Panel calls for U.S. media to hold Indian leader accountable for 2002 massacre

Mar 10, 2023 | Religious Persecution

The National Press Club | Alan Kotok

The National Press Club screened an episode of the BBC documentary “India: The Modi Question,” about the 2002 riots and mass killings of Muslims in India’s Gujarat state and their aftermath, on March 7.

A panel that followed, with people who have first-hand connections to the events, called for news media in the U.S. to expose the key role of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Gujarat state government leader at the time, in making it happen.

The panel included an eyewitness to the massacre and family member, as well as the daughter of a police whistleblower, and was moderated by the Club’s Press Freedom Team Chair Rachel Oswald.

The BBC aired the two-part documentary on Jan. 17, after which the Indian government used emergency powers to ban its showing in India, and a 2021 information technology law to block social media from showing the film’s contents. According to The New York Times, the riots followed a fire on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims through Gujarat and killed 59 passengers in fighting between Hindus and Muslims on the train.

The documentary shows Imran Dawood, a Muslim citizen of the U.K. on a family visit in Gujarat, describing his first-hand experiences with the horrific events, where his family members were murdered. The film also gives BBC reports on the scene and interviews with the British foreign secretary at the time, Jack Straw, describing an internal Foreign Office report telling of at least 2,000 murders of Muslims that Straw called “hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.”

The film tells of Sanjiv Bhatt, a senior Gujarat police official, who took part in meetings after the riots broke out. Bhatt said police were ordered by Modi to do nothing for three days until the violence subsided, in testimony to an Indian Supreme Court investigation in 2011. The court closed the investigation, taking no action due to a reported lack of evidence. However, police officer Bhatt was later prosecuted in 2018 for an old accusation, and is now serving a life sentence. Both the U.K. and the U.S. issued travel bans on Modi in 2003, but later rescinded the bans after Modi’s election to prime minister in 2014.

Imran Dawood, one of the panel members discussing the BBC documentary at NPC, said the rioters carried out “targeted attacks on Muslims,” using “the same tactics as in Nazi Germany.” Imran’s uncle Yusuf Dawood, a spokesperson for the family and also a panel member, told the audience that it took until August 2002, six months after the riots, to even get confirmation of the murders of his family members — what he called a sign of an official cover-up.

“Everything we do in the U.K. is completely opposite of what happens in India,” said Yusuf Dawood.

Much of the panel’s discussion focused on India’s attempts to keep the documentary from reaching Indian audiences. Aakashi Bhatt, daughter of jailed whistleblower Bhatt, told participants that many of India’s institutions, including the media and judiciary, “are subverted from top to bottom” and “used by the regime to do its dirty work.”

Nonetheless, Yusuf Dawood noted, bootleg copies of the documentary are circulating underground in India, but not on social media that he called “a billionaire’s club” run by the likes of Elon Musk, which he said are “poking a hot needle into our values.”

When asked by an audience member about actions that the U.S. news media should take, Aakashi Bhatt said, “You have the power to hold this regime accountable,” and “Silence is a form of condoning what Modi did.” Imran Dawood added, “I encourage you to report the truth and expose this virus.”

The National Press Club and the National Press Club Journalism Institute on Jan. 30 released a statement on the decision by the government of India to censor the airing of the BBC news documentary.

“We strongly urge the government of India to rescind its ban on the BBC documentary and to allow the citizens of India to decide for themselves whether they agree or disagree with its findings,” said Eileen O’Reilly and Gil Klein, each president of the respective Club entity. On Feb. 10, in response to violence toward journalists in India, the two issued another statement, on the general state of press freedom in the country.