India: The ‘BBC’ Question – OpEd

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When the BBC aired the first part of a two-part documentary, “India: The Modi Question,” the spokesperson from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), India had an interesting response. I was okay up to the point that he referred to the documentary as a “propaganda piece” and lacking in “objectivity.” Each one is entitled to their opinion; the political party heading the government is entitled to its views. But the part when he said that the documentary exhibited a “colonial mindset,” was when I felt that he was pushing the envelope. This is from a person who, by his own admission, has not seen the documentary. “Do note that this (the documentary) has not been screened in India. So, I am only going to comment in the context of what I have heard about it and what my colleagues have seen.”

To depend on the views of secondary sources, mostly hearsay, even if they happen to be your colleagues, and refer to a news organization as widely respected as the BBC with the epithet, “colonial mindset,” is not something that is expected from a bureaucrat who occupies a public position. Disagreements have to be logically made using specific contexts. Watch the documentary and let the public know which of those parts that actually reflect a “colonial mindset.” That’s how it is normally done. To merely dismiss somebody’s work and call them names on top of that, is not a cultivated response.

This is the first thing I tell my research class: you can have whatever opinions you like. You are free to generalize, because that’s how you begin research: by making a set of tentative presuppositions or hypothetical statements. What comes next is that you have to qualify each of the statements with examples. Intuition has to be balanced with counter-intuition. This is possible with a close reading of the texts, an appreciation of the contexts and a fair amount of literature review. I am willing to accept any kind of generalization, however absurd and contrary to my own feelings. What I am not willing to compromise on, is students making unsubstantiated statements, without offering any evidence or argument, even if, in principle, I agree with those statements.  

Take the statement below made about the BBC by the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs:

“The bias, the lack of objectivity, and frankly a continuing colonial mindset, is blatantly visible. If anything, this film or documentary is a reflection on the agency and individuals that are peddling this narrative again. It makes us wonder about the purpose of this exercise and the agenda behind it and frankly we do not wish to dignify such efforts,” 

To paraphrase the above statement and put it in a more transparent language: “we didn’t like the documentary. In fact, we hated every bit of it. Not only do we hate the documentary but we also hate the BBC for producing a documentary of this kind.” The thing about hating someone or something is that you don’t need to give an explanation. Hate, for some reason, has always been self-explanatory. With love, at least once in a way you need to look for words that express how you feel.

There are regimes, like the one in Iran, that have made a business out of Anti-Americanism. These regimes make no mention of the kind of harassment, torture and intimidation of the masses that they routinely embark upon. For the regime, it is the US that has to be blamed for all the protests in Iran, and not the unhappiness of the people with their government. Likewise, we cannot overstate the “colonial mindset” of the BBC while conveniently forgetting that we have been a postcolonial nation for 75 years. 

All I wish to know is: why, according to the spokesperson, is the “colonial mindset…blatantly visible”? It is only a documentary at the end of the day. There are hundreds of thousands of documentaries of a much more serious nature. Not everyone is sitting and waiting for this one documentary to reveal the mother of all truths. Why bother, therefore! What makes the colonialism element in this documentary “blatantly visible” to the government officials, to the extent that it should be banned?

The BBC is a one-hundred-year old national broadcaster. I am no great fan of it. I am no great fan of any of the mainstream news broadcasters either, whether western or Indian. However, I wouldn’t go so far as to make accusations of the BBC being colonial without giving enough examples as proof to validate my statements.

Yes, the United Kingdom was a colonial power for centuries. For a brief fall back on history: on 7 June 1893, a rather smallish brown-skinned lawyer named, M.K Gandhi was thrown out of a whites-only, first-class compartment of a train in South Africa. In some ways that opened a new front in India’s freedom struggle. On 25 October 2022, a brown man (of Indian origin), Rishi Sunak, was invited by King Charles III to form the government of a nation that was once an empire. Take the leap from 1893 to 2022: even if seen merely as symbolic, a brown man heading a white-majority nation is no small matter. When accusing the BBC of having a “colonial mindset,” the spokesperson ought to have kept this in mind; that the man who happens to be the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is of Indian origin. The majority of the population in the UK seems to have no problem with that.

In India, the prominent opposition leader Sonia Gandhi and her children, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, are routinely taunted for being Italian. Sonia Gandhi was married to an Indian and lived here for the major part of her life. Why on earth should we still insist on her Italian roots! Without any hesitation we insult and humiliate people in this country based on their origins. And we think that the BBC and by extension, the British, have a “colonial mindset!” Remember the saying, “When you point one finger at others, bear in mind that there are three fingers pointing back to you.”

I can give a more personal example of what I think is the colonial mindset in my country. I worked at a public university for about twelve years before I was given a notice suspending me from work, and more than a year later, dismissed from my job as a professor on the flimsiest grounds imaginable, by a criminally corrupt man and his coterie of law-breakers. I practically sent emails to every concerned person in the government. Not even one of them bothered to give any of my mails the seriousness it deserved. This, only because I am not a member of a political party or an organization affiliated to the government. Isn’t this an instance of a colonial mindset, where you treat citizens of your country with indifference bordering cynicism? 

I understand colonialism. I know what imperialism is. I’ve studied them. I am not looking for education from a bureaucrat or a politician to enlighten me on these matters. We’re not living in a colonial era. We’re in a postcolonial world. It is time that we took responsibility for our actions and worked to fulfill the destiny that comes with freedom. We cannot cling to age-old attitudes and treat people with condescension, while continuing to believe that we’ve overcome the colonial mindset. No, we haven’t. Having a feudal mindset is not particularly different from having a colonial mindset; both of them cannot endure criticism and both of them do not care for ordinary people. Why is what we do in this country not the outcome of a feudal-colonial mindset and what the BBC does the result of a “colonial mindset”?

Someone in this government should start doing some introspection. You cannot think that the whole world is blind and you continue to say and do whatever you like. People have a mind of their own. There are important things in this country that require urgent attention, besides a documentary that might be hurtful to one or two people. Please deal with some of the pressing problems that concern people on the street. Don’t waste the precious five years of power given to you to serve the masses for your personal issues. The masses don’t forget so easily. And they don’t forgive either. 

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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