Indian media on its downward spiral

24 Jan,2023



By Ranjona Banerji


Ranjona BanerjiThe Government of India invoked emergency powers under Information Technology Rules 2021 to order YouTube and Twitter to take down links and certain comments on the BBC’s documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat when he was chief minister and his relationship with Muslims then and now.

The Government had already instructed the BBC to take down links to the documentary in India.

Part 2 of the series is due to be released today, Tuesday January 24, 2023.

The Indian media has largely gone along with this diktat. Obviously, the Indian media feels very strongly about the Emergency provisions of 1975 imposed on the press by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi. What a travesty of democratic norms. Shocking! It is another matter that then as now media owners were quite happy that their powers were curtailed. Trains, as we were often told, ran on time.

Now in these days of an undeclared Emergency, trains do not run on time, media owners are happy when their journalists don’t perform and the journalists themselves are happiest that they no longer have to function as journalists. Being publicity mouthpieces for the Modi administration is fulfilling enough.

So a documentary which largely reiterates what the media had said in 2002 and onwards is now verboten.

Many media and public affairs commentators in their 30s have expressed dissatisfaction with older journalists who have stated on social media that the BBC documentary shows “nothing new”. I fear there is something lost in translation here.

What journalists who were old enough to be around in 2002 saw is that the riots were covered extensively and allegations made against Modi and the state administration in the documentary were also made at the time. This does not imply that the documentary is pointless or unimportant.

Rather, the BBC documentary reiterates what was said then and provides an additional input: the findings of the British government of the time. It also puts into perspective the changes in Modi from 2002 to today.


The question however is why the Modi Government is so angry. From 2014 until today, attacks on Muslims and other religious minorities, and on Dalits, has only increased. Several BJP politicians, including the prime minister, have added to the hatred against Muslims in election and other speeches. Hindutva has been paraded as an answer to India’s problems and democracy has been upbraided for not allowing superstition and arcane customs a free run.

One would have thought that the BJP and Modi would have been happy with the documentary. It underlines Modi’s role in the riots. It shows how Muslims were made to suffer. It explains 20 years later how these riots laid the ground for Modi’s later ascension to power. What’s not to like? And yet…

The media has happily gone along with all this. It has amplified the hatred and not questioned Modi or the BJP on its actions. Of course, it is not possible to question Modi in person since he does not allow it. We understand that. But the questions put to Modi by a mainstream media house are few and far between. Already, all those who questioned the Modi administration on the Covid19 deaths and the handling of the pandemic have silenced themselves.

The Indian media thus continues on its downward spiral. Gag orders on Joshimath, the invocation of emergency powers of the draconian IR Rules of 2021, the banning of a documentary about the Gujarat riots of 2002 have all washed off the media’s back like this is par for the course.

And it is. How many in the mainstream media were bothered about journalists being spied on via Pegasus? Or spyware being used to manufacture evidence against human rights activists?

The answer though is in the implied criticism in the BBC documentary. That more could and should have been done.

And thus, the response from the Modi administration, largely unquestioned by the Indian media, has been to ban and blame. Some absurdity about a “colonial mindset” from politicians who belong to a “cultural” organisation which was very subservient to our erstwhile colonial masters and did not play any role in a freedom movement, is really quite funny.

Unquestioned by the mainstream media obviously.

Radio silence from several mainstream TV anchors who brought the riots into living rooms and bedrooms.

Unfortunately, the world has noticed, even if Modi’s fans have not. I mean the newer fans, who believe he is the messiah of hope and fulfilment. The older fans after all voted for him because of the riots.

I was tempted to repeat my old story about how the state government under Modi in 2002 tried to stop The Times of India in Gujarat, where I worked at the time, from being critical of Modi’s role in the riots. The owners told us to ignore the pressure and carry on with what we were doing. In spite of immense pressure on them.

Yeah, sounds like a fairy tale today.

Like Modi’s idea of himself as a messiah.

Which as we approach Republic Day seems ironic…


Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She writes on MxMIndia on Tuesdays and Fridays. Her views here are personal


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