On February 21, external affairs minister S Jaishankar gave an interview to ANI journalist Smita Prakash on the 42nd episode of the multimedia news agency's show 'ANI Podcast with Smita Prakash'. The episode is titled 'Dr. S Jaishankar, No Holds Barred'. The discussion ranged from the diplomat-turned-politician's upbringing and education to a range of current political questions, including the BBC documentary titled 'India: The Modi Question'.
The documentary, released in January 2023, created a huge row in India as it probed the role of Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, in the communal violence that erupted in the state in February and March 2002. On January 21, the government banned the documentary and asked YouTube and Twitter to remove all links. “The bias and lack of objectivity and frankly continuing colonial mindset are blatantly visible,” Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson for the foreign affairs ministry, said in a statement referring to the documentary.
At the 53.07-minute mark in the ANI show, after a brief discussion on the minister's JNU days, the interviewer asked Jaishankar about his stance on the practice of banning a documentary or a book or asking a channel not to broadcast something in India. In reply, he said, "I don't think you are asking the right question... What is it we are debating? We are not debating just a documentary or a speech that somebody gave in a European city... We are debating actually politics which is being conducted ostensibly as media... There is a phrase ‘war by other means'... think of it, this is politics by other means".
Alluding to the BBC documentary, Jaishankar added, "You do a hatchet job and say this is just another quest for truth which we decided after 20 years to put out at this time! Do you think the timing is accidental?"
Then, around the 55-minute mark, the discussion came back to the documentary. Jaishankar said at 56.21, "Okay you had to make a documentary... many things happened in Delhi in 1984. Why didn't we see a documentary on that? If you say I am a humanist and must get justice for people who have been wronged... This is politics at play by people who don't have the courage to come into the political field..."
In other words, external affairs minister S Jaishankar suggested that there was a political motive behind the release of the BBC documentary on the Gujarat riots. He backed this hypothesis by alluding to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and saying that the BBC did not make a documentary on that, thereby indicating a bias.
BBC documentary on 1984 riots
A simple keyword search on Google reveals that the BBC has an hour-long documentary on the Sikh riots in Delhi that broke out in the aftermath of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination on October 31, 1984. It is titled '1984 -- A Sikh Story'. it was released in 2010 when the Congress-led UPA was in power at the Centre.
The documentary is shot in the first-person narration of a journalist named Sonia Deol, who was then with the BBC, and is a Sikh by faith. Some parts of it are extremely personal but much of it seeks to look at the events of 1984 with an objective distance.
She says that she was guided in the assignment by Mark Tully, who was BBC's chief of bureau in Delhi for 22 years. "Throughout 1984, his reports were a lifeline for British Indians anxious for news," she adds, suggesting that the BBC had covered the events of 1984 extensively. But more on that, later.
What does the BBC documentary show?
The documentary starts by saying, "It was Indira Gandhi who gave the order to capture Bhindranwale and began a chain of events that would lead to thousands of deaths, including her own."
"Neighbours became enemies" and "a sacred shrine became killing ground," it adds.
To shoot the documentary, Sonia visited Amritsar and the Golden Temple in particular, where Operation Blue Star had taken place in the first week of June 1984, authorized by then PM Indira Gandhi to capture Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who had taken refuge in the shrine. It records the testimony of witnesses and survivors. Gyani Puran Singh, a priest who was inside the Golden Temple complex on that fateful day, describes on camera how army tanks entered the Golden Temple compound and 'all but destroyed' the 'Akal Takht', where Bhindranwale had stationed himself.
The setting of the documentary then changes to Delhi, where close to 3,000 Sikhs were killed in the first 3/4 days of November 1984, according to the report of the Justice Nanavati commission. This was done in retaliation to the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards, Beant and Satwant Singh, at her residence at 1, Safdarjung Marg, on October 31, 1984.
The documentary narrates in detail how things went out of control in Delhi, once the news got out that Indira was killed by two Sikhs. It features a photojournalist who had seen the riots first-hand. What he saw was appalling. The mob was not only beating up Sikhs but killing them as well. At this point, the documentary shows newspaper clippings with headlines such as 'Mob burns Sikhs alive'. He also narrates how he managed to save one of his Sikh friends, by hiding him in his darkroom.
"The attacks didn't just happen in central Delhi... but the mobs wanted to kill in greater numbers so they headed to the outskirts of Delhi in areas like Trilokpuri and Mangolpuri. That's where the Sikh communities lived," the presenter says at the 44.12-minute mark.
Again, at 44.22, she goes to a gurudwara, where a survivor tells her that the riots were not a disorganized rampage, but a planned attack against the Sikh community. He recollects how in his locality police had first asked Sikh youths who had taken shelter in a Gurudwara to go back to their homes, and then burnt down the Gurudwara and allowed the mob to run amok in the blocks where the Sikhs lived. Police, who were supposed to protect the helpless community, were allegedly complicit in the riots, the presenter says.
So, it is fact that BBC did make a documentary on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, which minces no words to narrate how Sikhs were butchered in the national capital. S Jaishankar's rhetorical question --- "many things happened in Delhi in 1884. Why didn't we see a documentary on that" --- is not based on facts.
BBC has more than one documentary on 1984
A keyword search on the BBC's official website reveals that the broadcaster has actually made more than one documentary on 1984, Delhi. Besides, there are several reports which look back at the events of that year.
In November 2009, the BBC published a long-form feature by an Indian journalist who had covered the 1984 riots from the ground. Titled 'Indira Gandhi's death remembered', the piece presents a blow-by-blow account of the violence, described in the story as 'ethnic cleansing'.
