By now, there’s a good chance most people have heard about the BBC’s documentary on Narendra Modi – and the .
The first episode aired on January 17 and the second on January 25. It was unavailable in India – and the government made sure of that – so it was fairly obvious last week that the people arguing for or against it hadn’t actually watched it.
I watched both episodes and before we go any further, the accusation that the documentary isn’t “fair” or “balanced” is moot. People have grumbled that it focused too much on the 2002 riots. But the focus of this documentary was Modi’s political ascension, which undoubtedly means an analysis of 2002 because that chapter defined the rest of his political journey.
The first episode began with the heart-wrenching account of Imran Dawood, a British citizen who visited India in 2002 as a teenager with his uncles and neighbour. They became the target of an angry mob for being Muslim. His uncles and neighbour were stripped and murdered but Imran managed to survive. He returned home, burning for justice for his uncles.
Even before the scenes of violence appeared on screen, I felt a sense of foreboding.
Without wasting any time, the episode jumped straight to the Godhra incident with Jill McGivering, a former BBC reporter who had reported on it in 2002. Before watching the episode, I had heard a lot of social media chatter claiming the BBC had glanced over the Godhra incident. But I disagree – the coverage was justified in its gravitas and in proportion to the length of the episode. Furthermore, footage from McGivering’s reportage from Godhra appropriately encapsulated the horror of what happened. Her recollections of the circumstances in Godhra and subsequently in Ahmedabad were an imperative ingredient that made the documentary authentic.
I was also left with the feeling that McGivering too, in some ways, has forever been scarred by what she saw in 2002.
Some images had the possibility of being voyeuristic, such as the recollections of Imtiaz Pathan while revisiting the home of Ehsan Jafri. But the photography of Antoine Vedeilhe and the unseen interviewer Surabhi Tandon made sure the documentary did not fall into that trap – a commendable job at a time where the best of filmmakers and journalists might overindulge themselves.
Particularly haunting to me was Jafri’s abandoned and dilapidated home with unkempt shrubs. That there aren’t even squatters in the house is lasting evidence of the horrors witnessed here.
So many of us who have personally witnessed riots and their aftermath find it hard to pinpoint what shook us the most. How does one tabulate one horror over another? In many ways, the looting of random shops while the police remained spectators, as shown in the documentary, exemplified everything that went wrong then and everything that is wrong in our society.
McGivering’s conversation with chief minister Modi was also telling. He clearly said that, in his opinion, his only mistake was to “not handle the media”.
The episode also featured clips of rioter Babu Bajrangi and local politician Haresh Bhatt making claims that put Modi in the dock, as well as interviews with journalists, academics and diplomats like Jack Straw, the British high commissioner at the time.
What’s interesting is that none of the visuals and claims in the documentary are new. It’s all been discussed, investigated and examined by agencies and courts in India. Except one thing, which stuck out like a sore thumb: the blind trust or overreliance on the conclusions of a “secret British high commission investigation report”. Straw swore by the conclusions drawn from the report, which squarely blamed Modi for the killings of Muslims – conclusions that were dismissed by India’s Supreme Court.
From 2002 to more recent history
Victims and their families won’t agree, but the injustice of the Gujarat riots is part of the distant past when it comes to public discourse today. In fact, it arguably helps Modi strengthen his political position every time it resurfaces in public discourse.
While most of the hullabaloo is over the first episode, I found the second episode to be far more critical of Modi and his governance. The episode focuses on the lynching of Muslims in the garb of “cow worship”, the abrogation of article 370, the citizenship law protests, the Delhi riots, the attack on Jamia students, and the targeting of journalists and critics of the government.
All these are more recent history than the 2002 riots. And the systematic dog-whistling against Muslims and how it’s changed India’s social and political landscape since 2014 paint Modi in a much more sinister shade than the first episode.
Part two also covered a lot more ground when it comes to contentious issues in India, and the documentary did not veer from facts and visuals. This episode featured interviews with Noor Hussan, whose family was after the implementation of the National Register of Citizens in Assam, and activist Safoora Zargar, who was jailed for 74 days under the UAPA.
Across the episodes, the documentary spotlighted the failure and sometimes culpability of the police. There were parallels in this from both 2020 and 2002, and also the refusal of those in power to accept this failure.
Interestingly, part two showed Modi himself admonishing bigotry and violence against Muslims in the name of cow reverence, but his supporters and underlings, the bhakts, remain unfazed and unaffected by his ire. He’s popular and loved even when they don’t listen to him – or they perhaps know his ire is just for show.
In my opinion, even Modi’s staunchest, more rational supporters cannot claim that the claims made in the documentary are embellished or fabricated. I say “rational” because today’s political climate is populated by irrational political actors who will say anything just to score a point in a shouting match.
Let me highlight one issue I have with India: The Modi Question.
Jack Straw and the documentary treat the British high commission’s report as the final word on Modi’s culpability. I don’t doubt their intentions but Straw’s conclusions have been wrong in the past. As part of Tony Blair’s cabinet, he was of the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before its invasion by the US.
And this is where episode one, despite its merits, falters. Watching it as an Indian citizen who is unabashedly critical of the current government, I still couldn’t shake the feeling of a judgemental gaze by erstwhile gora overlords. Am I wrong to feel this way? I’ve contemplated this question hundreds of times in the past week but British institutions passing judgement on Indian institutions feels jarring.
And this is peculiar to the British – reports from the US or any other country wouldn’t leave a similar sourness in my mouth. British colonialism is the byword of oppressive regimes in recorded human history. In the 75 years since Independence, the UK hasn’t officially apologised for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre or shown regret for the horrors they’ve committed – and . Without defending Modi, I still believe not enough time has passed for British institutions to pass judgement on Indian counterparts, no matter the inefficiency.
So, should you watch this documentary?
The Indian government is doing everything in its power to make sure you can’t. But yes, you should. It’s well-researched and an important chronicle of the times we live in. Even if you disagree with it, watch it anyway because what Modi bhakts claim is true, that Modi has indeed become a world leader. Perhaps not in the way they’d hope – think Putin, Jinping or Erdogan – but he’s still world-famous.
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