Indian tax officials conducted searches at the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai on Tuesday, a few weeks after the broadcaster had aired an investigative documentary on prime minister Narendra Modi’s alleged involvement in the 2002 sectarian riots in western Gujarat state, when he was its chief minister.
Official sources said the raid by some 50 tax personnel on both BBC offices, lasting several hours, was conducted to ”survey” reported claims of the corporation having contravened local taxation laws by pursuing questionable irregular pricing procedures and illegally forwarding profits.
They said tax officials had seized stacks of documents, computers and mobile telephones of BBC employees, one of whom confirmed that all communications out of their Delhi office wereblocked for an ”extended period” after 11am, when the raid began.
Several BBC employees, including reporters working from home, were asked by the authorities not to come to work and also told not to speak to the media.
In a statement from London, the BBC said it was ”co-operating fully” with the tax authorities and was hopeful of resolving the entire matter soon, but India’s Income Tax Department declined to comment.
Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government accused the BBC of being ”corrupt”, but provided no details of any financial wrongdoing.
BJP spokesman Gaurav Bhatia, who referred to the BBC as the British Bakwas (Nonsense) Corporation, said it had been doggedly pursuing its goal of denigrating India as an economic power, especially after the country had assumed the presidency of the G20 forum for international economic co-operation in December. He also accused it of collaborating with the main opposition Congress Party to achieve this end.
Tuesday’s raid comes after the BBC, in late January and in early February, aired a two-part documentary, India: The Modi question.
Its first segment examined Mr Modi’s and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) reported participation in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which over 1,200 people, the majority of them Muslims, died.
The second part detailed the BJP’s alleged role in persecuting India’s Muslim minority community since Mr Modi was first elected prime minister in 2014.
Mr Modi’s administration blocked the documentary on YouTube and Twitter, and its foreign ministry spokesman dismissed it as a ”propaganda piece lacking objectivity”.
Federal home minister Amit Shah, considered close to Mr Modi, told the ANI news agency on Tuesday that the BBC documentary was a ”conspiracy”.
“They [BBC] have been after Modi since 2002, but every time he comes out stronger and more powerful, as the truth emerges,” Mr Shah said.
The BBC said the documentary was ”rigorously researched” and incorporated a range of diverse opinions and views. It said it invited the Indian government to comment on matters it raised in the documentary, to no avail.
The Congress Party condemned the raid on the BBC as a sign of desperation by the Modi government, which it said was scared of criticism. “This undemocratic and dictatorial attitude cannot persist,” said Congress general secretary K C Venugopal.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders last year ranked India 150th out of 180 countries for press freedom, a drop of eight places and its lowest-ever ranking.
Its May 2022 report declared that press freedom in the world’s largest democracy was in ”crisis” since 2014, after the advent of Mr Modi and the right-wing BJP.