Arms, not democratic values, on parade as Macron hosts India’s Modi on Bastille Day

French President Emmanuel Macron rolls out the red carpet for Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the Indian leader picked as guest of honour at this year’s July 14 Bastille Day military parade. But critics warn that by overlooking rights violations and democratic backsliding under Modi’s reign, France is sending the wrong message.

>> Click here for Bastille Day Diplomacy (II): Modi gets a July 14 red carpet, but China can rain on the parade

Aakashi Bhatt was just 11 years old when the riots that would turn her father into one of India’s most high-profile conscientious objectors and haunt Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political career erupted in the western state of Gujarat.

Bhatt was at home with her mother and brother in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s commercial hub, when her father called home shortly after midnight on March 1, 2002. Anti-Muslim riots were at their peak, and from a window, the young girl could see angry, chanting mobs, armed with sticks and swords, walking down the main street. The carnage would claim more than 1,000, mostly Muslim lives.

Her father, a senior Indian police officer, had been working flat out and had not returned home since the riots broke out on February 27.

“The landlines were not working, my dad called my mother on her mobile and told her to take the kids, go to the master bedroom, and stay inside. ‘I’m withdrawing our personal security to send them from pocket to pocket [of the city] to help quell the riots,’ he told my mother. Our house was left unattended and the security team was sent away,” recalled Bhatt in a phone interview more than two decades after the incident.


File photo of Sanjiv Bhatt with his daughter, wife and son taken after he received the Mother Teresa Award for Social Justice on December 31, 2012. © Sam Panthaky, AFP


Back in 2002, her father, Sanjiv Bhatt, was a senior police officer in the Gujarat intelligence bureau. Modi was then chief minister of the western Indian state.

The 2002 Gujarat riots, one of the worst atrocities in India’s bloody communal history, would change the course of the two men’s lives.

Sanjiv Bhatt – also known as the “whistleblower cop” – has since been suspended from the police force and is currently serving a life sentence in an Indian jail.

Modi has risen to the apex of political power in India. On the international stage, he’s a sought-after guest in Western capitals as India is increasingly viewed as a counterweight to China.

The art of dining in the Louvre

Last month, US President Joe Biden hosted Modi on a state visit – only the third state visit of the Biden presidency – in what a US-based commentator called “Operation seduce Narendra Modi”. The visit included an address to a joint session of Congress, a state dinner and the inking of major defence deals.

Barely three weeks later, France follows suit with President Emmanuel Macron picking Modi as the guest of honour at this year’s July 14 Bastille Day military parade. 

La fête nationale, as it’s known in France, is a major event on the national calendar, marking the triumph of liberty and the democratic will of the people. A Bastille Day chief guest invitation is an honour replete with symbolism in a country that fought for equal rights for all citizens more than 200 years ago.

This year, Macron is pulling out all the stops for Modi’s two-day visit. The July 14 military parade will be followed by a special dinner, with more than 200 guests, at the magnificent Louvre, the world’s most visited museum. The Indian prime minister will be treated to a special viewing of iconic art pieces, according to the French presidential office. Indian media are speculating about a photo-op of the two leaders with Leonardo da Vinci’s La Gioconda, better known as the Mona Lisa.

From diplomatic outcast to honoured guest

But even as Modi is feted across the world, the ghosts of 2002 continue to haunt the Indian prime minister.

Earlier this year, the BBC released a documentaryIndia: The Modi Question, which revisits Modi’s track record as Gujarat chief minister during one of India’s worst communal riots. The two-part documentary investigates persistent allegations that Modi’s state government was accused of complicity in the violence by encouraging the Hindu mobs and directing the police to stand aside as Muslim households were attacked. Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have denied the allegations for decades.

The Indian government’s reaction to the BBC series was swift. Authorities invoked emergency laws to ban the documentary. When students at a New Delhi university organised a screening, the electricity was cut. The BBC’s officers in India were then raided by tax authorities in what rights group call a pattern of legal harassment against independent media organisations.

Read moreAmid threats, India’s top independent anchor battles on – but for how long?

The Gujarat riots also resulted in a 2005 US visa ban against Modi for “severe violations of religious freedoms”, which was only lifted after he was sworn in as prime minister in May 2014. A UK diplomatic boycott imposed after the riots – which resulted in the deaths of three British Muslims in Gujarat – lasted 10 years.

