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Full Text of Jack Straw Interview: UK Probe Into 2002 Riots Spurred by ‘Concerns of Constituents'

Karan Thapar interviews former British foreign secretary Jack Straw about the inquiry, which found that Narendra Modi was "directly responsible" for the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat.

The recent BBC documentary on the Gujarat anti-Muslim violence of 2002 and Narendra Modi revealed two important and unknown facts. First, in 2002 the British High Commission in Delhi carried out an inquiry in Gujarat, and on the basis of that inquiry, it submitted a report to the British foreign office in London. That report said, “Narendra Modi is directly responsible”. The second important fact revealed by the BBC is that Jack Straw, who was the British foreign secretary at the time, was deeply concerned about what he was hearing from his diplomats about Modi and the violence. In a video interview published by The Wire on January 21, 2023, Karan Thapar spoke to Straw about the report, why it was conducted and if he conveyed his concerns to the Indian government, led at the time by A.B. Vajpayee. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited lightly for style, clarity and syntax.

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Joining me now from Britain is Jack Straw to talk about that foreign office report and also to talk about his concerns in 2002 when he was British foreign secretary. Mr Straw, let me start with what the foreign office report reveals, according to the BBC documentary, before I come to your thoughts and concerns in 2002, when you were foreign secretary.

First of all the BBC says the report said that the extent of the violence was “much greater than reported”. More importantly, the report said this was a “systematic campaign of violence” and it had all the “hallmarks of ethnic cleansing”. How did you respond when you heard that your own diplomats believed ethnic cleansing was happening in Gujarat under Narendra Modi’s chief ministership?

Well, I have long been very familiar with the history of India and Independence in 1947 and the communal violence which then took place. And indeed, I was in India – amongst many other visits – in 1992, when there was a demonstration against the Ayodhya mosque that led to communal riots. We were caught up in it, sitting in a vehicle as the police and rioters in Mumbai were throwing rocks at each other. So, I’m familiar with some of the background.

When this [Gujarat violence] happened, of course, the first concern that all of us had was for the 58 Hindu victims of the fire on the train which was actually coming from Ayodhya and of their families. Of course, we were very concerned about that. But very quickly after that, I mean that appears to have been an accident – but no one’s quite sure, it may be arson. But very quickly after that, there were suggestions that it was arson, that this was all got up by Muslim extremists and then that was a kind of trigger for communal violence. And certainly, there were a lot of reports of the police being unwilling to get involved in sorting out intra-communal violence which was taking place, really, across the state of Gujarat, until it was too late.

Now I am aware that I think the spokesman for the Indian Union government has said that my involvement and the British foreign office’s involvement was neocolonial or something like that. [Editor’s note: The statement was made by the spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, who said that it reflected a “continuing colonial mindset”.] There’s nothing we can do about our history. A simple fact of that is that in Britain, including in my own constituency, there are thousands – hundreds of thousands – of people from the Indian state of Gujarat, mainly Muslim. And if the reverse was the situation, the Indian government would have responded. So, there was a lot of concern. And of course, there were also people I knew whose families were affected by these intra-communal riots, directly affected, and they were made making representations, so that’s one of the reasons why the then Ambassador, High Commissioner, ordered this investigation.

How horrified were you to learn or to read that what was happening was being described by your ambassador and his colleagues in Delhi as having all the “hallmarks of ethnic cleansing”? 

Well, I was very concerned indeed, about that. It’s not the first time, nor sadly will it be the last, that there have been suggestions of ethnic cleansing. But of course, I was concerned and I’ve remained concerned about it.

Now, the report goes on to say, according to the BBC, and again I’m quoting the VHP and its allies – the VHP is an organisation called the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, it’s a Hindu organisation – could not have inflicted so much damage without the climate of impunity created by the state government. And then very pointedly, the report adds in the next sentence, “Narendra Modi is directly responsible”. So, your High Commissioner of the time and his colleagues were directly pointing the finger of responsibility and blame at the then chief minister of Gujarat, now the present prime minister of India, Narendra Modi.

