Directly Responsible

Vidya Krishnan is a global health reporter who works and lives in India. Her first book, Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped History, was published in February 2022 by PublicAffairs.


What the BBC’s “Modi Question” reveals about India
Vidya Krishnan

Beneath the horror of orchestrated mass murder and personal assault (rape and worse, if that is conceivable) inflicted on hundreds of women, lies a purpose: greed. Partly, as she points out, greed for power. But also, plain unvarnished greed – acquisition of abandoned properties, whose owners have either fled, are dead, or have been forced to shed them. Properties that have fuelled a land boom, and enabled the transfer of viable industrial undertakings to the looters, or (mostly), to their patrons.

Property that has transformed the face of the city of Ahmedabad, which until 2014 was the flagship among Modi showpieces, a banner that now belongs to New Delhi, where an entire urban landscape, one that constitutes the functional capital of the country itself, is under transformation.

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Read the above together with one written by Shah Alam Khan, Professor, Department of Orthopaedics, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. He points out that “Documentaries like the one in question are a documentation of the event. Before we decide whether it’s valid or not, let us first establish what it wants us to hear. It is imperative that we respect this documentation, and listen to the white, black or brown man who is telling that story.” In this critique of an article by Tariq Mansoor, VC of Aligarh Muslim University he adds “By targeting the narrator, we kill the story. I am sure that’s not what the vice-chancellor of a prominent university was aiming to do, even if it happens to be an opportunity to be in the good books of the regime.”

The question to ask: what prompted the VC of AMU to term the BBC documentary an “unwanted and unsubstantiated commentary on a subject that they are prejudiced against.”?

Prof Khan comments, in closing, “In the centuries to come, when the torchlight of history shines on us, we shouldn’t appear naked with blood on our hands. We should be a model civilisation worth emulating.”

It is only history commentators (and politicians, and novelists) that put value judgements on the events of the past, but it is bad historians who present select slices of history, deliberately failing to present as complete a picture as possible.

The medium of video/television tends to create popular documents only when they are exciting, and excitement is all too often both crude and selective. Written histories, on the other hand, have the scope to be easily hidden. Partly, by censorship, partly, by limiting access to the ability to comprehend written text (and therefore making access a huge and ‘boring’ exercise), and partly, by ‘shooting the messenger’. Boredom is a complex issue, about which it is increasingly evident that the commercial popularity of highly accessible short video and short text messaging media plays a seriously questionable role. That is a subject for a different discussion, though.

Prof Mansoor is entitled to voice an opinion, and to try and back it, that the documentary in question is unsubstantiated. However, to claim it is unwanted is certainly beyond credibility, roughly the same as opining that the greater contents of the University library are unwanted (thankfully, nobody has come forward to witness they have heard him say it), and he risks his professional standing to use such language. One can only wonder at the level of persuasion needed to make him do that.

As for the content, since nobody claims the original footage, in the public domain for the most part (this probably does not include the obviously more recent interview with Mr Swapan Dasgupta), has been doctored, it is very difficult to accept his view it is unsubstantiated. Perhaps Prof Mansoor was actually looking for the gentlest way to express his opinion of the interview, no further.