From boycotts and bans to state visits and prestigious invitations, the West has made about-turns that have enabled Modi’s journey from diplomatic outcast to honoured guest at the table.

The outreach is extended despite New Delhi’s failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while increasing imports of cheap Russian oil. Markets, geopolitics, defence deals and Chinese expansionism are an imperative package that enables Biden and Macron to turn a blind eye on the factors that have left Sanjiv Bhatt and a long list of regime opponents languishing in Indian jails.

But while realpolitik appears to have won the day in Western capitals, the game for history’s winners and losers is still at play – and that could have consequences for countries sweeping values under their red carpets.

Brothers in arms

Modi’s invitation to the Bastille Day military parade marks the 25th anniversary of the France-India Strategic Partnership, notes a joint statement on the Élysée presidential palace website.

Launched in 1998 – the year India was slapped with US sanctions for conducting nuclear tests – the France-India Strategic Partnership has seen the two countries cooperate on defence, civil nuclear energy, and counterterrorism issues.

A 269-member contingent of the Indian army, navy and air force will join the Bastille Day military parade on Friday. The Indian air force component will feature French Rafale fighter jets, which will also form part of the fly-past during the parade.

Weapons are set to top the agenda during Modi’s visit, his fifth to France that have yielded headline-grabbing agreements on arms purchases and bilateral trade. This year, Modi is expected to sign deals for the Indian Navy to acquire 26 Rafale jets and three additional Scorpene class submarines from France.

India is the world’s largest arms importer, with France holding the spot of India’s second-largest weapons supplier after Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

With the war in Ukraine exposing the shortcomings of Russian arms and increasing international pressure on Russian imports, Paris is challenging Moscow’s position as the world’s second-largest arms supplier after the US.

“Between trade, investment and weapons, that’s basically the key of the realpolitik driving Indo-French relations,” explained Jean-Luc Racine, senior research fellow at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and senior fellow at the Asia Centre.

But while the France-India partnership has grown strong with arms, Modi’s Bastille Day privilege has sparked questions in France, particularly on his Hindu nationalist administration’s human rights track record.In an op-ed in the French daily Libération, politicians from the Green Party as well as officials from the left-wing Nupes alliance, slammed Macron’s guest-of-honour choice.

While recognising the importance of geostrategic ties and bilateral relations, the column noted that it would take someone “either totally ignorant of the subcontinent’s current internal political context, or utterly cynical to make Mr. Modi the guest of honour of the French Republic on its most symbolic day of the year”.

The column noted that the BJP, a party “claiming to be the most virulent Hindu nationalist, clearly on the extreme right of the Indian political spectrum” was the political wing of the “RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) an ultranationalist paramilitary group founded in 1925 on the model of the Nazi party in Germany. Mahatma Gandhi’s 1948 assassin, Nathuram Godse, came from the ranks of the RSS,” the French politicians noted.

Describing Macron’s invitation as “cynical”, the column noted that “the country of Mahatma Gandhi and our ‘homeland of human rights’ deserve much better”.

Read moreMixing Modi with the Mahatma as India marks Gandhi’s anniversary

In another column in the leading French daily Le Monde, Christophe Jaffrelot, one of France’s most respected India scholars, also questioned the Modi invitation at a time when India is “moving towards a form of government that can best be described as electoral authoritarianism”.

While India holds the title of “the world’s largest democracy”, Jaffrelot, a senior research fellow at CERI-SciencesPo and CNRS, noted that under Modi, India’s democratic institutions were steadily losing their independence.

“Between elections, Indian democracy is literally put on hold. Parliament has been reduced to a mere recording chamber; judges have resigned themselves to nominating only Supreme Court judges who do not displease the government, which otherwise does not validate their appointment,” he wrote.

When the past haunts the present

The working of the Indian judiciary is a painfully familiar subject for Bhatt more than a decade after her father was suspended from the police force and arrested, triggering lengthy and labyrinthian legal proceedings.

At the heart of the Bhatt family’s woes lies allegations that Modi refused to stop the 2002 Gujarat riots. The carnage targeting Muslims erupted after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire, killing 59 people.

