An urban legend goes like this – when Indira Gandhi was assassinated, her son Rajiv Gandhi wanted to know if it had been confirmed by the BBC. Until the BBC broadcast the news, it could be dismissed as a rumour.
That was then. Today, fanboys of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strident nationalism, accuse the venerable BBC of peddling fake news.
The Western gaze on India is acceptable only if it is about yoga and ayurveda, not Kashmir. Curiously, the Indira Gandhi regime often accused the BBC of being an extension of the Cold War ‘foreign hand’ out to undermine India. Today, the Modi ecosystem accuses it of being anti-Hindu.
The government and the BJP want to actively fix this – with both the carrot and the stick. On the one hand, Hindu groups are protesting outside The Washington Post office in the US, and on the other, NSA Ajit Doval is feting foreign journalists and RSS’ Mohan Bhagwat is scheduling meetings with them.
Be it India or China or Russia – you can be sure that when a country accuses the foreign media of biased coverage, it has something it wants to hide. It’s a good barometer of what’s going on inside. That is why restricting access is common practice.
Fences & restrictions
Foreign journalists can visit Assam only after taking permission from the Ministry of External Affairs, which consults the Ministry of Home Affairs before issuing a permit. In Jammu and Kashmir, things are no better. A circular from the Ministry of External Affairs says permission has to be sought by foreign journalists eight weeks before the date of visit. From May 2018 to January 2019, only two foreign journalists had got this permission.
That’s not all. Media outlets such as the BBC and Al Jazeera have been trolled on social media for their coverage of Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370, with the Modi government jumping to say their footage was fabricated.
The criticism has been echoed even by pro-government TV anchors and social media warriors (some like Shekhar Kapur who have justifiably picked on the BBC’s habit of referring to Jammu and Kashmir as Indian-administered Kashmir).
But India Today did a detailed forensic analysis to show the BBC video was anything but “fake news”. The BBC has also stood by its video (initially reported by Reuters) showing protestors marching on the streets with Article 370 placards and tear gas being used to disperse protests. “A protest the Indian government said did not happen,” @BBCWorld said.
Always on high alert
India’s sensitivity to how the BBC, in particular, sees it, is not new. John Elliott, who has reported on India, from India, for 25 years, told The Print: “India always seems to want international approval and praise, indicating it is not yet fully confident on the world stage. That leads to extreme sensitivity over a negative comment, maybe even more so under Prime Minister Narendra Modi for whom international recognition is a primary aim.”
It doesn’t take much to raise India’s hackles. In 1970, when French maestro Louis Malle’s documentary series Phantom India was shown on the BBC, it resulted in the closure of the BBC’s office in Delhi for two years and the repatriation of its news correspondent Ronald Robson. All because, even though the series was well received by British critics, Indians were upset about Malle’s inclusion in the first programme of ”a few shots of people sleeping on the pavements of Calcutta”. This was the “export of Indian poverty” argument that Nargis Dutt used about Satyajit Ray in 1980, with her now-famous quote: “I don’t believe Mr Satyajit Ray cannot be criticised. He is only a Ray, not the Sun.”
As Sunil Khilnani notes in his book, Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, Nargis felt Ray’s movies were popular in the West because “people there want to see India in an abject condition”. She wanted him to show “modern India”, not merely project “Indian poverty abroad”.
Of late, though, it is India’s fractious politics, which has made Indian governments extremely thin-skinned. This too has a history. Mark Tully, who became BBC’s Delhi bureau chief after it was allowed to return to India in 1972, fell afoul of prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1975 during the Emergency. As he says in this 2018 interview, at the time it was said he had reported that one of the senior-most cabinet ministers had resigned from her government in protest against the Emergency. Then information and broadcasting minister Inder Gujral stood up for him telling Mohammed Yunus (part of Indira Gandhi’s ‘kitchen cabinet’) that he had checked with the monitoring service and there was no evidence of Tully having said so.
Tully says Yunus told Gujral: ”I want you to arrest him, take his trousers down, and give him a beating and then put him in jail. Those were roughly the words I have recorded in the interview and it is also transcribed in a book I wrote with Zareer Masani called Raj to Rajiv. So, I discovered 18 months after the Emergency that I had had a lucky escape.”
In 2002, Time magazine’s Alex Perry had to face questioning over alleged passport irregularities after he wrote the widely quoted cover story on then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, wherein he said Vajpayee “fell asleep in cabinet meetings, was prone to ‘interminable silences’ and enjoyed a nightly whisky”. Although there was talk of Perry being thrown out of India, much like Tully, it didn’t happen. Perry left as Delhi bureau chief much later, in 2006. Now a well-known writer, he declined to comment for this story to ThePrint, calling it “old history”.
Nothing is really history in Indian politics, where personalities, issues, and allegations tend to be recycled. The New York Times is routinely accused of an anti-India bias – whether it was the diplomatic immunity of IFS officer Devyani Khobragade then or the Indian government’s abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir now.
As veteran journalist Mannika Chopra points out to ThePrint, Indian politicians have always been wary of the foreign press. “Under Indira Gandhi, it was difficult for foreign correspondents to report on Kashmir or the northeast. Or for visiting reporters to get visas. But the situation has changed. In India today, it would be fair to say the domestic media has, by and large, been won over by the current government, and those who haven’t are wary of speaking out. Independent voices are few. Political journalism has also changed. There are no hard-hitting investigations,” she said.
She points out that it has been left to the foreign press to present a counter-narrative, a dialogue independent of ideological blinkers and pressures. “As for the media within, it is all about being not merely anti-national but also supra-national.”
Elliott jokes that he wished Britain had some of the same sensitivity over international comments on Brexit so ”that we realised how the world sees our descent into constitutional and political chaos”. But perhaps not, given that India’s outrage can span the spectrum—from a BBC interview with a jubilant Jagjit Singh Chauhan in 1984 after Indira Gandhi’s death (as noted by scholar Suzanne Franks) to Jade Goody’s racist slurs in 2007 again then Celebrity Big Brother contestant Shilpa Shetty.
In India’s Republic of Easy Offence, the bar for public anger and government censure is quite low.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.
This article has been updated to reflect a change.