The news that journalists from BBC and The Economist were kept out of the Reserve Bank of India’s policy meeting press conference on December 7 was noted in media circles. RBI denied the exclusion had anything to do with their critical coverage of demonetization. Let us believe the central bank and Government of India were not acting touchy this time, but India is undeniably thin-skinned in the matter of media coverage. Government ads dry up fast for publications that dare to criticize. Inconvenient journalists are harassed, if they are lucky, but they can be framed and arrested, or killed.
India — personified by her politicians — takes herself very seriously. BBC learnt this the hard way back in the 1970s when it was thrown out of the country for two years.
Banning the Beeb
BBC was ousted from India amid much chest-thumping on August 29, 1970. Its offence? There was a litany of complaints about its coverage of Goa’s liberation, the 1965 war, the 1969 Ahmedabad riots, etc. It was called an imperialist voice, but the government cracked down on it over some documentary films that were never even shown in India.
Government of India’s grouse was that BBC TV had been showing films to its home audience that ‘grossly distorted India’s image.’
On June 10, 1970, it showed Calcutta, allegedly a “scurrilous” documentary by French director Louis Malle. Then on June 23, it showed Dom Moraes’ controversial film The Bewildered Giant in which Shivaji was called a ‘brigand’. Although the film was not shown in India, there was unrest in Akola, Maharashtra.
On July 1, the Indian high commission in London wrote to BBC about the films and also spoke to the British foreign office. While the foreign office was sympathetic, it pleaded helplessness claiming BBC was an autonomous corporation. BBC itself riled Indian authorities with the “impertinent” remark that Malle’s Calcutta did not give the impression that “India is unredeemable as such.”
But the last straw was Malle’s film L’Inde fantôme that BBC serialized as Phantom India starting July 22 that year.
While Malle (photograph at the top) is now practically unknown in India, many would still remember his wife, American actress Candice Bergen, from her brief role in the movie Gandhi. Malle came to India in 1967 as a guest of the French embassy, and then returned in 1968 to make the two documentaries that were to prove problematic for BBC.
He was already a much-awardedfilmmaker by then and Government of India was fairly lenient with him.
Those days, foreign filmmakers shooting in India had to give an undertaking that they would show their film to Indian authorities before taking it out, or show it to India’s embassy in their own country if processing facilities for their film were not available in India.
When processing facilities were not available, the raw film was sealed in the director’s presence and sent to India’s mission in their country. It was opened in the director’s presence, processed, seen by Indian officials, censored, if necessary, and then cleared for screening.
But Malle did not go through this long channel. The government talked to him informally and approved his synopses of the documentaries. On January 23, 1968, India’s ministry of information and broadcasting wrote a letter to him with the gist of their discussion and the following caveat:
“This approval is subject to the understanding that care will be taken to ensure that India will not be projected in an unfavorable light and that the final compilation of the film will be shown to the embassy of India in France before it is released.”
Malle never wrote back. He had shot in color, and as processing facilities for color film were not available in India, he took his raw film right back with him. When the controversy blew up two years later, India’s deputy minister of external affairs, Surendra Pal Singh, aired his frustration in these words: “But the fact that he did not send a reply and disregarded the undertaking goes to show what kind of person he is, what kind of moral standard he adheres to.”
Why had India been so lenient with Malle, the Opposition asked. Singh replied: “Certain facilities were given to him considering that he was a film producer of great eminence and renown… everything was done in good faith… he gave an undertaking that the exposed film which would be taken out from India would be shown to our embassy in Paris before it is shown to public.”
And because Malle had flown out with his films, “Somehow or other these films were not shown to our embassy… they were shown to the French public as they were.”
BBC paid the price
BBC was not the only broadcaster that showed Malle’s India documentaries uncensored. France’s ORTF (Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) was the first to do so. Later, it was alleged Cuba’s government-controlled TV network showed them too (Government of India denied), and Malle himself said Canada, West Germany and the Scandinavian countries had bought the films from him for screening.