Yes. I mean, this was an internal report and obviously, we didn’t publish it at the time. But that was the feeling of those on the ground. There you are! And, this is not the only time there’s been an allegation of partiality by Indian police in one state or another. Just a fact of life.

Now, there’s a thought aspect of the report as quoted by the BBC in that documentary. It says, and again I’m quoting, “Reliable contacts have told us that Narendra Modi met senior police officers on February 27 and ordered them not to intervene in the rioting.” Although the report goes on to say that police contacts deny this meeting happened, it’s quite clear that the authors of the report did believe that Narendra Modi had told police officers not to intervene in the rioting. And that clearly means, does it not, that it wasn’t just a climate of impunity that Mr Modi and his government were creating but they were actually actively assisting the rioters by not stopping them and by allowing them to carry on by telling the police don’t intervene.

Well, that was the allegation at the time and that was the belief. Now look, I wasn’t there and as you’ve brought out, there were conflicting views about whether this meeting between Mr Modi and senior police officers had or hadn’t taken place and also what was said at it. What I would say, I’ve no idea what Mr Modi was thinking at the time, but what is clear is that there having been a most terrible accident – or call it something else – of the burning of all those poor people in the train, Hindus in the train, Gujarat was then faced with a very difficult situation because of the history of communal violence. And that required effective policing and that effective policing did not take place until really quite late. I mean that’s the fact of the matter. I was a British home secretary before I was the British foreign secretary and I was in charge of the police here, and if things go badly wrong or riots get out of hand, the person who’s in the hot seat takes responsibility.

Full Text | UK Govt Inquiry Says VHP Planned to ‘Purge Muslims’ in 2002 Riots, Acted With Guj Govt’s Support

Absolutely. And the reason why effective policing did not happen, according to the report submitted to you, is because the chief minister of the state – the man who was ultimately responsible for ensuring that effective policing does happen – stepped in and stopped the police from acting. That’s what the report said.

Yes. Well, as a matter of fact, that’s what the report does say. Yeah, I mean if you asked me to say, “Do I know for sure what happened?” We’re now 21 years after the event… how can I, what can I say? But that was the conclusion of people on the ground.

Let’s come to your response and your reaction when you read this report because you were after all foreign secretary at the time and the man ultimately responsible under the prime minister for British foreign policy. What was your response when you read that there was ethnic cleansing allegedly happening, that the chief minister was directly responsible, and that the chief minister had intervened to stop the police from taking action to stop the rioters? What was your personal response when you read this?

Well, I mean the response of any senior minister in that situation – I was very concerned about what I read. And then there was, what could we do about it? India has been independent since 1947. There’s nothing directly we could do about it. Of course, we did talk to the families of victims from that state who are in this country and made what representations we could about it.

Let me quote what you said to the BBC in that documentary, which was shown I believe on January 17. I’m quoting your exact words, “These were very serious claims that chief minister Modi had played a proactive part in pulling back the police and in tacitly encouraging the extremists.” And then you went on to tell the BBC, “This was a particularly egregious example of political involvement to prevent the police from doing the job which was to protect communities” – i.e both communities Hindus and Muslims. I take it this was said as the opinion not just of Jack Straw the individual nor simply the opinion of the former minister of the time but this was the opinion of the Tony Blair government and the British government as a whole.

Well, the only senior minister dealing with this at the time was me, so I can’t speak for Mr Blair. He had other things on his desk at the time, concerned though he was. But it was our view. But I’m afraid to say, you know the history of the Indian subcontinent is that there has from time to time been serious communal violence. If you want to try and allocate historic responsibility, that goes back to the time of the British Raj, when the British government and the East India Company, sought to play one community off against each other and so on… But anyway, that was the position. The fact that a partisan government, in one state or another, was seeking to influence the way the police behaved in India was no particular surprise to me because I’m familiar with recent Indian history.

