Voices from inside and outside the raided BBC office in Delhi

Journalists outside the BBC office in Delhi, on 14 February 2023, as it was being raided by Income Tax authorities. The raid comes barely weeks after the broadcaster aired a documentary which investigated Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat violence. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN
15 February, 2023

On the afternoon of 14 February, a large crowd had formed outside the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Kasturba Gandhi Marg office in Delhi. Late that morning, around fifty Income Tax and Delhi Police officials had entered the building, confiscated the phones of journalists, and begun a search of their computers. IT officials conducted a simultaneous search on the BBC’s Mumbai office. A handful of police officers in civilian attire also remained outside the BBC’s Delhi office. Several media organisations quoted anonymous “sources” to say that the IT department was conducting an income tax “survey.” The so-called survey comes barely weeks after the broadcaster aired a documentary titled India: The Modi Question, which investigated Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat violence, as well as the Indian government’s treatment of Muslims since 2014. In a statement, the BBC said it was “fully cooperating” with Income Tax authorities.

Despite the sudden actions of the IT department, it released no press statements explaining why it was conducting a survey into the BBC. Instead, several Indian media houses cited “sources” as saying that the BBC were being investigated over, “deliberate non-compliance with Indian laws including transfer pricing rules and diversion of profits illegally.” Outside the KG Marg office, journalists kept receiving messages on WhatsApp which they would quickly glance through, before going on air and claiming that the BBC had suspect financial dealings. The Hindi-language channel Times Now Navbharat, for example, later reported that the BBC had business ties with the Chinese government and Chinese government-linked organisations. The English-language channel Times Now reported that the BBC was suspected of tax evasion. Meanwhile, senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party released a slew of statements accusing the BBC of bias, with their spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia saying that the broadcaster is known for “hatred-fuelled work against India.”

A BBC employee in his late 30s, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that at around 11.30 am he had just entered his office when he saw several people entering from both sides of the building. “At first, we thought that they are some fringe elements whose sentiments have been hurt by the documentary and that’s why they are here,” he told me. “But then an officer in a suit announced that everyone should stop what they were doing, shut down their computers, write their names on their mobile phones and come to one side.” The employee said that the official initially refused to show either an identification card or a warrant. “The tone of the officials was really dictatorial,” an employee in his early 40s, who was also stuck in the building, told me. “They were trying to hound us. They were standing around us in a group, and told us just do your business as usual. Then one of our editors said, ‘These are not cattle, they are journalist for god’s sake. How can you expect them to not respond to such an unprecedented situation.’”

The BBC’s lawyers soon arrived and after speaking to the officials asked the reporters and editors to leave their desks and stand together in a corner of their office. The officials also asked the employees to leave their phones on a table under the supervision of the officials. The employee in his early 40s said, “It was as if they were telling us ‘Hands up now.’ They said, ‘Don’t touch your system, put your mobile phones on airplane mode, no one is going to make any call to anyone, even family members, otherwise there will be a huge problem.’ And the tone of those people was very hostile.”

The employee in his late 30s remembers one of his colleagues telling an official that the floor of the office they were on dealt only with editorial and that the accounts team was on another floor. He said the official replied, “We will decide what exactly we want to search for and determine if there is any material that we can use. For that, we would need to search all computers.” The employee in his late 30s told me, “They then started searching people individually on multiple floors. They would call them, make them open their computer and search for keywords like Benaami, Hawala, International Taxation, black money and other things like that.” The employee added that the officials also quizzed them on individual invoices in their possession, which are routine documents they file for office and reporting expenses.

The employee in his 30s said that a few hours into the raid, some television channels began playing a clip from within their office of an argument between a BBC employee and an IT official. “I am not sure if it has been shot by a BBC employee or someone from the IT team, but it had been passed on and was playing on every media channel,” he told me. He said that an IT official then told the BBC employees, “If you’re leaking all of this, it will make everyone’s lives difficult.” The employee in his 40s said, “It was just an exercise in intimidation. One cannot help but feel intimidated by this, as journalists it just makes us feel impotent.”

Most journalists were allowed out of the office after their computer was searched. The employee in his 40s said, “What was more heart-breaking was when we came outside and saw what these mainstream journalists were dishing out to their audience.” He continued, “One expects, as a journalist, to hear balance in their reporting. But many of them seemed to be wholly parroting the government’s line. At least one line could have been added to their report that this comes on heels of the documentary that BBC has published. It is foolhardy to expect anything different from them. And that documentary was not even aired on the Indian language services that BBC runs. The documentary was produced in London and broadcast there, not here in India.”

