“Let me make it very clear,” said Arindam Bagchi, the spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, to a group of gathered reporters. “We think this is a propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative. The bias, the lack of objectivity and, frankly, the continuing colonial mindset is blatantly visible.”

The undiplomatic language from an experienced diplomat was striking because he was referring to a BBC documentary about events from decades ago in one of India’s 28 states, albeit events that leave a deep, abiding and likely indelible stain on the reputation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Part One of the documentary — “India: The Modi Question” — was broadcast in the U.K. on January 17, and Part Two was broadcast a week later. Neither part has been screened in India.

Actor John Cusack received a notice from Twitter that a link he posted to the BBC documentary would be blocked in India.

Invoking “emergency” powers, India has blocked even the sharing of links to clips from the documentary on social media. On January 21, before Part 2 had been screened in the U.K., Kanchan Gupta, a former journalist and the senior advisor to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, described the documentary in a tweet as “hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage,” as he announced the decision to block tweets and links “under India’s sovereign laws and rules.”

What so incensed the Indian establishment was the documentary’s revelations that a British government inquiry into communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 held Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, “directly responsible” for enabling three days of horrifying violence. The riots resulted in the deaths of a thousand people — nearly 800 of them Muslim, according to official figures. 

Modi was alleged to have told the police to stand down because Hindus needed to respond to the burning of a train by a Muslim mob (though the specifics of how the train caught fire continue to be disputed) that resulted in the deaths of 59 Hindu pilgrims and activists, including many women and children. They were returning from a religious ceremony in Ayodhya, the presumed birthplace of the Hindu god Ram and site of a disputed mosque that had been torn down by Hindu nationalists a decade earlier. The veteran and respected Indian journalist and commentator Saeed Naqvi wrote in his 2016 book, “Being the Other: The Muslim in India,” that for “Indian Muslims, their place in Indian society changed radically after the Babri Masjid demolition.”

It was then, he argues, that the “whole charade” of Indian secularism was exposed and that prejudice against Muslims became easier to express, a process that some might argue reached its apogee when Modi was elected prime minister in 2014.

Modi has been prime minister of India for almost nine years. He is very likely to be elected for a third consecutive five-year term in 2024. He might have been forgiven for thinking the Gujarat riots were behind him.

In the aftermath of the riots, Modi was an international pariah. He was denied a visa to the United States in 2005 on the grounds that he was guilty of “severe violations of religious freedom.” Only when Modi became prime minister in 2014 was he able to return to the U.S. because, as a head of state, he was immune from prosecution. Modi’s immunity was cited when U.S. President Joe Biden made the controversial decision last November to grant immunity from prosecution to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

As the prime minister of India, Modi has received rapturous welcomes in stadiums and convention centers in both the U.S. and the U.K., where a member of the House of Lords admiringly referred to him, in the wake of the controversy over the BBC documentary, as “one of the most powerful persons on the planet.” It’s the kind of image Modi likes to project. He is, he frequently says, the leader of a new, more assertive India, an India that is on the cusp of superpowerdom and unignorable wealth.

Protecting this image of himself and India might explain why the government reacted so sharply to a documentary about events that occurred long before Modi became prime minister. It is an indication that by describing the documentary as anti-India (though it is about riots in Gujarat), the entire apparatus of the government appears to be dedicated to spreading the message that Modi is India and India is Modi.

Hartosh Singh Bal, the political editor of the Caravan magazine, told me the BBC documentary was “journalistically sound.” (The Caravan and Coda have embarked on a publishing partnership over the next nine months.) Bal appears as a commentator in long stretches of the documentary and said that the response of India’s Ministry of External Affairs was “particularly stupid.” He added that the irony of Bagchi’s criticism of the BBC’s supposedly “colonial mindset” is that it reveals “how in thrall the government remains to Western media” and how “hypersensitive it is to criticism from the English-language international press.” 

If these criticisms had appeared in the Caravan, Bal argues, the blowback would have been less anguished, less wounded. As if to underline his point, a significantly more polemical and damning Indian documentary pointedly called “Final Solution” is available for Indians to watch on YouTube. It was made in 2004 and was initially banned. It has never been screened on Indian television, but, unlike the BBC film, it’s accessible without a VPN.  

Writing in the Indian Express, Vivek Katju, a former diplomat, deplored the government’s “paroxysms of pique” but largely endorsed a widespread Indian view that the documentary was mean-spirited and gratuitous, that it had “not taken into account that the Indian judicial process has fully exonerated Modi.” 

In fact, the BBC documentary does place on record, several times, that India’s Supreme Court has found that Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat, does not bear responsibility for the riots and, as recently as last June, reiterated that the failures of individual officials does not rise to criminal conspiracy. But a lack of clinching evidence does not mean Modi bears no moral responsibility for what happened.

And what is an observer of Indian politics meant to conclude when Modi’s closest ally, Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah, tells a crowd in November, in their shared home state of Gujarat, that perpetrators of violence “were taught a lesson in 2002”? During campaigning for local elections in Gujarat, held in early December, Shah told a rally in Gujarati that under the rule of the opposing political party, certain people were used to getting away with violence but that Modi established permanent peace in the state. 

After the riots, judges in Gujarat mostly closed cases and acquitted those accused of killing Muslims. It was only after India’s Supreme Court intervened in 2004, describing the Gujarat government led by Modi as “modern-day Neros” who looked the other way while Gujarat burned, that the police were ordered to investigate cases.

A Hindu mob waving swords during the 2002 Gujarat riots that left 1,000 people dead, about 800 of them Muslim.
Sebastian D’Souza/AFP via Getty Images.

Modi has never expressed remorse for the riots that happened under his watch. In a revealing scene in the BBC documentary, he tells a BBC correspondent that the only mistake he made was in failing to handle the media. 

India currently holds the presidency of the G20. Modi hopes to use it to showcase India’s growing importance on the world stage. The G20 presidency, he told the Indian Parliament at the start of its winter session in December, was an opportunity for the world to know India as “the mother of democracy, with its diversity and courage.”

Instead, the world is garnering a different impression of India, one in which journalists and free expression are increasingly imperiled. Reporters Without Borders now ranks India 150 out of 180 countries in its 2022 World Press Freedom Index, down eight places from the previous year. Several people who refused to be interviewed by the BBC for its documentary, despite contributing significant reporting and research, told me anonymously that they feared the response of a vindictive government. 

And some who did participate told me they no longer wanted to speak about the documentary because they were being threatened with violence on social media. As Rana Ayyub, a journalist who has felt, and continues to feel, the wrath of the Modi government and its supporters for her outspoken views, tweeted: “This is not a good look for India.” For a government so concerned with its international image, it has succeeded only in bringing more attention to a BBC documentary that uncovers little that is new, little that Indian journalists have not already reported.