India is engulfed in a media storm, with the British Broadcasting Corporation at its epicentre.
The BBC stands accused of commissioning and broadcasting a documentary that is part of a worldwide ‘conspiracy to defame India’. The film, India’s Daughter, examines the the gang rape and murder of a 23 year old female student, Jyoti Singh, in New Delhi in 2012. Most controversially, the film includes an interview with Mukesh Singh, one of the men convicted of the crime.
India’s Daughter was produced by the British film-maker Leslee Udwin and was made possible due to the unprecedented access she was granted to one of India’s high security prisons where Mukesh Singh has been held on death row. In total, sixteen hours of filming with him was undertaken over a period of three days. This, it is reported, was done with the full knowledge and support of India’s Home Affairs ministry and the jail’s authorities. Other interviews were conducted with the legal team of the four men convicted of Jyoti Singh’s rape and murder, along with the support of her mother, friends and family members.
The film has attracted considerable international interest. It was due to be shown simultaneously in the UK, India and six other countries – including Switzerland and Norway – on Sunday 8th March to mark International Women’s Day. This was to be followed on Monday 9th March with the launch of the India’s Daughter campaign to raise awareness of gendered violence against women and girls in India and worldwide.
Notwithstanding these international arrangements, as of this moment (4th March) the film has been banned in India by order of a Delhi court. This followed an acrimonious debate in the Indian parliament and pronouncements by a Government of India spokesman that, “We can ban the documentary in India but there is a conspiracy to defame India and the documentary can be telecast outside.” The BBC, in response, brought forward its broadcast and showed the film on BBC 4 earlier this evening.
The response to the film has been even more dramatic on social media, including Twitter where the #banBBC hashtag has become of the highest trending topics on the site. Tweets have supported the BBC’s decision to commission and broadcast the film, but the overwhelming majority of Tweets from India have been intensely critical of the BBC for a variety of reasons. Some accuse the BBC of perpetrating a long ‘colonial hangover‘, others of a desire to defame and destabilise India, and others still suggest more pernicious intent:
BBC sole aim is to malign India and show us as a prinitive barbaric society #BanBBC
— Mayank Bariar (@Hari_Vachan) March 4, 2015
The #banBBC hashtag is suggestive of the preferred response to the BBC’s alleged recalcitrance. Many Indian tweeters have called for the BBC to banned from operating in India, for their offices to be closed and their correspondents deported.
— DelhiWithModi #UHF (@chauhan2550) March 4, 2015
This has been a fascinating and somewhat reminiscent example of anti-BBC outpourings from within India. As I have written elsewhere, India has had a hotly contested relationship with the BBC since 1947 – one that still speaks of postcolonial anxieties, resentments and a widely (if latently) held belief that the BBC subjects India to greater scrutiny than other comparable nations. As K.C. Sharma (1994) noted:
The relationship between the BBC and Indian listeners has been one of love and hate. Love for the professional competence and hate as it represented the voice of a colonial empire. Even during the post-freedom period, more often than not a bias against India was discernible in BBC broadcasts in our conflicts with Pakistan, particularly on the Kashmir issue. The BBC also did not miss an opportunity to project the seamy side of our people and polity (K.C. Sharma 1994, p 82)
Forty-five years ago – in 1970 – anti-BBC feeling in India reached a particular crescendo when the BBC announced its intention to broadcast the film Calcutta by the French filmmaker, Louis Malle. A visually rich, ‘impressionistic portrait’ of India’s second most populous city, the film that had already received considerable international attention, including the Palm D’Or at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival.
Nonetheless, it was the BBC’s decision to screen the film that provoked consternation from the Government of India, who appealed to the Corporation and the UK government to cancel the broadcast. The BBC refused (inevitably) and the political standoff only intensified when the Indian High Commission in London announced that the functioning of the BBC representative in India would become ‘superfluous’ if Malle’s film was permitted to ‘vitiate the minds of the British people against India’. When the BBC refused to back down – rightly claiming that the Government of India had no right to determine the television schedules of the United Kingdom – their offices in India were forced to close, their press recognition revoked, and their British employees deported. Rallies occupied the streets of Delhi and effigies of BBC staff were duly burnt. The BBC’s correspondent, Ronnie Robson, and representative, Mark Tully, were duly evicted and departed India under a hail of ‘neo-imperialist criticism’ – from the public and Government alike.
It is clear from social media that many Indian nationals would welcome a similar response from the Government of India today. What is less clear is whether the Modi government will bow to the growing social media pressure in the same way that Indira Gandhi’s government reacted to the outpouring of letters and street protests in 1970. There are, of course, crucial differences between then and now, not least India’s evolving narrative as a rising and globally connected power and Mr Modi’s need to be regarded as a progressive international statesman.
The next few days will reveal a great deal about how and whether the evolution of India’s political and social structures have kept pace with the country’s extraordinary economic progress over the past decade or so. One test of this will be whether #banBBC continues to proliferate online, whether this will be challenged by a counter movement within India to ensure that the ban on India’s Daughters is overturned, and how the Modi government will ultimately choose to respond.