The BBC in India

How the end of the Empire led to a new relationship with India

Dr Alban WebbLecturer in Media and Cultural Studies, University of Sussex

The arrival of HMT Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks on 22 June 1948 coincided with the loss of empire in India. Despite becoming a self-governing nation in August the previous year, it was on this day that King George VI formally gave up the title of Emperor of India, no longer to be called His Imperial Majesty.

The low-key arrival of those passengers from the Caribbean was in stark contrast to the shocking drama of Indian independence, which made headlines in the United Kingdom and around the world. For the BBC, Britain’s imperial identity had been the reason behind for its overseas broadcasting effort before the Second World War and an essential component during it. However, independence presented the BBC with a new rationale for broadcasting in India: one that persists to the present day.

An Indian woman in a sari reads a magazine 'the voice of london' while listening to a large wireless radio.
Listening to the BBC in India.

Seventy years later, the BBC provides services for India in Hindi, Bengali, Nepali, Tamil, Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi and Telugu, with Urdu (primarily targeted at Pakistan), and English. The Delhi Bureau is one of the BBC’s largest news operations outside London, and builds on the BBC’s long-term commitment to broadcasting in the subcontinent.

Yet, the means by which the BBC has engaged audiences has changed considerably in this time. Not least, the Delhi Bureau itself. As Satish Jacob recalls, it was a somewhat smaller and more intimate affair when he joined the BBC in the 1970s under the leadership of the BBC’s Representative in India, Mark Tully:

Satish Jacob, interviewed by Alban Webb, 2018.Connected Histories of the BBC Collection.

The BBC’s interest in India goes back to 1924 when "BBC" still stood for the British Broadcasting Company (it became a Corporation in 1927) and had only been operating for two years. Its General Manager, later Director-General, John Reith wrote to the British government’s India Office suggesting that a centralised system of broadcasting in India could provide a "connecting link between all parts of the Indian Empire".

These imperial ambitions were not reciprocated and it was not until 1932 that the BBC eventually launched its own English-language Empire Service on shortwave radio, broadcast from London but with global reach.

For Reith, the Empire Service was a means to "foster bonds of understanding and friendship between the peoples of Britain’s scattered Dominions and the mother country, and to bring to Britons overseas the benefits already enjoyed by the British public at home". This was an exclusive strategy that, while promoting imperial harmony, was not intended for mass indigenous consumption.

However, the Second World War irreparably changed the calculus of empire, as did accompanying calls for Indian independence, and in May 1940 the BBC launched a Hindi language service, soon followed by broadcasts in Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi and Tamil. The massive growth of language broadcasting during the war - from a handful of services at its outbreak, to over forty-five - meant that the BBC spoke to the world with many different voices, as was the case in India, each beginning to reflect a different set of cultural assumptions.

This demarcation was further underscored with the establishment of India and Pakistan as self-governing countries in August 1947. The BBC in India was no longer an imperial broadcaster speaking to expatriate and subject listeners. It was an external broadcaster who increasingly had to address audiences on their own domestic terms.

As the BBC’s Indian-born former correspondent Mark Tully recalls, there was a growing need to maintain the Corporation’s credibility with Indian and South Asian audiences and reflect their listening needs:

Mark Tully, interviewed by Alban Webb, 2018.Connected Histories of the BBC Collection.

The BBC’s historic identity as an imperial broadcaster in India and, after the Second World War and independence, its continued popularity and credibility with audiences has ensured a complicated relationship with successive Indian governments. In the summer of 1970, for example, the broadcast of two Louis Malle’s documentary films, Calcutta and Phantom India on British television (BBC Two) - both of which offered impressionistic sketches of everyday life in India - caused outrage amongst the Indian diaspora in Britain and with the Indian government, for what were perceived as prejudicial and negative depictions.

As a result, the BBC was expelled from India until 1972. At this point, Mark Tully returned to the Delhi Bureau as its Chief. However, it was not long before the BBC was again in conflict with the Indian government. The declaration of a State of Emergency by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975 introduced draconian and repressive regulations including those severely limiting press freedom. It was this that led to the second expulsion of the BBC within five years. However, as Mark Tully explains, unbeknownst to him, the threat of censure was rather more personal this time:

Mark Tully, interviewed by Alban Webb, 2018.Connected Histories of the BBC Collection.

India is the second largest country in the world by population and the seventh by landmass. This vast scale makes the job of reporting on India a huge and challenging journalistic task. Yet, until the recent scaling up of the BBC’s operations in India, this job was carried out by a small team with limited resources.

Moreover, the Delhi Bureau had to cover the whole of the South Asia region for the BBC’s audiences in the subcontinent, Britain and globally. As a consequence, reporting the minutiae of Indian political, social and cultural life was simply not an option, but the BBC in India needed to make sure that it had national and regional journalistic reach for the most important stories.

Here, Satish Jacob describes how the BBC cultivated a network of "stringers", professional journalists, to alert them to breaking news:

Satish Jacob, interviewed by Alban Webb, 2018.Connected Histories of the BBC Collection.

The presence of BBC’s reporters, on the ground, to cover these major stories has had an important impact on the Corporation’s ability to manage the journalistic output from Delhi within the scope of its own news values and priorities. This has given the BBC in India a distinct editorial identity when reporting on highly complex and contentious issues, for example: India’s fractious relationship with Pakistan, particularly in terms of the disputed territories of Kashmir and Jammu; the creation of Bangladesh in 1971; civil conflict in Sri Lanka; the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal - one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.

1984 was also a year of intense political and sectarian turmoil and violence in India. Indian troops stormed the Sri Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) complex in Amritsar in June - one of the most revered sites in Sikhism - and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October by two of her Sikh bodyguards.

As Mark Tully recalls, the attack on the Golden Temple, Operation Blue Star, represented a major miscalculation on the part of the Indian government:

Mark Tully, interviewed by Alban Webb, 2018. Connected Histories of the BBC Collection.

Satish Jacob, who with Mark Tully reported from inside the Golden Temple complex prior to the military intervention, remembers how it was immediately apparent that Indian forces would face considerable opposition. He also explains how BBC reports pointing this out came as a shock to the Indian authorities:

Satish Jacob, interviewed by Alban Webb, 2018. Connected Histories of the BBC Collection.

Reporting on India has been a priority for the BBC from the days of the British Raj to the present. In that time, however, the purpose of this journalistic endeavour and its intended audience has evolved, reflecting changes from empire to independence, from an Anglo to an Indo-centric focus, and a consequent proliferation of language services.

At the same time, India’s profile on the world’s stage has also radically changed in economic, political and strategic terms, emerging as a confident world power. The media landscape in India, as elsewhere, is also being revolutionised through digital and social media technologies and infrastructures. There is now a highly competitive national and global media market across a wide range of platforms from print, to broadcast and online.

This is reshaping the role of the BBC in India as much as anything that has gone before. Eight decades ago the BBC spoke to and about India in imperial tones. Now it addresses its multiple audiences from a range of cultural perspectives that reflect India’s scale and diversity, as well as its compelling and continuing significance to the BBC.

Literary India at the BBC

  • Literary India at the BBCDecades before the 'Raj revival' captured the attention of viewers and listeners - with Radio 4’s Plain Tales from the Raj, ITV’s The Jewel in the Crown and David Lean’s big-screen adaptation of A Passage to India - the BBC embarked on a very literary relationship with India, one rooted in World War Two.