NEW DELHI – Indian tax officers searched the BBC’s bureaus in New Delhi and Mumbai on Tuesday (Feb 14), the British broadcaster said, weeks after the government came down hard against a BBC documentary critical of prime minister Narendra Modi’s role in 2002 riots.
The documentary had focused on the Hindu nationalist politician’s leadership as chief minister of the western state during the deadly communal riots, in which at least 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims. Activists put the toll at over twice that number.
“The income tax authorities are currently at the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai, and we are fully cooperating. We hope to have this situation resolved as soon as possible,” the BBC said in a statement.
An Income Tax Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a “credible survey operation was ongoing” and that the department would not be able to share details.
The department did not respond to a Reuters e-mail seeking comment.
One of two sources in the BBC’s New Delhi office told Reuters that tax officials were speaking with the accounts officer and no one was allowed to leave.
While the search was under way, television news crews set up outside the office near Connaught Place, in central Delhi, to report developments.
The Editors Guild of India, which calls itself a non-partisan association of editorial leaders, said it was deeply concerned by the tax officers’ visits.
“It is distressed by the continuing trend of government agencies being used to intimidate and harass news organisations that are critical of the ruling establishment,” it said in a statement.
It said the department similarly searched the offices of media outlets NewsClick, Newslaundry, Dainik Bhaskar and Bharat Samachar in 2021 following their “critical coverage of the government establishment”.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said Indian institutions worked independently and that the tax department was “within the law in looking into tax compliance”.
A spokesman for the ruling BJP said the BBC should not “spew venom” while operating in India.
“The BBC indulges in anti-India propaganda,” Gaurav Bhatia told reporters.
“India is a country which gives an opportunity to every organisation… as long as you don’t spew venom.”
“India is a vibrant democracy where no one is above the law,” said BJP spokesman Gopal Krishna Agarwal.
The main opposition Congress party condemned the tax department’s actions.
“The IT raid at BBC’s offices reeks of desperation and shows that the Modi government is scared of criticism,” lawmaker and Congress general secretary KC Venugopal wrote on Twitter.
“We condemn these intimidation tactics in the harshest terms. This undemocratic and dictatorial attitude cannot go on any longer.”
The IT raid at BBC’s offices reeks of desperation and shows that the Modi government is scared of criticism.
We condemn these intimidation tactics in the harshest terms. This undemocratic and dictatorial attitude cannot go on any longer.
— K C Venugopal (@kcvenugopalmp) February 14, 2023
The government has dismissed the BBC documentary as propaganda.
The foreign ministry in January said it was meant to push a “discredited narrative”, was biased, lacked objectivity and showed a “continuing colonial mindset”. The BBC has stood by its reporting for the documentary.
In January, police in Delhi detained students who had gathered to watch the documentary after their university declined to give permission for a screening of it.
Modi ruled Gujarat for more than a decade before becoming prime minister in 2014. Accusations that he did not do enough to stop the rioting have dogged his career.
Modi has always denied any wrongdoing.
In 2013, a panel appointed by the Supreme Court said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him.
A suspected Muslim mob set fire to a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in Gujarat in February 2002, setting off one of independent India’s worst outbreaks of communal violence.