Amid a controversy in India over the BBC on Narendra Modi, a story that gained wide traction was that UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had supported his Indian counterpart and dismissed the criticism of him implied in the series. But it really depended on who you read.
The reports were based on a parliamentary exchange during – a weekly jousting match in the House of Commons where the prime minister takes a series of questions from MPs. The highlight of PMQs is of course a string of politically charged exchanges between the Leader of the Opposition and the PM – more theatre than serious political debate.
On January 18, the last MP to be called by the Speaker was Imran Hussain, the Shadow Minister for Employment, and Labour Member for Bradford East. He, “Last night, the BBC revealed that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office knew the extent of Narendra Modi’s involvement in the Gujarat massacre that paved the way for the persecution of Muslims and other minorities that we see in India today. Senior diplomats reported that the massacre could not have taken place without the ‘climate of impunity’ created by Modi and that he was, in the FCDO’s words, ‘directly responsible’ for the violence. Given that hundreds were brutally killed and that families across India and the world, including here in the UK, are still without justice, does the Prime Minister agree with his Foreign Office diplomats that Modi was directly responsible? What more does the Foreign Office know about Modi’s involvement in that grave act of ethnic cleansing?”
Like all questions to the prime minister, this was a loaded question, like asking a visiting dignitary if he can deny rumours that “you have promised not to beat your wife”. With PMQs being a political theatre, and questions inviting a yes or no response usually being traps for the unwary, Sunak cleverly side-stepped the issue. He could neither “agree” with his diplomats nor could he directly dismiss the foreign office reports at the time. Obfuscation was the only option.
The UK PM , “The UK government’s position on that is clear and long standing, and it has not changed. Of course, we do not tolerate persecution anywhere, but I am not sure that I agree at all with the characterisation that the honourable gentleman has put forward.”
For the Indian media, the operative part was “I am not sure that I agree at all with the characterisation that the honourable gentleman has put forward”. In British parliamentary tradition every Member of Parliament is an “honourable gentleman” – in this case it was a reference to Imran Hussain, not Narendra Modi.
That is what actually transpired in the House of Commons; it’s all there in – the official record of every speech and response made by MPs in the House. But the Indian media wanted something far more juicy, so they just ended up reading too much into this.
NDTV a video clip of the exchange between Hussain and Sunak, and said,
“Defending Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the British Parliament, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak distanced himself from the BBC documentary series, saying he ‘doesn't agree with the characterisation’ of his Indian counterpart.”
In its report on January 20, , “UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons on Thursday, that he does not agree at all with the characterisation of Indian PM Narendra Modi put forward in the BBC documentary.” That was the gloss they put on it, though further in the report they did quote Sunak’s reply faithfully and in full.
The took a similar line on January 22. “Defending prime Minister Narendra Modi in the House of Commons, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he disagreed ‘with the characterisation’ of his Indian counterpart in the BBC documentary series on the 2002 Gujarat riots.”
ANI went a step further, managing to bring in a mention of Pakistan, when they with a link to their YouTube channel that stated, “Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Rishi Sunak was quick to shoot down Pakistan-origin Member of Parliament Imran Hussain’s efforts to raise anti-Modi BBC ‘documentary’ during PMQs in the Parliament.”
repeated almost verbatim the NDTV line. “Defending Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the British Parliament, UK Prime Minister Rshi Sunak has said that he disagreed ‘with the characterisation’ of his Indian counterpart in the BBC documentary on the 2002 Gujarat riots.”
too went with the line: “Rishi Sunak defends PM Modi, snubs Pakistan origin MP”.
Even the usually careful magazine, in an article on February 16, stated, “Last month, Britain’s especially limp prime minister Rishi Sunak, suggested he did not ‘agree at all’ with the unpublished report’s characterisation of Mr Modi.”
So did the British Prime Minister come to the defence of his Indian counterpart?
It depends on who you read. If you listen to the PMQs and read the official transcript in Hansard, you get one version of the story. That Sunak batted off the question without saying anything specific one way or another about the unpublished Foreign Office report mentioned in the BBC documentary. He certainly did not explicitly disagree with the BBC documentary.
However, if all you listen to are India’s hyper-ventilating nationalist media outlets, then you get an altogether different conclusion – one that sustains what Vidya Krishnan as “the lies that allow us to carry on with our lives”.
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