The BBC documentary features the findings of a British inquiry into the 2002 deadly riots, which reveals PM Modi failed to stop the violence.

India’s foreign ministry on Thursday dismissed a BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi that questioned his leadership during the deadly 2002 Gujarat riots as “propaganda”.

Modi was the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat when it was gripped by communal riots that left more than 1,000 people dead – most of them Muslims. The violence erupted after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire, killing 59.

The British inquiry report showcased in the documentary refers to the events as a “systematic campaign of violence” which has “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing”, and placed direct responsibility on Modi.

The United Kingdom government report was never made public until it was revealed in the documentary.

According to the documentary, released on Tuesday, the inquiry team claimed that Modi had prevented the police from acting to stop violence targeted at Muslims, and cited sources as saying Modi had specifically ordered authorities not to intervene.

Modi denied the accusations and was exonerated in 2012 following an inquiry by India’s top court. Another petition questioning his exoneration was dismissed last year.

Terming the BBC documentary a “propaganda piece” meant to push a “discredited narrative”, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said a “bias”, “lack of objectivity”, and “continuing colonial mindset” is “blatantly visible” in it.

“It makes us wonder about the purpose of this exercise and the agenda behind it, and we do not wish to dignify such efforts,” he told a news conference.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to his supporters as he arrives to cast his vote during the second and last phase of Gujarat state assembly elections in Ahmedabad, India, December 5, 2022. REUTERS/Amit Dave
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to his supporters in Gujarat state [File: Amit Dave/Reuters]

The BBC, contacted for comment, said the documentary was “rigorously researched” and involved a “wide range” of voices and opinions, including responses from people in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“We offered the Indian government a right to reply to the matters raised in the series – it declined to respond,” a BBC spokesperson said.

Ongoing discrimination

The documentary also features a former top British diplomat as saying that the violence had been planned by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) – an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation. Modi joined the RSS at a young age in his home state of Gujarat.

The VHP “could not have inflicted so much damage without the climate of impunity created by the state government”, the inquiry team said.

Jack Straw, who was the UK’s foreign secretary at the time of the violence, was also interviewed in the documentary and said allegations against Modi undermined his reputation.

“These were very serious claims – that Chief Minister Modi had played a pretty active part in pulling back the police and in tacitly encouraging the Hindu extremists,” Straw said. “That was a particularly egregious example.”

“What we did was establish an inquiry and have a team go to Gujarat and find out for themselves what had happened. And they produced a very thorough report,” he added.

The report also claimed there was widespread rape of Muslim women during the 2002 violence. It added that the riots’ objective was to “purge Muslims from Hindu areas” – something critics today say has become state policy under the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda.

Under Modi, whose party has been in power since 2014, Muslims in India have repeatedly been subjected to violence and lynchings and blatant discrimination that is often politically motivated.

Hindu supremacist groups and supporters of the governing BJP have also intensified calls to turn the country into an exclusive Hindu state.

The systematic, state-sponsored discrimination against Muslims includes laws that ban the hijab, a headscarf worn by many Muslim women, in certain parts of the country. Other controversial laws passed over the years include the Citizenship Amendment Act, which grants nationality to non-Muslim minorities from neighbouring countries.

In its documentary, the BBC showed that according to the British inquiry report, “reconciliation will be impossible” as long as Modi remains in power.