So you were dismayed by what the report was saying, but it was no particular surprise.

Yes, I think it’s a fair way of putting it.

Did your government as a whole, or did you as foreign secretary, take up the outcome and the details of the report with the Indian government of the day? did you communicate with Mr A.B. Vajpayee’s government? Or directly with Mr Modi’s government, to say that this is what you’ve learned and you were deeply concerned?

I did talk to the Vajpayee government and particularly to my opposite member, the foreign minister. With him, I had very good relations. I’m pretty certain that I did that. I should also say that I’d been in very, very close contact and cooperation with the Vajpayee government over the whole of 2002, about the attack on the Lok Sabha in mid-December 2001, which led to a very great increase in tension across the Line of Control. I was highly, publicly critical of the Pakistani government for what I described at the time – I think for the first occasion ever that the senior Minister said this – of state-sponsored terrorism by Pakistan. So, I had good relations with them and I’m sure I did discuss it. But at this distance, I can’t remember exactly what was said.

Okay you did, you believe, discuss this with the Vajpayee government and probably in particular with the foreign minister of the day, who was Jaswant Singh. But you can’t recall what they would have said in reply.

Yes, I think it certainly would have been raised.

How did you feel, when a few years later, India’s Supreme Court exonerated Narendra Modi? The position the court took is that there was no evidence of his complicity.

Well, I’m aware of that decision. I was always extremely careful about what I said publicly about the position of Mr Modi or other ministers from Gujarat and I was in no personal position to allocate responsibility. Our diplomats did the best job they could but they weren’t trained investigators, so they came to their conclusions. What we know for certain is that it was a terrible situation. We also know that there was a failure of policing, leaving aside who was responsible, in the aftermath of the fire on the train which killed 58 Hindus. So we knew that. And obviously, I accept the view of the Supreme Court. It was, as you say, much later.

Narendra Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, and Prime Minister of India in 2020. Photos: Doordarshan/PTI

Tell me, what would have happened in Britain in a similar situation where there was no personal involvement proven, but clearly there was a failure, a systemic failure? Would the head of government have automatically accepted moral responsibility and resigned? And more importantly, would it have been widely expected of him to accept moral responsibility and resign? 

Well, in the past I would have said yes. I’m afraid given the recent history in this country – and here I do make a partisan point about the current Conservative administrations – the chances are they would have sought to evade responsibility. And we’ve had some dreadful events over recent years, not least the Grenfell fire where I think 80 or 90 people died in a fire in a tower block which was caused not by malign decisions of anybody but by a history of incompetence and bad investment and there’s an inquiry going on into that.

Very quickly, I want to put to you, what the Indian foreign office spokesperson has said. First of all, as you suggested, he’s claimed that the British High Commission had no right to carry out an investigation in 2002. He calls it a colonial mindset and he asked, “Are they ruling the country?” How do you respond to that?

Well, the British High Commission was – 20 years ago still more – sensitive to the fact that the United Kingdom had indeed been the colonial master until 1947. And that places a special responsibility on how we behave subsequently and so. As foreign minister, I happened to be reasonably well versed in the history, not only of India but also of Britain’s role in India and most of it, the East India Company and then a completely racist colonial administration which occurred after the 1857 Uprising, was pretty dreadful. So I’m not here to defend that, but it’s just a fact of life.

How I respond to it is that the results of Britain’s involvement with India created a long-term bond between these two countries. It’s not about government, it’s about the peoples. I mean just as the Mughal invasions and those from the west – from Persia – into India over centuries before the East India Company got there has changed the nature of India. So, our involvement has changed not only the nature of India but also changed the nature of Britain. So the constituency which I represented in a textile area of Lancashire, 50 years ago probably about 5% of the population were non-White, if fewer, and today it’s 40% and rising. And we are forever linked to India. When Blackburn was at its height in terms of its prosperity, it was prosperous because 80% of what the mills made was exported to India and to China and we prevented the Indians from running their own mills.

