NEW DELHI, India (AFP) — Indian tax authorities raided the BBC’s New Delhi and Mumbai offices on Tuesday, weeks after the broadcaster aired a documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s actions during deadly sectarian riots in 2002.
Press freedom in the world’s biggest democracy has suffered during Modi’s tenure, rights activists say, and the opposition Congress party condemned the raids, saying there was an “undeclared emergency” in the country.
A spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused the broadcaster of engaging in “anti-India propaganda,” but said the raids were lawful and the timing had nothing to do with the government.
“India is a country which gives an opportunity to every organization,” Gaurav Bhatia told reporters, “as long as you don’t spew venom.”
“If you have been following the law of the country, if you have nothing to hide, why be afraid of an action that is according to the law?” he added.
In a statement on Twitter, the broadcaster said it was “fully cooperating” with authorities. “The Income Tax Authorities are currently at the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai,” it said. “We hope to have this situation resolved as soon as possible.”
Police sealed off the BBC’s New Delhi office, which occupies two floors of a high-rise on a leafy avenue in the capital’s commercial heart. A New Delhi-based BBC employee said that officials had been “confiscating all phones” during the tax raid.
Last month, the BBC aired a two-part documentary alleging that Hindu nationalist Modi ordered police to turn a blind eye to sectarian riots in Gujarat state, where he was premier at the time.
The violence left at least 1,000 people dead, most of them minority Muslims.
India’s government blocked videos and tweets sharing links to the documentary — which was not aired in India — using emergency powers under its information technology laws.
Government adviser Kanchan Gupta had slammed the documentary as “hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage.”
University student groups later organized viewings of the documentary despite campus bans, defying government efforts to stop its spread. Police arrested two dozen students at the prestigious Delhi University after stopping a screening there in late January.
“First came the BBC documentary, that was banned,” the opposition Congress party said on Twitter. “Now IT has raided BBC,” it continued, referring to the Income Tax Department. “Undeclared emergency.”
Press freedom in the world’s biggest democracy has suffered during Modi’s tenure, rights activists and opposition lawmakers say. India has fallen 10 spots to 150 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, since Modi took office in 2014.
Critical reporters, particularly women, say they are subjected to relentless campaigns of online abuse.
The Editors Guild of India said Tuesday’s tax raids were part of a wider “trend of using government agencies to intimidate or harass press organizations that are critical of government policies.”
Other media outlets, international rights groups and foreign charities have found themselves subjected to scrutiny by India’s tax authorities and financial crimes investigators.
Late Catholic nun Mother Teresa’s charity last year found itself temporarily starved of funds after the home ministry refused to renew its license to receive foreign donations. Amnesty International announced it was halting operations in India after the government froze its bank accounts in 2020, following raids on its offices.
In 2021, Indian tax authorities raided a prominent newspaper and a TV channel that had been critical of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, triggering accusations of intimidation.
The 2002 riots in Gujarat began after 59 Hindu pilgrims were killed in a fire on a train. Thirty-one Muslims were convicted of criminal conspiracy and murder over that incident.
The BBC documentary cited a previously classified British foreign ministry report quoting unnamed sources saying that Modi met senior police officers and “ordered them not to intervene” in the anti-Muslim violence by right-wing Hindu groups that followed.
The violence was intended “to purge Muslims from Hindu areas,” the ministry report said. The “systematic campaign of violence has all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing” and was impossible “without the climate of impunity created by the state Government,” it concluded.
Modi, who ran Gujarat from 2001 until his election as prime minister in 2014, was briefly subject to a travel ban by the United States over the violence.
A special investigative team appointed by India’s Supreme Court to probe the roles of Modi and others in the violence said in 2012 it did not find any evidence to prosecute him.
Washington, which has been building relations with India, declined to weigh in on the BBC raid.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States believed in the “importance of free press” which contributes to “strengthening democracies around the world,” but that he was “not in a position to offer a judgement” on whether the raid ran counter to that.