Image: Police officers stand outside the BBC’s office in New Delhi, India on February 14, 2023.
Indian tax authorities raided the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai on Tuesday, weeks after the country banned a documentary from the British broadcaster that was critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in deadly riots more than 20 years ago.
BBC News reported on television that people had not been allowed to enter or leave the offices.
The raids come after the Indian government said it used “emergency powers” to block the documentary from airing in the country, adding that both YouTube and Twitter complied with the order.
The move polarized reaction in the world’s largest democracy. Critics decried it as an assault on press freedom, while Modi’s supporters rallied to his defense.
A BBC spokesperson told CNN that the organization was “fully cooperating” with authorities. “We hope to have this situation resolved as soon as possible,” the spokesperson said.
The two-part documentary “India: The Modi Question” criticized the then-chief minister of the western state of Gujarat in 2002 when riots broke out between the state’s majority Hindus and minority Muslims. It was broadcast in the UK in January.
More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the violence and at least 220 more went missing, according to government figures. Almost 1,000 women were widowed, while more than 600 children were left orphaned, official figures showed.
Modi and his ruling ruling Bharatiya Janata Party rose to power in India in 2014, riding on a wave of Hindu nationalism in the country of 1.3 billion, where nearly 80% of the population follow the faith.
The BBC said Jack Straw, who was British foreign secretary in 2002 and features in the documentary, claims that Modi had “played a proactive part in pulling back the police and in tacitly encouraging the Hindu extremists.”
Modi has denied accusations that he failed to stop the violence. A special investigation team appointed by India’s Supreme Court in 2012 found no evidence to suggest he was to blame.
But the riots remain one of the darkest chapters in India’s post-independence history, with some victims still awaiting justice.
Last month, some university students in Delhi attempting to watch the banned film on campus were detained by police, raising concerns that freedoms were bring throttled under Modi’s government.
Fears of censorship
Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, BJP spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia said companies, including media agencies, must “follow and respect Indian law.”
“Anyone, any agency, whether tied to the media, a company, if they are working in India, they must follow and respect Indian law. If they follow the law, then why should they be scared or worried? Let the Income Department do its job,” he said.
India was a country that “gives an opportunity to every organization” as long as they are “willing to abide” by the country’s constitution, Bhatia added.
The raids have raised fears of censorship in India.
In a statement Tuesday, the Editor’s Guild of India said it was “deeply concerned” by the development.
The raids were a “continuation of a trend of using government agencies to intimidate and harass press organisations that are critical of government policies or the ruling establishment,” it said. “This is a trend that undermines constitutional democracy.”
The statement gave examples of similar searches carried out at the offices of various English-language local media outlets, including NewsClick and Newslaundry, as well as Hindi-language media organizations including Dainik Bhaskar and Bharat Samachar.
The Press Club of India said in a Tuesday statement the raids “will damage the reputation and image of India as the world’s largest democracy.”
“It is deeply unfortunate as this latest instance appears to be a clear cut case of vendetta, coming within weeks of a documentary aired by the BBC,” it said, urging the government to “restrain its agencies from misusing its powers in order to intimidate the media.”