Bashing the BBC: An unending Indian Sport

M G Radhakrishnan


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Mediapersons stand outside the BBC office where the survey is being conducted by Income Tax officials in Mumbai on Tuesday | ANI Photo

27 June 1975. Two days after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi proclaimed the Emergency. Inder Kumar Gujral (later India’s 12th Prime Minister), the Minister for Information and Broadcasting (I&B), got an urgent phone call from the Prime Minister’s office. The caller was Mohammed Yunus, Mrs. Gandhi's long-term friend. Yunus wanted Gujral to close down the BBC office in Delhi immediately and arrest its correspondent Mark Tully. Why? Tully reported that Union Ministers Jagjivan Ram and Swaran Singh were put under house arrest for opposing the Emergency. According to Catherine Frank, Indira’s biographer, Yunus told Gujral to “pull down his (Tully’s) trousers, give him a few lashes and send him to jail.” Gujral, who was increasingly upset with growing authoritarianism and had even opposed Sanjay Gandhi’s meddling in government, told Yunus it was not his job to arrest anyone. Later, Gujral found that BBC never reported anything as Yunus said and communicated it to Indira. But the same evening, Indira summoned Gujral to her office and asked him to leave the I & B portfolio. Subsequently, VC Shukla replaced Gujral to become independent India’s most notorious I&B Minister. On 13 August 1975, 41 Congress MPs signed a memorandum demanding to ban the BBC and never allow it to report from Indian soil for making “notoriously anti-India stories.” They said the BBC never missed an opportunity to malign India. A few days later, Tully was among the more than 40 foreign correspondents whom the union government asked to leave India immediately.

This was one of the most vociferously cited examples of Congress’s authoritarianism by its opponents, including the then Bharatiya Jana Sangh leaders like AB Vajpayee and LK Advani as they were among those who rode the huge popular wave against the Emergency to power. Indira Gandhi had initiated punitive action against the BBC even before the Emergency also when it aired the legendary French director Louis Malle’s documentaries on India (AK Gopalan and KR Gouri appear in it), dubbing them anti-Indian.

Forty-seven years later, the same rage and abuse the Congress unleashed against the BBC are seen from the successors of Vajpayee and Advani after it aired a documentary on Modi and the Gujarat riots. The Income Tax sleuths conducted a 60-hour-long marathon “survey” at the BBC’s offices in Delhi and Mumbai. BJP’s minions slammed the broadcaster as anti-Indian, and a party loudmouth called it even the "Bhrasht Bakwas Corporation." On the other side, Congress leaders came running to defend the BBC, and in true Orwellian spirit, its spokesman, Jairam Ramesh, called it even an “undeclared Emergency”! Imagine Adolf Hitler rebuking someone as a Nazi.

Indira Gandhi had initiated punitive action
against BBC even before Emergency

History has seen it umpteen times. Blinded with power and intoxicated by their transient victories, rulers go incredibly vain and arrogant. Armed with their temporary command over monstrous apparatuses of authority, they smother every voice of dissent and criticism. Driven by delusions of eternality and forgetful of their impermanence in power, these little men and women unabashedly go to the jugular of critics. Later, with their inevitable fall onto hard reality, they would stand naked (if they are still around) before history, heads hanging in shame. Yet they never learn. Instead, if they happen to return to power by some quirk of destiny, they would make the same mistakes. The Opposition, which cries hoarsely at the government’s hubris, would also be no different once they get to the throne. The cycle would go on, irrespective of ideologies and individuals. This is the way of the virus. The virus called power.

The virus behaves almost identically everywhere. Remember K. Karunakaran's naked display of power by overspeeding through roads in his official Mercedes, blaring horns and accompanied by shouting policemen in pilot jeeps that sent the traffic haywire and put pedestrians in danger. Or the licence the "leader" gave the police to abuse and misuse power. Or the Oommen Chandy government’s cynical neglect of the rising criticism of its communal and corrupt ways.

And what's going on now? The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), which had fiercely opposed while in opposition Karunakaran's and Chandy's ways, has taken the blatant display of power and profligacy to ridiculous heights. This is despite the state's crippling economic crisis and the LDF's swearing by Communist ideals. The heinous anti-people madness enforced on public roads in the name of the Chief Minister's security and his monstrous motorcade, etc, appear nightmarish.

The haughty Left leaders deploy the same abuses (if not worse) and actions to rubbish protests and criticism that the UDF leaders employed when they were at the receiving end. The same LDF leaders who ran in to defend the media when the UDF abused it while in power for exposing their misdeeds now compete to attack it. On the other side, UDF leaders today pose as the defenders of the media who would turn to predators once they get power.

However, does the fact that "all are naked in this bazaar" whitewash the Modi government's ongoing excesses and abuses? Never. Indira Gandhi had at least the fig leaf of Emergency. Modi doesn’t need an Emergency because he seemingly enjoys the majority community’s consent and support, and vigilantes volunteer to smother every protest along with the state. Several highly respected writers and human rights activists have been killed or imprisoned without trial. Quite unprecedented.

But why should politicians get all the blame? Let me share my big dream before concluding. When would we, the media of the world’s largest democracy, beat the BBC in being the Indian people’s most trusted media by telling them first the biggest stories happening in our own country? They were the first to tell us the biggest stories of post-independent India. Be it the excesses of Emergency, Operation Blue Star in the Golden Temple, Indira Gandhi's assassination, the Babri Masjid demolition, or now the big story of the Gujarat riots.

In 2013, an Indian Chief Minister narrated how our common people trusted most not Doordarshan, Akashvani, or the Indian newspapers but the BBC. According to him, Indians gave the ultimate certificate for the British broadcaster’s credibility by often saying, Yaar, meine to woh BBC par suna hai” ! Name of the leader? Narendra Modi.

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