Note: This article was originally published on November 17, 2015 and was republished on January 19, 2023.
It’s admirable that Narendra Modi puts no premium on English, speaking instead in Hindi at his press conference in London, which no Indian Prime Minister before him has. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in every other way a far greater man, was strangely diffident on this point: struggling to respond in English to Anglophone interlocutors, he became tongue-tied. Tony Blair once told Manmohan Singh that in 2002, when he had made several trips to Delhi, and George Bush had asked him before one of them why he was going back when he had been there recently, he had said that he had put a question then to Vajpayee, to which he hoped this time to get a reply.
Modi is quick with his responses and – because he speaks in Hindi – precise. We know therefore that when a journalist asked the British prime minister if he was comfortable welcoming a person who for the first two years of his premiership was not permitted to visit Britain because of his record as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi replied that he would “keep the record straight”, he had never been banned from visiting the UK, he had been received warmly and with respect in 2003, and had not been able to visit again as CM because he was busy.
That reply reminded me of a report to the National Human Rights Commission on a man who had been choked to death in custody; the police said that he had died of breathing difficulties, which of course was not untrue.
Truth of the 2003 visit
I was India’s deputy high commissioner to the UK at the time and the truth is a little more complicated. Throughout 2002, after the Gujarat riots, the British media was up in arms, particularly since a family of Indian origin was among the Muslim victims. The Conservatives demanded that the Labour government live up to its claim that it ran an ethical foreign policy, Amnesty and other human rights organisations were on the warpath, the NRIs were split down the middle, and the bilateral relationship came under strain. An enormous amount of the High Commission’s time, and that of the India Desk at the Foreign Office, was spent in trying to contain the damage. L.K. Advani visited in August, briefly disarming the critics by saying that he would not try to defend the indefensible, but Gujarat would not go away because the scale of the atrocity and the indifference of the state government were impossible to ignore.
It was into this simmering discontent that Modi decided in the summer of 2003 that he would immerse himself with a visit to the UK at the invitation of the Gujarati Hindu diaspora.
The British government’s reaction was neither warm nor respectful; it was deeply upset, for a number of reasons. With its Muslim population already embittered over Iraq and the Islamophobia unleashed by the War on Terror, the last thing it wanted was a visitor who would alienate them even more and drive a wedge between its immigrant communities. They would be forced to be critical of the chief minister, to whom they could issue none of the usual courtesies, and this would in turn create a needless niggle in bilateral relations, to which, as the Indian economy boomed, they were paying unprecedented attention.
The Foreign Office therefore made urgent demarches with the Indian High Commission, asking it to convey their government’s anxieties to India, and their request that the chief minister of Gujarat decline the invitation from his supporters in the UK in the larger interest of bilateral relations.
The High Commission completely shared these concerns. Having been in the eye of the storm from 2002 – and knowing from its engagement with the diaspora just how deeply divisive this visit would be, and how toxic its fallout on bilateral relations – sent a strong recommendation to the Ministry of External Affairs that the chief minister be advised against the visit. It was told the external affairs minister agreed that it would be best for him not to go, but that his advice had been brushed aside by Modi.
Astonishingly, the High Commission was then told that, after his rebuff, the external affairs minister had gone to Prime Minister Vajpayee, who had concurred that the visit was undesirable and must be aborted, but that it was nevertheless going ahead. The word, sotto voce, was that other voices, which could not be ignored, had insisted that if Narendra Modi had received an invitation, he must be allowed to accept it. Not to do so, after the British interventions, would be an admission of weakness and guilt.
That is how a visit that both the British and the Indian governments absolutely did not want took place. Predictably, it was a deeply polarising event, Muslims and human rights protesting as he spoke to rapturous Gujarati Hindus.
As the British government had warned, it took no official cognizance of Modi’s presence, though it kept a beady eye on it. The Home Office issued a statement in which it said, with neither warmth nor respect:
“We are aware he’s visiting the UK. He is not visiting at Her Majesty’s government’s invitation nor does the government plan to have any contact with him when he’s here. We do understand the concerns expressed but there were no appropriate grounds to refuse Mr Modi a visa.”
Fear of arrest
Two days into the visit, the Foreign Office called the High Commission in a panic to report that they had learnt that, following a precedent set during a recent visit by Robert Mugabe, an attempt would be made to put Narendra Modi under citizen’s arrest, permitted by British law, while some lawyers were approaching a magistrate for a more conventional arrest warrant.
If either of these initiatives succeeded, it would be a disaster, because the British government would either have to break its own law to let Modi go, or stand back and let the law take its course, while the bilateral relationship went down the drain, which it would if an Indian chief minister was under arrest in London. The British pleaded that Modi be urged to take the next plane out, pre-empting a possible arrest.
British panic was shared in Delhi when this was reported to them, and the High Commission was asked to relay instructions from the highest possible level that he should leave immediately. This it did, only to be told, coolly, that the chief minister would do nothing of the sort. If he was arrested, he said, he would become a martyr in India; his political stock would soar. And that was that. It was clear that to him personal ambition mattered more than anything else. The destruction of a relationship between India and the United Kingdom, that was being so carefully resurrected, meant nothing.
Luckily, the application for the warrant failed in court, and the British threw an invisible cordon around Modi to prevent the feared citizen’s arrest, so he strutted and fretted on his London stage a few days more, and left on schedule, his departure warmly welcomed by both governments.
In 2005, discretion over valour
There was a strange sequel to this. A few months later, a parliamentary under secretary (equivalent to the now defunct rank of deputy minister in India) told the High Commission that he was going to India, and after his meetings in Delhi, would fly to Gujarat to see the Akshardham temple there, since so many of his constituents were Gujaratis. He then asked if the High Commission could very discreetly get him a meeting with Chief Minister Modi (whom by then the EU, at the instance of his government, had decided to ostracise). His constituents, he said, had made it clear that if he did not seek absolution, their votes would go elsewhere. Three other junior ministers, with similar constituency pressures, made the same journey to Canossa thereafter, leading to the suspicion that someone had suggested to the diaspora that British penance and penitence might be in order.
The coda came in March, 2005, when the chief minister planned another visit, again invited by Hindu groups. This time the British government was even more insistent, to the point of being adamant, that he should not come, not least because they feared that the application for a warrant, which had failed on a technicality in 2003, would succeed, setting off a horrible diplomatic crisis. The UPA government, not beholden to the voices which had prevailed in 2003, told Mr. Modi in very clear terms that he was on his own if he ignored the advice not to go. Very prudently, he called his trip off.
The Prime Minister’s visit to the United Kingdom now has set many records, all of them meticulously detailed. It is important, though, as he said, also to “keep the record straight” on the past.
Satyabrata Pal is a former Indian diplomat. He served as India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, and as a member of the National Human Rights Commission