The BBC documentary was largely based on an inquiry conducted by the government of the United Kingdom into the Gujarat violence in 2002, in which more than a thousand people were killed, a majority of whom were Muslim. A copy of the report with the inquiry’s findings was published by The Caravan. The report states that the violence was “planned, possibly in advance” by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist organisation. The report notes: “The attack on the train at Godhra on 27 February provided the pretext. If it had not occurred, another one would have been found.”

The government had reacted aggressively to the documentary, with the external affairs ministry calling it “propogandist agenda,” and the ministry of information and broadcasting ordering YouTube and Twitter to block links to it. Several universities across India also banned their students from screening the documentary. Over half a dozen students were detained by Delhi Police in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia for screening the documentary, while in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, students who were screening it were attacked by members of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. JNU’s administration also snapped electricity on the night the university’s students’ union had announced they would screen the documentary.

Several far-right Hindu organisations had also began attacking the BBC following the documentary. The Hindu Sena filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court calling for a complete ban on the BBC and demanding an inquiry by the National Investigation Agency—India’s premier anti-terrorism taskforce—into “the conspiracy by BBC to break the unity and integrity of the country by publishing anti-India news.” On 29 January, the Hindu Sena also placed several placards outside the BBC’s Delhi office which said “BBC leave India.”

Several media organisations, including the English television channel Republic TV, quoting unnamed sources claimed that the survey at BBC’s office had nothing to do with the documentary. Media bodies, however, were nearly unanimous in criticising the raid and seeing it as a direct result of the BBC documentary. The Press Club of India, in a statement, condemned the survey and said that it was, “part of a series of attacks on the media by the government agencies in recent times, especially against those sections of the media that the government perceives is hostile to it and critical of the ruling establishment.” The Press Club added that, “this latest instance appears to be a clear cut case of vendetta, coming within weeks of a documentary aired by the BBC on the Gujarat riots.” The Editors Guild of India, in a statement, said, “This comes soon after the release of two documentaries by the BBC, on 2002 violence in Gujarat and the current status of the minorities in India … This is a trend that undermines constitutional democracy.” 

International press watchdogs also criticised the raid. The Committee to Protect Journalists said, “Raiding the BBC’s India offices in the wake of a documentary criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi smacks of intimidation. Indian authorities have used tax investigations as a pretext to target critical news outlets before, and must cease harassing BBC employees immediately, in line with the values of freedom that should be espoused in the world’s largest democracy.” Reporters Without Borders tweeted, “The searches by the tax authorities of the offices of BBC World in India, 3 weeks after the censorship of his documentary on Narendra Modi, constitutes an outrageous reprisal. RSF denounces these attempts to silence any criticism of the Indian government.” In the 2022 edition of the annual press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, India fell to 150th place out of 180 countries.

The IT survey conducted on BBC follows a string of similar actions on media organisations that are critical of the Modi government. In 2017, the owners of the news channel NDTV were raided by the Central Bureau of Investigation over alleged financial irregularities. In 2021, the Enforcement Directorate launched simultaneous raids at eight locations associated with the digital news portal NewsClick. Later that year, IT officials conducted a similar raid against the online news portal Newslaundry. When asked about the survey at the BBC offices, Prabir Purkayastha, the founder and editor-in-chief of NewsClick told me, “The increasing use of various instruments of the government against critics will only backfire. This is a lesson the Congress learned after emergency. Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”

Abhinandan Sekhri, a co-founder and CEO of Newslaundry, said, “The raid is a repercussion of a documentary which the ruling dispensation doesn’t like. It’s revenge, saying, “Mein dikhata hun, ab mein thumey dikhata hun, aacha bachoo mein dikhata mein kya karta hun thuje.”—I will show you; I will show you now, I will show you child what I can do to you now. He added, “I have no idea how this will play out but how some Indian news channels covered it tells you all there is to know about how domestic legacy broadcast media approaches journalism. It’s a disgrace.” The BBC employee in his 40s said, “It makes you think of your existence, of your country, of your society, of what you are doing, if it’s even worth doing it. It will take some time for this to sink in.”

The survey was still continuing at the time of publication, nearly 24 hours after it began. The BBC sent an internal email on the morning of 15 February to their Delhi Bureau which said, “Thank you again for the resilience and professionalism you have shown while India Tax Authorities continue with their enquiries.” It continued, “Many staff have now left the building but some have been asked to remain and are continuing to cooperate with the ongoing enquiries. Our output and journalism continues as normal and we are committed to serving our audience in India. At the moment we ask that you work from home unless it is operationally critical for you to go into the office. If you are requested to attend by the Income Tax Authorities, please do so …” Surabhi Ahluwalia, the spokesperson of the IT department, did not respond to questions about the survey. This piece will be updated when they do.