Russia Backs Hindu Nationalist Campaign Against BBC’s Modi Documentary

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greet each other before their meeting in New Delhi, India, Monday, Dec.6, 2021. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday to discuss defense and trade relations as India attempts to balance its ties …
Manish Swarup/AP

Moscow waded into the controversy over a BBC documentary of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, siding with Modi and his supporters by denouncing the documentary as part of the “information war” waged by Western media outlets against Russia as well as India.

The BBC released the first half of a two-part documentary, called India: The Modi Question, two weeks ago. The first installment covers Modi’s rise through Indian politics, most controversially including his involvement in Hindu versus Muslim violence in 2002 when he was chief minister of India’s Gujarat state.

Various investigations conducted by the Indian government over the years have cleared Modi of wrongdoing, but the BBC uncovered an unpublished report from the British Foreign Office that held Modi “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” offered to Hindu rioters in Gujarat. The report compared the riot, in which over a thousand people were killed, to “ethnic cleansing.”

The Modi administration swiftly declared all-out war against the BBC documentary, successfully pressuring social media platforms YouTube and Twitter to censor it as propaganda and block attempts to share the video.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova sided with the Modi administration at a press briefing in Moscow on Monday, essentially supporting the Indian government’s view of the documentary as hostile foreign propaganda.

“I would like to draw your attention to the fact that it is yet another evidence of the BBC waging an information war on different fronts – not only against Russia, but also against other global centers of power pursuing an independent policy,” she said.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova speaks to the media in Moscow on March 29, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Yuri KADOBNOV (Photo credit should read YURI KADOBNOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. (YURI KADOBNOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Zakharova further needled the BBC for being “dependent” rather than independent media and claiming it “often neglects the basic requirements of the journalism profession.”

The Times of India (TOI) was happy to pass along Zakharova’s brickbats without quibble and also quoted British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak saying he “doesn’t agree with the characterization” of Modi in the BBC documentary. The TOI quoted India’s own foreign ministry spokesman, Arindam Bagchi, denouncing the BBC documentary as a “propaganda piece” with “no objectivity” that should not be “screened in India.”

“The documentary is a reflection of the agency and individuals that are peddling this narrative again. It makes us wonder about the purpose of the exercise and the agenda behind it. Frankly, we do not wish to dignify these efforts,” Bagchi said.

TOI on Tuesday quoted Indian parliamentarian Mahesh Jethmalani, a member of Modi’s BJP party, suggesting the BBC was paid off by China to produce propaganda that undermines the Indian government:

Jethmalani supported his allegation by linking to an August 2022 Spectator article that criticized the BBC for maintaining a corporate partnership with China’s telecom giant Huawei despite the many security and human rights concerns swirling around the Chinese firm. According to the article, some of the BBC’s own employees were “shocked” and nauseated that the broadcaster would take money from Huawei after their own reporting exposed China’s genocide against the Uyghur Muslims, and Huawei’s participation in the horrifying Chinese surveillance state.

Jethmalani went on to hammer the BBC for a “long history of spreading propaganda against India,” including maps that did not show the turbulent Jammu and Kashmir region as part of India until corrections were made in 2021.

Rami Ranger, a Conservative member of the British Parliament, was criticized by the opposition on Monday for writing a letter to BBC Director-General Tim Davie in which he asked if “your Pakistani-origin staff were behind this nonsense.”

Ranger called the BBC production “insensitive” and said it has “opened old wounds by creating hatred between British Hindus and Muslims.” He echoed the Indian government by saying it was inappropriate to link Modi to the 2002 riots after Indian investigations exonerated him.

NBC News claimed over the weekend that finding ways around censorship to watch the BBC documentary has become a “symbol of protest” for younger Indians who knew little about the Gujarat riots and are “dismayed by what they see as rising authoritarianism under Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.”

Writing at the Indian Express on Sunday, columnist Tavleen Singh said she was no fan of the BBC production but called the Modi administration’s effort to suppress the video “futile and idiotic.”

Singh said it would have been far better for Modi to either call a press conference to critique the BBC documentary, which she slammed as “irresponsible journalism,” or ignore it entirely.

“With their flat-footed attempts at censorship, Modi’s media managers confirmed the widespread suspicion in the western media that India’s prime minister is an autocrat who cannot abide criticism,” she said.

Singh dismissed “ludicrous conspiracy theories,” like the one pushed by Russia, that the BBC was involved in a grand plot to undermine the Indian government. She also had little patience for Modi critics who went over the top by portraying the 2002 riots as attempted “genocide.”

“Sack your media managers, Prime Minister, and find a team that understands the need for transparency when dealing with the media,” she advised.


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