Salil Tripathi on ‘India: The Modi Question’

Salil Tripathi was born in Mumbai and lives in New York. He is an award-winning journalist and the author of three works of non-fiction. He has reported out of Asia, Europe, and Africa. His articles have appeared in many prominent publications. He was educated at the University of Bombay and at the Tuck School at Dartmouth College. He was chair of PEN International's Writers in Prison Committee and is now a member of its board.
Labiba Hassan '25 interviewed Mr. Salil Tripathi on on February 10, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Mr. Salil Tripathi.

On January 23rd, India’s government banned the BBC’s documentary India: The Modi Question. What did the government find so damaging to Prime Minister Modi and the government’s image? Did the documentary present new findings about the violence in 2002 when Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister?

The motivations of the government are very hard to fathom because they have not said anything formally about the ban. Additionally, the document is not officially banned because it has not even been legally shown yet in India — if you want to see BBC in India, you can only see it on BBC World Service, which has not yet telecast it. All the government has done is asked Twitter and YouTube not to let people share the link to the video. This is essentially playing into BBC’s benefit because it helps protect their intellectual property rights. Although it is not banned, there is a case in the courts against the government saying that they should allow people to watch it. 

People associated with the government and those who support it have gone out and disrupted screenings, such as by cutting the electricity supply at the hall where the film was going to be screened. The government doesn't want it to be seen and consistently stands behind the Supreme Court’s ruling a few years ago that there was no case for Modi to answer over the massacres in Gujarat in 2002. They feel the documentary brings back old questions about the massacre and the violence in Gujarat that have already been settled legally by the court. With nationwide elections to be held next year, there are concerns that this documentary brings back a ghost from Modi’s past. 

However, the documentary brings forward something new: we now know that the British government had published a report internally, which blames Modi, which the documentary relies on. The first part of the documentary contains a lot of information from the report written by the British diplomat who investigated the case — where it resulted in the European Union, United Kingdom and the United States preventing Modi from entering their countries between 2003 or 2004 to 2013. 

These facts and reminders come at a difficult time for the Indian government politically, as India is trying to project itself as a major power and heads into chairing the G20 summit this year. It wants to project its image as the world’s largest democracy, and a film like this shifts the conversation. 

You write in a recent article that, “India has also become an increasingly illiberal place, where activists are jailed and minority rights are undermined.” How has this illiberalism been manifested in practice?

Illiberalism has manifested itself through the state’s deeds. For example, if you are a Muslim in India… Muslim women cannot wear their religious face coverings or headscarf (hijab) to go to a classroom in certain states in India. Some wearing hijab are not allowed to enter the schools. Even Mr. Modi has said that you can identify the extremist, troublemaker, or terrorist by the way they dress, which is like a dog whistle. Although he does not explicitly name Muslims, it is a clear indication of common Muslim images, such as having a beard. In some cases, anybody suspected of transporting or owning cows, or eating beef is beaten or killed sometimes. People who make hate speech against Islam, or Muslims, are rarely prosecuted. If you're a Muslim in India, and you want to rent a property, chances are that you will not get it very easily because people will not want to rent it to you, under excuses such as “we don’t want anybody to cook meat in our apartment.” Muslims are finding it harder to get jobs; they don't get shortlisted for interviews.

If you are a journalist, particularly a Muslim, trying to investigate these issues, you may even get arrested. If you say something, or do something that the government does not like, it starts a proceeding against you, or somebody else sympathetic to the government is likely to file a case against you. That case goes on forever. While you want to do your other important work, such as defending human rights or writing, you are not able to do it, because you are constantly being dragged into this lawsuit. The case could be filed in another state, where you have to fly every time or take the train every time. The costs add up. 

The BBC documentary notes that the 2002 fire was started by Muslim Protestors and the subsequent conflicts were described as a “pogrom” against Muslims.  How might this piece of the documentary affect tensions between Muslim and Hindu populations?

India has moved on from that and people’s views are already set. Generally, anyone who knows of the case and supports the government will be able to tell you ‘Muslims started the problem’ because they burned the train compartment, and 59 Hindu people died. Some would say that the violence that followed was a spontaneous reaction, others will say it was planned, depending on which side of the political equation you fit in. In the retaliatory violence that followed, people had nothing to do with the burning of the train were killed, murdered, raped, maimed, or lynched. The dispute has been there; the film does not offer new information. 

A Special Investigation Team report ensured that Modi would not face censure or prosecution in India, upholding his exoneration. How does this influence the BJP’s and its hold on power?

The Supreme Court of India accepted the report by the special investigation team and came to the conclusion that there was no case for Modi to answer. As far as legal processes are concerned, the matter is over. Unless there is a piece of new evidence that has the potential of changing everything, and the court is willing to listen and reopen the case, the matter has ended, and that remains imponderable. In the court of public opinion, people will continue to debate about it. The BJP feels the matter is over — “Why are we still talking about what happened so long ago?” is their refrain.

Modi has been criticized for his treatment of the media, as he avoids interviews and only makes planned scripted statements. Why does he do this? Also, is the government’s ban of the documentary a wise step given past behavior?

Modi wants to control the narrative. He has been interviewed by notable people including celebrities, even some movie stars. There is this really famous interview he has with Akshay Kumar, which was labeled as a non-political interview. The questions asked and answered are banal. For example, he was asked how he eats his mangos. “Do you cut it? Or suck on its seed?” He is happy to do interviews like this. He has not given a press conference about the documentary, and he does not want to do it. If he were to be interviewed by proper journalists, he would be asked serious questions and be challenged. He does not want to do that. He has a radio talk show, similar to how FDR had one during the Second World War. It is called “Manki Baat,” which translates to “story from the mind” or, “what I feel”. On it, he talks about banality. For example, how should students study for exams, or, how we should protect motherhood. It is a one-way communication, and very accessible. If you go to India, you hear his voice everywhere. You see him even as a Youtuber. He communicates all the time, but it is always one-way. By limiting viewings of this documentary, he wants to maintain that control over the narrative and keep one-way communication. 

Many universities and anti-BJP activists have been streaming the documentary in protest. Given this reality, why does the government think it can completely censor the documentary and prevent sharing clips on social media? What effect do these illegal streams have and are they successful methods of protest?

That's something only people in India can tell because I haven't spoken to people in India about how they're thinking. But people are trying to see it. I've been asked by so many people to send them the files, and I have been sending links to it happily to whoever has asked for it. It is worth looking at it because, if you followed the story from 2002, to some extent, it doesn't tell you anything that's new, but it is actually a very balanced documentary. There are two people in the documentary who vigorously defend Modi and the BBC documentary does not challenge them; it let them speak. One of the men in the documentary who is pro-BJP, Swapan Dasgupta, who is also a BJP politician now, supported the ban. He was in the film defending Modi. The documentary facilitates conversation, which is very useful.

Labiba Hassan '25Student Journalist

Prime Minister’s Office (GODL-India), GODL-India <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *