The minutes of an April 16, 2002 phone call between former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh and his UK counterpart reveal the BJP-led government only protested the leak of the report and its claimed death toll. No criticism was made of the UK report’s critical observations about the role played by the Gujarat police and by political organisations connected to Modi in the anti-Muslim violence.
London: While objecting to the leaking of an investigative report into the 2002 Gujarat riots by British diplomats, the BJP-led government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee did not contest its main findings that the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 was “pre-planned”, that Sangh parivar outfits like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had played a key role in the targeting of Muslims and that the police had been specifically instructed not to act against the killers.
The Gujarat government was headed by Narendra Modi at the time and the full British report concluded that he was “directly responsible” for the “pre-planned” 2002 Gujarat riots.
The British diplomats who prepared the 2002 report also said that “the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) and its allies acted with the support of the state government. They could not have inflicted so much damage without the climate of impunity created by the state government.”
The Singh-Straw telephone conversation took place on April 16, 2002 – one day after the Hindustan Times published a story about the leaked diplomatic report.
The hitherto classified, publicly unseen British foreign office record of the conversation was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request in Britain (which corresponds to securing information via India’s RTI Act). Sections of the document were redacted by the foreign office before release but the Gujarat-related paragraphs are there in full.
Either way, the Indian foreign minister chose not to contest the leaked findings but instead confined his objections to the fact that the report’s contents had found their way into the media.
Significantly, the only point on which he accused the British report of failing to ensure accurate facts was on the death toll – and not on its primary finding about the role played by the Gujarat police (and government) and by political organisations connected to Modi.
Singh said he was “extremely disappointed” that the British findings had not remained confidential. He also said that the death toll cited in the British report was inaccurate.
The record of the conversation indicates that it was Straw who rang Singh. Straw’s private secretary recorded in his account of the phone call that the foreign secretary [Straw] conveyed to the external affairs minister [Singh] that it would be “helpful” for the former to say “he had spoken to Singh and that the Indian government was committed to the fullest investigation into the events in Gujarat”.
Straw’s secretary then noted that “Singh agreed”. According to the records, Singh said, “The [Indian] government had given instructions for an immediate investigation” and that “India was a ‘very active democratic community’.” He added, though, that “we should put the leak behind us, but draw lessons from the incident”.
The British government’s investigation into the riots was carried out by specialist diplomats posted at its high commission in Delhi. The team visited Gujarat from April 8-10, 2002. The report’s contents, which found their way to the media, upset the Vajpayee government.
“In terms of India’s international image,” the Hindustan Times reported on April 15, 2002, “the report does the most damage by stating that the post-Godhra violence in Gujarat was pre-planned. If the Sabarmati Express tragedy hadn’t happened, another flashpoint would have been created to justify pre-meditated violence as reaction, the report says.”
The minutes of the phone call said, “The foreign secretary expressed regret that a high commission report on the situation in Gujarat had leaked. But he underlined his concern about the violence in the region, which has caused considerable anxiety among British Gujaratis. He had been careful to be even-handed in his response and had seen delegations from the British Muslim and Hindu communities.”
“Singh said he was ‘extremely disappointed’ at the conduct of the high commission. He accepted that missions sent confidential reports to their capitals; the [Indian] government had never prevented missions from doing their work. He also accepted that we [the British government] had a right to share our reports with EU colleagues. But we needed to ensure our facts were accurate. Home minister, [L.K.] Advani, had telephoned him [Singh] yesterday and was horrified by the UK figures of the number of deaths in Gujarat. Many would see this as the UK interfering in India’s internal affairs.” the record of discussion further stated.
The read-out of the telephonic dialogue continued, “The foreign secretary said we fully respected the independence of the government of India. We [Britain] had been careful not to criticise the [Indian] government publicly but to make our representations in private. It was right for the [British] High Commission to make an assessment of the events in Gujarat which were causing such concern in the Indian community in the UK. The foreign secretary, as a friend of India, had worked hard to dampen feelings here [in Britain] which could have got out of hand.”
While Singh referred to the conduct of the British high commission, it is unclear from the memorandum on the phone call as to how and where precisely the investigation report leaked. But it is transparent from the probe summary that it was circulated to the British Home Office and other government departments, not to mention various UK diplomatic missions in the region and elsewhere.
The same investigation report became the centrepiece of the BBC revisiting the issue with a television documentary broadcast in January this year on Modi’s role in the riots. Straw confirmed on the programme that he had indeed, as foreign secretary, ordered the inquiry, whose report eventually concluded that Modi was ‘directly responsible’ for the 2002 riots. In a subsequent interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, he repeated the report’s main conclusions.
The British report claimed that on the night of February 27, 2002 – just as the communal violence in Gujarat was beginning – Modi ordered the state’s police not to intervene. As a result, Muslims bore the brunt of brutality perpetrated by Hindutva zealots.
Modi denies the accusation and was in 2022 controversially absolved of responsibility by the Supreme Court of India.
The BBC programme highlighted the fact that two of the three men – (both Indian Police Service officers) Sanjiv Bhatt and R.B. Sreekumar – who testified about Modi issuing instructions to state police not to intervene in the rioting, had cases filed against them and were imprisoned. Bhatt is still behind bars while Sreekumar, who was arrested in June 2022, is out on bail. The other, a senior BJP politician in Gujarat, Haren Pandya, who gave evidence to an unofficial fact-finding panel, was found shot dead in seemingly mysterious circumstances. This was corroborated on the BBC programme by the veteran BJP politician, Subramaniam Swamy.
Since then, a BBC music producer was denied a visa to visit India for a holiday in a wildlife sanctuary. He, as a result, could not obtain a refund for the £4,000 he had paid for the trip. BBC sources reveal this is not the only instance of the broadcaster’s employees in the UK being effectively barred from entering India.
In a double whammy, the BBC was in July criticised in the British House of Commons for inadequately covering the communal and ethnic violence in Manipur since early May.
Ashis Ray, a foreign correspondent for 46 years, was editor-at-large of CNN. He can be followed at X on @ashiscray.
Note: The story was edited at 11:20 on September 18 to add details about R.B. Sreekumar’s arrest and release on bail.