Labour has condemned raids by Indian tax authorities on BBC offices in Mumbai and New Delhi as “deeply worrying”, as ministers say they have raised the issue with their Indian counterparts.
In the first significant intervention by a main British party since last week’s raids, the shadow foreign minister Fabian Hamilton criticised the Indian authorities and expressed concern that BBC staff had been held overnight for questioning.
The raids followed a BBC documentary critical of Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, which has caused an outcry from the Hindu nationalist government. But while journalists and free speech groups have criticised the tax raids as politically motivated, Labour and the Conservatives had previously refused to make any overt criticism of New Delhi.
Hamilton told the Commons on Tuesday, however: “In a democracy with true media freedoms, criticism cannot be shut down unnecessarily and freedom of expression must be protected at all costs.
“Last week’s raids on the BBC in India are therefore deeply worrying, regardless of the official narrative as to why they took place. The BBC is a globally respected broadcaster … It should be free to report and operate without intimidation.”
He added: “We are particularly worried about reports that suggest that BBC staff have been forced to stay in their offices overnight and have faced lengthy questioning.”
In response, the Foreign Office minister David Rutley confirmed for the first time that British ministers had raised the issue with their Indian counterparts.
However, he refused to issue any further comment on the raids, saying only: “This issue has been raised and we continue to monitor the situation.” He added that consular help had been offered to BBC staff if they wished to take it up.
The comments, which were made during an urgent question in the Commons from Jim Shannon, the Democratic Unionist party MP, mark the first time any of the main parties have weighed into the controversy.
They came as Indian ministers renewed their attacks on the BBC documentary. On Tuesday, India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, told local media the documentary and the furore around it was “politics by another means”.
“Come on, you think timing is accidental?” he added. “Let me tell you one thing: I don’t know if the election season has started in India or not, but for sure it has started in London.”
In previous comments, the Modi government condemned the documentary as “propaganda to push a discredited narrative” and accused the BBC of bias and a “colonial mindset”.
“India’s image cannot be disgraced by malicious campaigns launched inside or outside India,” said the law minister, Kiren Rijiju.
The documentary, which was released nearly two months ago, gave new details about the role Modi played as chief minister of Gujarat in the communal riots that ripped through his state in 2002 and left more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead.
It revealed that a British government document from the time had found Modi “directly responsible” for not stopping the killings of Muslims during the riots, and said the violence had “all the hallmarks of genocide”.
Since the release, the Indian government has invoked emergency laws to ban any clips or footage of the law being shown on social media. Students across the country who attempted to stage screenings of the documentary in defiance of the apparent censorship were labelled traitors and some were arrested.
Then a week ago, about 50 officers from India’s income tax department descended on the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai. According to their statement, officials were carrying out a “tax survey”, which continued for three days.
Phones and laptops were cloned and at least 10 members of staff were kept for questioning overnight. According to a statement released after the raid was completed, the officers had uncovered “irregularities and discrepancies” in the BBC’s taxes.
The BBC has defended its documentary and said it is complying with the tax investigation. The broadcaster is still waiting to hear from the Indian authorities following the raid and continues to broadcast and produce online material in Indian languages.
Additional reporting by Jim Waterson