The “India: The Modi Question” documentary produced by the BBC has sparked controversy in India. The film has been criticised by some as being biased and lacking evidence, while supporters, mainly from opposition parties, see it as a critical examination of Prime Minister Modi’s approach. Despite a ban on its screening, the documentary’s supporters, including students aligned with opposition parties, have attempted to screen it.
The issue is now being heard in the Supreme Court, where petitioners are seeking to overturn the ban.
Mahesh Jethmalani, a BJP MP, has accused the BBC of receiving funding from the Chinese company Huawei and being part of a Chinese conspiracy against India. He has also accused the BBC of promoting independence for Kashmir and criticising India on human rights issues. Jethmalani has also cited previous anti-India documentaries produced by the BBC, such as “Life in Calcutta” and “Nirbhaya,” which he believes were meant to tarnish India’s image. The BBC has not commented on these accusations.
India’s official response was that ‘it is a propaganda piece and that the bias, lack of objectivity and continuing mindset are blatantly visible.’ The moot question is whether we can blame only the colonial mindset and biases of the BBC and a section in Britain. Perhaps not. It requires motivated persons/entities to make efforts to collect ‘information’, particularly the kind that suits the planners and manipulate that ‘information’ to project a predetermined narrative, substantial funds, and partners of the conspiracy/influenced persons who upload it on social media platforms for dissemination and organise its screening for propaganda all over the country.
An objective examination of this effort demands close scrutiny of its motives, timing, and beneficiaries. First, as far as the contents are concerned, there is hardly any doubt that they are against PM Modi and the BJP government. It has deliberately ignored the Supreme Court’s judgement and the SIT report, which unambiguously ruled out any role for Modi in the Gujrat violence of 2002, rejecting allegations of complicity and inaction by the then Gujrat government. Hence, it is not an objective piece, as claimed by the BBC.
Second, while the immediate aim of this documentary is obviously to tarnish the image of Modi, whose stature is rising internationally, and to destroy the credibility and growing popularity of the BJP government, which was reflected in two general elections, the long-term objective is to weaken India, which is emerging as a separate pole in international affairs. The motive includes undermining the sovereignty and integrity of India and spoiling relations with friendly Islamic countries. Our adversaries were shocked to see how PM Modi established close relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia as well as with the Central Asian countries.
This year, it has assumed the presidency of the G-20 and SCO. Indian-origin Tory peer Lord Rami Ranger pointed out that the goal of the documentary is to tarnish Modi’s image when he assumes the presidency of G-20. The rising stature of India is not to the liking of our adversaries like China and Pakistan. Even some of our friends are not very pleased with this development.
Third, the timing indicates that this is a conspiracy aimed at spoiling the image of PM Modi and the BJP by projecting them as anti-Muslim to adversely affect their chances of victory in the coming elections. That the documentary was produced 21 years later, when the next general election was due to take place, itself indicates the overall plan of the conspirators.
Fourth, the issue of beneficiaries is crucial as that points the needle of suspicion toward those who could be involved in the exercise. The direct involvement of the BBC and a section of Britain is not in doubt. The BBC has stated that it obtained a copy of the report from the British Foreign Office, which was ordered by Britain’s former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to examine the issue. Straw’s comments are also included in the documentary. Straw’s June 2002 speech in UK Parliament was critical of the human rights situation in J&K and pointed out that he had asked India to ensure free and fair elections there. The tenor of speech was favourable to Pakistan.
Pakistan had created links with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Kashmir in the UK through the Justice Foundation and used this group for anti-India propaganda. Ghulam Nabi Fai, a known ISI agent, was earlier the Director of the Justice Foundation. In 2011, India’s High Commissioner had conveyed its displeasure to the UK that the All-Party Parliamentary Group was working in tandem with the Justice Foundation to interfere in India’s internal affairs. While direct links are difficult to prove between Pak ISI and BBC, it can be said that Pakistan has sufficient clout in the UK to influence the BBC.
The BBC has links with Chinese Huawei. According to the UK publication Spectator, there was a cash-for-propaganda deal between the BBC and Chinese tech giant Huawei. Huawei, in turn, has close links with the Chinese establishment. It was founded in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, a former officer in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Several Huawei employees have collaborated on research projects with the Chinese armed forces personnel, indicating closer ties to the country’s military. Crucially, their collaboration includes a joint effort with the investigative branch of the Central Military Commission — the armed forces’ supreme body — to extract and classify emotions in online video comments.
This suggests a strong possibility that the Chinese establishment could be involved in nudging the BBC through Huawei to make this documentary. China and India’s relations have plummeted since the Galwan Valley clashes, and China does not like a strong government in India.
The BBC team came to India and interviewed individuals to collect the information it required to make an anti-Modi documentary. As per media, the BBC has stated: “The documentary series examines the tensions between India’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority and explores the politics of Shri Modi in relation to those tensions.” This statement reveals the larger objective of the conspirators. Further, the broadcaster added that it was “rigorously researched” and “a wide range of voices, witnesses and experts were approached, and we have featured a range of opinions, including responses from people in the BJP.” The BBC team’s collection of ‘information’ from Indian citizens without the permission of Govt. of India was clearly illegal and against the sovereignty and integrity of India.
Undoubtedly, the beneficiaries of this exercise are both external and internal. Pakistan has an obsession with weakening India so that it may grab J&K. China has an interest in our areas in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Both are involved in anti-India activities, including influence operations to capture the minds of the Indian population, with a view to using them against Modi and the BJP. Both Pakistan and China would like to exploit the documentary for their own objectives and could be involved in encouraging BBC to produce a documentary on this issue, which could adversely affect the BJP’s electoral prospects in the coming elections. While there is nothing to indicate their direct involvement, it is well-known that both of these countries have been using their foreign assets against India.
The Opposition in India is very happy as, in their perception, such propaganda would weaken the chances of the BJP in the coming elections. The manner in which it has been able to mobilise students indicates prior planning by the opposition parties. Only a thorough investigation can reveal the identities of planners and their associates.
In essence, this documentary constitutes a strategy of influence operations planned by conspirators to capture the minds of the local population to promote anti-BJP and anti-Modi sentiments, with the ultimate objective of weakening India at a time when its stature is growing and trying to influence the election results against the BJP. The Indian External Affairs spokesperson rightly said, “This is a propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative.”
In view of the foregoing, the Indian government needs to take two steps urgently. First, a thorough investigation should be carried out to expose the identities of the conspirators, their partners, and their sinister plan. Second, an authentic version based on facts with the Supreme Court’s judgement revealing the mischief of the conspirators should be prepared and publicised. The search engines should be asked to place the official version at the top of their search results. Countering malicious influence operations is critical for citizens to be able to make an informed decision for elections. There could be more such attempts in the run-up to the general elections.
(The writer is Former Deputy National Security Advisor, Government of India)