If I understand you correctly that I’m repeating what you said to me on the phone in our earlier conversation, one of the reasons why the British High Commission in India felt it incumbent to do an inquiry and send back a report is because you have many citizens who are British citizens but of Gujarati Muslim origin and you owe a duty to them to try and find out what is happening to their relatives.

It was nothing about being postcolonial. It was everything to do with the concerns of our constituents.

One more quick question. The spokesman in India has also commented on you, he said and I’m quoting, “Just because Jack Straw says it, why do they lend it that much legitimacy?” What he’s saying – although he isn’t putting it as bluntly as that – is questioning whether you know what you’re talking about.

Oh, well! That’s not for others to judge, but I do my best to be measured in what I said, I always have done. And I’ve been very careful in this interview as well.

Also Read: BBC Documentary on Gujarat 2002 Reminds Us That We Are Not Interested in Truth

One last question. It’s not to do with the report, but it is to do with Mr Modi. A visit he paid to England in 2003, shortly after the 2002 killings when he was chief minister of Gujarat and you were foreign secretary at the time. Satyabrata Pal, who was India’s deputy high commissioner in England in those days wrote an article in 2015 which was reprinted three days ago, where he said that the British foreign office had contacted the Indian High Commission to say Mr Modi must not visit England in 2003 because you were very seriously worried there could either be a citizen’s arrest or maybe a magistrate might actually order an official arrest. This message was conveyed by the British foreign office to the Indian High commission. Mr Pal says it was passed to Mr Modi. You were very keen that Mr Modi not visit, but Mr Modi chose to disregard your advice, he chose to disregard the advice of the Indian High Commission in Britain and he did come. In the end, he didn’t get arrested he was able to return to India safely. Can you confirm this story, that your government was very keen that he’d not visit because you were very scared that if he did, he could end up being arrested?

I can’t directly confirm the details you mentioned. What I can tell you is that there was concern about Mr Modi’s visit for two reasons. I mean one was the fact that it’s possible for him to be arrested. Bear in mind that only five years before this, in 1998, there had been without my knowledge as home minister at the time, a warrant for arrest issued against the former president of Chile, Augusto Pinochet, and he was arrested and he was then detained, indeed on my orders, for 16 months. So this was not an academic concern and that could have happened under our legal system. The other was whether there would be communal trouble here, which obviously we didn’t want. India is a member of the Commonwealth, and we have good relations with successive Indian governments, so we weren’t going to stop Mr Modi – of course not – from coming here. But I think the view was taken, and I can’t confirm the details, that we should put these facts before Mr Modi. He chose to make his own decision, that’s fine.

One last question because I think as a journalist it’s right that you should have a chance to respond to critics in India and there has been some criticism of you to say that whilst you are quite open and upfront and criticising the Modi government and what happened in 2002 in Gujarat, you have not severely been critical of your own government’s behaviour and the Iraq War which happened just a year later in 2003. Now, I know that five years ago, Tony Blair – who was prime minister – publicly expressed his sorrow, regret and apology. So for the record can I ask you, do you also similarly share that regret, sorrow, and apology?

Yes, and I have said it often enough. I mean, look, it’s an entirely fair point for whoever said this to make. And I gave three days of evidence to the official inquiry into the Iraq War. I’ve given endless interviews about it and of course, I regret what happened. I would just say however that Mr Blair and I uh acted in good faith and on what we thought was good information at the time, but that’s another story.

I thank you very much for this interview Mr straw and I thank you in particular for confirming the details of the report that the BBC quoted and also confirming that at the time you believe that you did take up this matter both with the Vajpayee government and in particular with Jaswant Singh, who was foreign minister, although you can’t recall precisely what they would have said to you.