Indian authorities claimed they had got the French government to censor the films as early as August 1969. The Indian embassy in Paris reported: “We have now succeeded in eliminating the disgusting features from Louis Malle’s TV films.” Minister Singh told Parliament on December 9, 1970: “After these cuts were made in the original film in France they have not been exhibited to the public in France whatever may have happened elsewhere in the world.”
Elsewhere in the world, BBC refused to buckle under India’s pressure.
On August 3, India’s high commissioner in London, Apa Pant, again took up the matter with the British foreign office and the BBC director-general, requesting them to discontinue the Phantom India series in the interest of Indo-British goodwill and understanding.
Pant told the UK foreign office that “the functioning of the BBC representative in India would become not only superfluous but harmful if such programmes continued to vitiate the minds of the British people against India.”
Two days later, the BBC director-general replied that they had no intention to suspend the screening of the series. Then, on August 7, India informed the UK high commission in New Delhi that BBC’s rigid stance would “lead us to the conclusion that further functioning of the BBC in India was neither necessary nor desirable”.
The fourth episode of Phantom India was telecast on August 12. Two days later, India served notice orally and in writing on the BBC representative and correspondent in India, Ronald Robson, giving him a fortnight to wind up operations.
It is interesting that Robson was much liked in India. Even the minister said of him: “I am told that he is a very nice person and nobody speaks against him. We all like him very much but, unfortunately in this case, he has to be made the symbol of our annoyance or anger against the BBC.”
BBC tried to make peace by offering to send a high-level representative for discussions, but made it clear that “the board of governors of the BBC had, after full consideration, decided not to stop the series.”
In an interview that appeared in Indian press on August 28, 1970, Robson was quoted as saying that BBC had offered to express unqualified regret taking note of India’s view that the Malle series had caused concern and would harm the relations between the two countries. BBC also offered to show another programme after the Phantom India series “in which they will give an opportunity to the Indian representative to participate and put across India’s viewpoint.” But the question of suspending the telecast of Phantom India’s remaining episodes was ruled out.
And so, on August 29, 1970, BBC’s operations in India came to a halt.
Voices of dissent
Most Indian MPs, including those in the Opposition, approved of the government’s action against BBC, but a few raised questions about freedom of press. Balkrishna Gupta from Bihar said: “To evict an organization in this age for showing a film is an attack on the freedom of press, radio and TV. Mr Gujral (information and broadcasting minister) has already suppressed Indian newspapers, now he wants to suppress BBC. This won’t do.”
A D Mani, an MP from Madhya Pradesh, advised the government to be pragmatic: “The BBC has a very important network…there is no point in shutting out for all time or for any length of time the channels of communication between us and the UK and other parts of the world. We do not want to undermine the traditions of a free society.”
K P Subramania Menon, a communist MP from Kerala, saw only hypocrisy in the ban: “The gentlemen in this House are objecting to certain picture of the slums showing the depravity of our Indian people, of their miserable existence, etc. May I know from the government whether the government expects other people to whitewash our sins and whether the sort of hypocrisy which is shown in this House and elsewhere, being so touchy about our life in India, is to be supported?”
West Bengal’s Arun Prakash Chatterjee, also a communist, said worse movies had been shown in India with the government’s approval. “Some time back I saw a film put out by the Max Mueller Bhavan, the Federal Republic of Germany. It appears that it was done with our consent and in collaboration with some film institute of India, I think the government-sponsored film institute. The film is Tableau Calcutta…That is a film which shows Calcutta in the worst light.”
L K Advani, now a representative of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party BJP, supported the ban but questioned the licence given to Soviet mediato damage the reputation of India’s opposition. “I would like to know why sternness has been used only against the British agency and not against agencies like Radio Moscow and Radio Peace and Progress, which have been given exemption from Government of India’s action on the same ground as claimed by BBC.”
Return of BBC
Many months passed before BBC could reopen its office in India. On March 24, 1972, minister Singh confirmed that BBC had approached the government “for permission to reopen its offices in India, and it had agreed to abide by all rules and regulations imposed by government.”