The Income Tax Department on Tuesday conducted a “survey operation” at the Delhi and Mumbai offices of the BBC, in what it said was part of a tax evasion investigation.

The development came after the BBC, the United Kingdom’s state broadcaster, released a two-part documentary in January examining Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in the communal riots that took place in Gujarat in 2002 and the controversial policies of the Union government led by him.

Before this, the Modi government had used emergency powers to issue directions to YouTube and Twitter to block clips of the BBC documentary from being shared. India’s external affairs ministry has described the documentary as “a propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative”.

Opposition parties reacted to the income tax action, saying India was in a state of “undeclared emergency”.

Long history

The spotlight for the BBC in India is not new. Since it began operating in India in 1924, the broadcaster has played a major role in the country’s media narrative. One outcome of this is it has often been bitterly attacked by the government in power.

In the early 1970s, with Indira Gandhi as prime minister, the BBC was briefly expelled from the country for broadcasting two documentaries, Calcutta and Phantom India. The films had caused outrage among the Indian diaspora in the United Kingdom and the Indian government. Both documentaries offering “impressionistic sketches of everyday life in India” were seen as having depicted Indians negatively.

In 1975, the BBC was expelled again. This time, it was during the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The BBC’s then Delhi correspondent Mark Tully was given 24 hours to leave the country after the organisation refused to sign a censorship agreement.

Journalists report from Kasturba Gandhi Marg in New Delhi, one of the BBC offices where the Income Tax department conducted a “survey operation”. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP
Journalists report from Kasturba Gandhi Marg in New Delhi, one of the BBC offices where the Income Tax department conducted a “survey operation”. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

The Emergency

According to Tully, the BBC’s role during the Emergency proved crucial for its Indian audience. “We were very widely listened to, but Mrs [Indira] Gandhi hated us and the government [did] too, since we were defying them,” Tully told Fair Observer in 2015. “They thought that by closing the office and throwing me out, they would close the BBC down, but they didn’t – the BBC continued. There were lots and lots of people who were very grateful to the BBC, and we had not damaged our credibility.”

Academic Barbara Lehin corroborated this in Dialogues 1: Ricochets, a collection of academic papers published in 1996-’97, suggesting the BBC Hindi service was very popular among the people during the Emergency, as they saw the broadcaster as a “reliable source of information”. Its audience was estimated to be 50 and 60 million at that point, Lehin suggested.

In fact, the public trust in the BBC was so strong that anti-government forces during the Emergency would often push stories, claiming the BBC had broadcast it, journalist Coomi Kapoor wrote in her book The Emergency: A Personal History.

Faced with a credible media source it could not control, Indira Gandhi’s government made all efforts to influence the BBC. BK Nehru, Gandhi’s relative and the Indian High Commissioner in London during the Emergency years, urged the broadcaster’s Director General, Charles Curran, to reconsider its editorial policies. “The BBC [seems] to have cast itself in the role of an Opposition Party to Mrs [Gandhi],” Nehru said.

First on the spot

One major reason for this public trust was that the BBC was often the first to break major news stories when Indian broadcasters shied away. For example, in 1977, it was the BBC that first announced the defeat of the Congress, and Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi in the general election – which took place during the Emergency. The All India Radio did not announce Congress’ defeat until very late, which meant that the BBC was the main source of the results in the interim.

Similarly, according to I Ramamohan Rao, the former principal information officer of the Indian government, the BBC broke the news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, even before the state broadcaster. BBC’s Tully had managed to get a doctor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi, where Gandhi was rushed, to tell him what had happened while the government delayed announcement of her death for several hours.

Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's cremation ceremony in 1984 in Shanti-Van, Delhi. Credit: AFP
Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's cremation ceremony in 1984 in Shanti-Van, Delhi. Credit: AFP

“Even today, Indians across the country still remember that they first heard about Indira Gandhi’s assassination on the BBC,” Sébastien Farcis, a Delhi-based French journalist, suggested in 2020.

The BBC is also remembered for its extensive reporting of the turmoil Punjab witnessed in the 1980s. This is especially true of the events in the run-up to Operation Blue Star – the June 1984 military operation conducted by Indian security forces to evict militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers from Amritsar’s Golden Temple complex.

Tully and his colleague Satish Jacob were the only journalists to report from inside the Golden Temple about the fortifications there, prior to the military operation. “Mrs [Indira] Gandhi was shocked,” Jacob said in 2018. “No Indian newspaper or television [channel] had reported that.”

Public trust

The organisation has been impactful in recent years too, despite the proliferation of Indian news media. In 2019, it extended the transmission time of its flagship Hindi radio programme “Dinbhar” to circumvent the Union government’s communication restrictions imposed in Jammu and Kashmir while abrogating provisions of Article 370 of the Constitution. This was to cater to Jammu and Kashmir’s “information-starved audiences”, according to Rajesh Joshi, who led the BBC Hindi radio team before the service ended in January 2020.

The BBC remains one of the most trusted news brands in India, according to the 2022 Reuters Institute Digital News Report. In fact, in 2013, as the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi had praised the BBC, saying that people once considered it to be more credible than the Indian media and state broadcasters.