad, this has never been resolved. Even though he is going to be re-elected in 2024, it will continue to haunt him, I think.”
It is true that there is a hint of dictatorship that comes through, and the BBC indicates that. There is now less press freedom and the media is more nationalistic. It does not criticise Mr Modi, and more than that, within the BJP, nobody dares to raise their voice after what happened to that spokesperson of the BJP
To Manivannan, the Supreme Court, as the final arbiter, seemed to be happy with the inquiry. In the public perception and the domain of common sense, the train burning and riots issue has not died down. In politics too the controversy has remained. There were two inquiries, one by the State government and another by then Railway Minister Lalu Prasad. They came to diametrically opposite conclusions on the Godhra fire. Although the courts had ruled, there were unanswered questions left about the train fire and the riots.
“We cannot say that Mr Modi was heard encouraging the rampage and riots. Whether he delayed in calling the Army — knowing that justice was done by killing Muslims — this will never be proved. He will never say it himself and Amit Shah will not say it either. But Amit Shah did go to jail. Some justice was done,” Gautier opined.
Referring to a comment by Modi in one episode of the documentary, on how he would have liked to have handled the media differently, Manivannan pointed out that by and large, Indian media was already very pliant. L K Advani had famously said, “When they (media) were asked to bend, they crawled.”
“How many investigative reports have we seen on such incidents? The BBC documentary did not throw enough new light on the Gujarat riots, but what has been done by journalists in India?,” he asked, rhetorically. The answer of course being absolutely nothing.
Gautier said he had long fought the accusation that Modi was a dictator because there was great freedom of expression in India. “But it is true that there has been a centralisation of power in the hands of Mr. Modi and his PMO. I hesitate to say this, because I have defended the man for so long, but it is true that there is a hint of dictatorship that comes through and the BBC indicates that. There is now less press freedom and the media is more nationalistic. It does not criticise Mr. Modi, and more than that, within the BJP, nobody dares to raise their voice after what happened to that spokesperson of the BJP.”
Reviewing the second episode of the documentary dealing with Kashmir and Article 370, Gautier blamed Muslims for staging a war against India. He had witnessed the rise of militancy of the JKLF and the killing of Kashmiri pandits. “When today the Kashmiri Muslims say they are victims, it is not true, because they started a war in the name of Islam. They were trained, armed and financed by Pakistan. In those days, the BBC said this was not true. I knew it was true, logical.”
Manivannan said it was all about a whole trend of majoritarian politics adopted by the BJP government. Article 370 was one instance that the BBC highlighted in the documentary, along with beef lynchings and the CAA-NRC issue. They sought the views of the government but they refused to talk.
On scholar Christophe Jaffrelot’s comment in the documentary about the west giving low importance to human rights violations in India due to strategic considerations, Manivannan said the former British Secretary Jack Straw was seen in the film stating that breaking up with India was not at all on the table. In spite of the damning report received by the British government, it did not act because of trade and other ties.
Gautier pointed to China and said human rights issues in India could not be compared with those of China — even taking the Godhra riots into account — from the times of Mao to the situation in Tibet.
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