A diplomatic no

Print edition : April 22, 2005

THE news that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had called off his visit to Britain, after being advised by the Home Ministry that there were concerns about his security, came as civil rights campaigners in London were preparing to picket him on his arrival, and a move to have an arrest warrant issued against him was said to be going well. The protest venues had been settled, the placards were ready and, as one activist put it: "We were raring to give him hell."

Their immediate reaction was one of disappointment that Modi had "got away with it", but as the details emerged they realised that his decision was in fact a "victory" for their campaign. "It is a face-saver for Modi, a face-saver for the British government and a tremendous victory for us," one campaigner said.

By cancelling the three-day trip, which was to begin on March 25, Modi saved himself the embarrassment of being booed and jeered by his own countrymen on the streets of London. Even more humiliating was the prospect of being presented with an arrest warrant or subjected to a "citizen's arrest" by groups protesting against the visit.

For the British government, which had been under enormous pressure to stop Modi from entering Britain, the move was a quiet diplomatic triumph. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had been deluged with petitions urging him to follow the U.S. "lead" and revoke Modi's visa over allegations of his government's involvement in the 2002 communal violence in which three British nationals were killed.

But taking the American route was precisely what the British government did not want to do lest it should be seen as "slavishly" aping Washington, to quote an Indian diplomatic observer. At the same time, it did not want to be accused of hosting a man about whom a senior British High Commission official in New Delhi had said, after the 2002 violence: "A reconciliation between Hindus and Muslim is impossible while the Chief Minister remains in power."

As the pressure mounted, the Foreign Office made it clear that it would have "no contact" with Modi or provide official security during his visit. The British government reportedly conveyed to New Delhi its strong "concerns" about Modi - a diplomatic euphemism for saying that he was not welcome. The message was that if he still insisted on coming he would be on his own.

After the humiliation of being refused an American visa, Modi understandably did not want to risk more embarrassment. Suggestions that there was a threat to his life were clearly exaggerated. Indeed, anti-Modi campaigners - mostly belonging to secular civil rights groups - were furious at being portrayed as Al Qaeda extremists by his supporters.

But even a bit of `drama', such as someone attempting a citizen's arrest or hurling abuse, would not have made for a pretty sight, and would generate damaging headlines around the world. And this was the last thing Modi would have wanted at a time when he and his supporters were desperately trying to salvage some prestige after the "slap on the face" - as The Hindu editorial put it - from the Americans. Hence, the decision to stay home.

The "anti-visit'' groups hailed the cancellation as a vindication of "people power".

"Clearly, the momentum that we built up against his visit and the pressure we brought to bear upon the British government not to allow him to come here appear to have resulted in the advice that he should reconsider his travel plans," said Amrit Wilson of the South Asia Solidarity Group (SASG). She said that the campaign against "divisive forces" would continue: "It is not just about one person, it's against the entire Sangh Parivar and its activities."

Echoing the sentiment, Mohamed Munaf Zeena, chairman of the Council of Indian Muslims (United Kingdom), said his organisation would press for a permanent ban on Modi's entry in Britain, even if that meant enacting a new law.

"We are going to ask Mr. Straw whether it is in the British interest to allow such a person to visit the U.K. Is it not time that we took a stand and sent a clear signal that the likes of Modi were not welcome - not just to the people of the USA but to the people of the U.K. as well?" he said.

This would have been Modi's second visit to Britain since the Gujarat carnage, which provoked international outrage, prompting calls for him to be tried for "crimes against humanity". During his previous visit in 2003 - months after the allegedly state-sponsored violence that claimed more than 2,000 lives - he faced angry demonstrations by cross-community groups led by the left-wing SASG. A move to have him arrested failed on a technicality on that occasion, but this time human rights lawyers were more confident of getting an arrest warrant issued against him under the British Criminal Justice Act.

According to Suresh Grover of the U.K. National Civil Rights Movement, they were on firmer ground this time as the family of at least two British nationals - Saeed and Sakil Daud - killed in the Gujarat violence, had given their consent for a case to be filed against Modi. "Unlike on the previous occasion, this time we have the consent of the Daud family to seek Modi's arrest on their behalf," said an optimistic Grover as he waited for an appointment with a magistrate shortly before the cancellation of Modi's trip was announced.

As in 2003, the country's civil rights movement was united about the demand for a ban on Modi's entry, arguing that allowing him in would run contrary to the government's own strong line on the Gujarat administration's role in the 2002 violence. Protest groups believed that there was a "contradiction" between the British government's condemnation of the Gujarat events and its reluctance to bar his entry into Britain, effectively allowing him to use British soil for "political propaganda".

"While it is true that the British High Commission in India has condemned, and to some extent exposed some aspects of what happened in Gujarat three years ago, prominent figures in New Labour are known for their support to Hindutva groups," said an SASG spokesperson.

In the end, however, the British government managed to achieve quietly what the Americans did so ham-handedly. Having said that, it is doubtful whether London would have acted at all if Washington had not taken the lead.

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