In January 2014, on the 30th anniversary of the Sikh riots, BBC Radio made a documentary where a survivor goes back to the localities where violence had broken out and recollects those days. It is called 'Assassination: When Delhi Burned'.
In February 2014, the BBC published a long-form report titled 'Delhi 1984: India's Congress party still struggling to escape the past'. It says, "At least 3,000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi, and members of the ruling Congress party were widely accused of encouraging the violence. The spectre of 1984 is all the greater because no-one of any significance has been brought to justice." It is worthwhile to note that this too was published while the Congress was in power. Harvinder Singh Phoolka, a Sikh lawyer who has spearheaded the legal fight of the 1984 victims' families, says, "Whenever any victim named a Congress leader, or a police officer, they didn't register the case...no large-scale violence happens in India without the patronage of people in power,"
In April 2013, BBC Hindi published a feature written from the perspective of the victims titled '84 दंगे: 'आगे भी मौत थी, पीछे भी मौत'. A survivor reminisces how Delhi police refused to help him even as he was helplessly staring at death. "The headquarters of Delhi Police falls on the way at ITO intersection. I got there. I told the policemen about the situation in the area and sought permission to meet an officer. But I was not allowed to meet anyone," Mohan Singh, who lost two of his brothers, says.
In November 2015, the BBC World Service's 'Witnessing History' section released an audio documentary titled 'India's Anti-Sikh riots'.
In November 2017, the BBC published a photo feature on the 1984 riots. It's titled 'How the 1984 riots spread across Delhi'.
In January 2021, the same 'Witnessing History' segment of the BBC World Service released another audio documentary on the subject titled 'Fighting for justice for India's Sikhs'.
BBC's coverage of the events of 1984
Nearly two weeks after the Operation Blue Star was over, the Indian government allowed a handful of journalists to enter the Golden Temple. The BBC's widely respected India correspondent Mark Tully was one of them. One of his dispatches can be watched here:
An October 2017 article in The Tribune calls BBC’s dispatches by Tully from Amritsar after Operation Blue Star 'riveting'.
In fact, the BBC had reported extensively and reliably on the events of 1984. The most undeniable proof of that is the fact that on October 31, Rajiv Gandhi came to know of his mother's assassination from a BBC World Service bulletin. And there is a tinge of irony in the fact that when Indira stepped out of her Safdarjung Marg home on that fateful morning, she was headed towards her Akbar Road office just across the lawn for an interview with journalist Peter Ustinov for a BBC documentary on India. That was Indira's first assignment on the day she died. She was shot right in the middle of the garden path.
Katherine Frank's book 'Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi' (HarperCollins, 2005), considered the ex-PM's most authoritative biography, corroborates both these facts. Frank writes:
"On the morning of 31st October, 1984, Rajiv Gandhi was in a remote area of West Bengal traveling from village to village on a whirlwind pre-election tour. More than 100 miles south of Calcutta on a dusty rural road in the middle of nowhere, Rajiv's white Ambassador car was intercepted by a police Jeep. An officer got out and handed Rajiv a note with a message: "There has been an accident in the Prime Minister's house. Cancel all appointments and return to Delhi immediately." Rajiv and his entourage hastily abundant their ambassador for the faster Mercedes follow-up car and roared off towards Calcutta. As they speed along the potholed road, the driver turned the car radio to BBC World Service. When the 10 o'clock news bulletin came on, they heard that Indira had been shot by her bodyguards and had been taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences." (Page 495)
The interview for the BBC documentary is mentioned on Page 491. it can be read below:
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Postscript: BBC's relationship with Indira Gandhi & Congress
Journalist Coomi Kapoor's book 'The Emergency: A Personal History' (Penguin Viking, 2015) describes the torrid time the BBC had in India under Indira Gandhi's prime ministership, particularly during the Emergency.
Mark Tully recounted to Kapoor that on June 26, 1975, the day after the declaration of the Emergency, Mohammad Younus, a family friend of the Gandhis who enjoyed enormous clout, called up information and broadcasting minister IK Gujral in rage and "claimed that BBC had reported "that some members of the government such as Jagjivan Ram, Swaran Singh and Gujaral himself did not support the Emergency and had been put under house arrest. Younus wanted Mark Tully, BBC's New Delhi correspondent arrested. "Pull down his pants and give him a few lashes and put him in jail," was his advice... Later on investigation, it turned out that it was not the BBC, which was monitored by AIR, that had broadcast the offending report, but a Pakistani news programme." (Page 50)
Tully did have to leave India shortly, though. A few months after the Emergency, the government came up with a censorship programme for the foreign correspondents in India. The BBC was one of the organizations that refused to sign the agreement. As a result, Delhi bureau chief Mark Tully was given 24 hours to leave the country. Loren Jenkins of the Newsweek was another journalist who was asked to leave. He later wrote, "In 10 years of covering the world from Franco's Spain to Mao's China, I have never encountered such stringent and all encompassing censorship. Even after the BBC no longer had a correspondent in India, it continued to broadcast. The radio station got its news from Reuters... The BBC became a byword for anti-government news... 'BBC mein suna hai' was a common refrain to claim authenticity for anti-Emergency stories, Tully recalls." (Kapoor, Page 59)
To conclude, not only did the BBC publish several documentaries, podcasts and features over decades on the 1984 Delhi riots, but during Indira's rule it was one of the most consistent critical voices in the media fraternity, as far as governance is concerned. And it had to bear the brunt as well. External affairs minister S Jaishankar's insinuation of bias, therefore, doesn't stand the test of recorded history.