India’s tax authorities have raided the BBC’s offices in Mumbai and Delhi, in the wake of the corporation releasing a documentary critical of prime minister Narendra Modi.
The BBC aired the two-part documentary titled India: The Modi Question last month. It investigated Mr Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots in 2002, when he was the state’s chief minister. The documentary was broadcast only in the UK, but India’s government acted to block it from being seen elsewhere, invoking emergency powers under information and technology laws and ordering social media companies to remove clips of the programme.
The Modi government strongly criticised the British public service broadcaster at the time, saying the film was a “propaganda piece” that reflected a “continuing colonial mindset”.
As for the office searches, officials said that they were looking into documents relating to the company’s business operations, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.
The BBC confirmed to The Independent that tax agents were present at the corporation’s offices, and said it was “fully cooperating”.“We hope to have this situation resolved as soon as possible,” a spokesperson said. The British Foreign Office said it was closely monitoring the situation.
Mr Modi’s government has in the past been accused by rights organisations of using allegations of financial misconduct to target its critics, including NGOs, journalists, news organisations and politicians.
The BBC’s documentary on Mr Modi aired on 17 and 24 January. The first part included details of a previously unreleased UK government inquiry that found Mr Modi “directly responsible” for the circumstances leading up to the 2002 riots, in which more than 1,000 people – most of them Muslims – died.
Previous investigations into the riots found that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Mr Modi, and last year India’s Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to the findings of a Special Investigation Team report on the riots, which had cleared him as well as 62 other senior government officials.
The BBC has defended its film and said it adheres to the “highest editorial standards”. The two-part documentary attempts to examine the prime minister’s relationship with Muslims, the country’s largest minority group.
Following news of the raids, online searches for “India Narendra Modi documentary” surged globally as people looked to download it.
India’s opposition parties have hit out at the Modi government over the raids. In a statement, the opposition Congress party said that the raids showed that the country is under an “undeclared emergency”.
Opposition parties have also accused the Modi government of having misplaced priorities by deciding to go after the BBC instead of investigating the fraud allegations against the Adani Group, which have wiped billions from the value of businessman Gautam Adani’s companies.
Addressing a press conference, Gaurav Bhatia, a spokesperson for Mr Modi’s BJP party, defended the work of the income tax department. “[The] income tax department must be allowed to do its work,” he said. “If the BBC did no wrong, then why are [they] scared?”
Another party spokesperson, Gopal Krishna Agarwal, said Indian institutions work independently and that the tax department is “within the law in looking into tax compliance”. “India is a vibrant democracy where no one is above the law,” he said.
Yet at the same time, Mr Bhatia also lashed out at the broadcaster and referred to it as the “Bhrasht Bhakwaas Corporation” (the “Corrupt Rubbish Corporation”). “The BBC indulges in anti-India propaganda,” he said. “India is a country which gives an opportunity to every organisation… as long as you don’t spew venom.”
Earlier on Tuesday, in an interview with news agency ANI, home minister and close Modi aide Amit Shah said the prime minister continues to grow stronger despite “a thousand conspiracies”.
“The truth emerges despite a thousand conspiracies around it. They are after Modi since 2002. But every time, Modi Ji comes out stronger & more popular,” Mr Shah said when asked about the BBC documentary.
Journalist groups in India have also condemned the raids on the BBC. The Editors Guild of India said in a statement that it was “deeply concerned” about what the income tax officials were referring to as “surveys” at the offices of BBC India.
It added that the guild was “distressed by the continuing trend of government agencies being used to intimidate and harass news organisations that are critical of [the] ruling establishment”.