Modi has long denied allegations that he prevented the police from acting to stop the violence. A special investigative team appointed by India’s Supreme Court took a decade to submit a final report exonerating Modi of conspiracy in the riots following a series of legal petitions and questions over the handling of the investigation.

The 2012 Supreme Court ruling was welcomed by the BJP and was instrumental in the lifting of the UK diplomatic boycott and US visa ban on the right-wing Hindu nationalist party’s star politician.

But Modi has never completely shaken off allegations of tacitly backing the rioters, an issue taken up by the BBC documentary, The Modi Question. The documentary obtained access to a previously unseen and confidential UK government report that found Modi responsible for riots that had the “hallmarks of ethnic cleansing”.

The Indian foreign ministry has denied the claims in the documentary, calling it a “propaganda piece” that lacked objectivity. “This is a propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative. The bias, the lack of objectivity, and a continuing colonial mindset, is blatantly visible,” said Indian foreign ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi.

The Modi Question featured a damning interview with Jack Straw, Britain’s foreign minister at the time. “These were very serious claims that Mr. Modi had played a proactive part in pulling back police and in tacitly encouraging the Hindu extremists,” said Straw. “That was a particularly egregious example of political involvement to prevent police from doing their job to protect the Hindus and the Muslims.”

Sending ‘a very wrong message’

Given the centrality of the role of the police during the 2002 riots, the testimony of Sanjiv Bhatt, a senior police intelligence officer at that time, is explosive.

Sanjiv Bhatt told the Supreme Court investigative team that when the violence erupted, Modi told a meeting of top administrative and security officials that Hindus should be allowed to “vent their anger” over the deaths of Hindu pilgrims in the train fire and that Muslims should be “taught a lesson”.

Modi’s denial of the allegation was upheld by the Supreme Court ruling. Sanjiv Bhatt, on the other hand, lost the case in the country’s highest court, which ruled that the former police officer “tried to play the media card, and was being tutored by NGOs”.

A year after Modi was elected to office, Sanjiv Bhatt was dismissed from the Indian police force. He has since been convicted in another case, dating back to 1990, and sentenced to life in a 2019 ruling. He has also lost a plea for suspension of the life sentence.

His daughter says her father has been targeted for speaking up for justice and accountability.

“My father is the sole surviving witness to Modi’s complicity in orchestrating the Gujarat pogrom of 2002,” she said, referring to the mysterious murder of Haren Pandya, a senior BJP politician who testified about Modi’s controversial February 2002 meeting with senior police and state administration officials.

“For the last 21 years, my father has relentlessly been fighting for justice for the thousands who have been victimised by this regime,” she added. “His only concern is getting justice for the victims. Our concern is getting justice for him.”

More than two decades after that terrifying night, when her father withdrew the family’s personal security team to deploy them elsewhere, Bhatt is a surgeon and clinical researcher at the University of Oxford. The busy, 32-year-old surgeon does not have much leisure time, but when she does, Bhatt devotes much of it to speaking up for justice for her father.

Last month, the Oxford-based doctor traveled to Washington DC and New York, where she addressed demonstrations against Modi’s assault on democratic values during the Indian prime minister’s state visit to the US.

Shortly before the visit, Biden administration officials said the US did not plan to “lecture” Modi on human rights and democratic principles. But the issue came up during the visit, when the Indian prime minister was asked about discrimination against Muslims and other minorities by Wall Street Journal reporter Sabrina Siddiqui.

It wasn’t long before BJP trolls went after Siddiqui, highlighting her Muslim identity and subjecting her to “intense online harassment”, according to the White House Correspondents’ Association. US officials who had previously vowed not to “lecture” India, ended up issuing strong statements condemning the abuse and extolling free speech rights.

Macron is not expected to address human rights during Modi’s visit to France, according to several experts. “French foreign policy is set by the president. The Élysée [presidential palace] does consider human rights from time to time, but basically the position is the world is what it is, it’s a matter of realpolitik,” explained Racine.

The assessment comes as no surprise to Bhatt. “India is being put on the forefront for geopolitical reasons,” she noted. “Human rights have taken a backseat. I’d be very surprised if the French government doesn’t know this. The fact is, they’re ignoring it and by not asking relevant questions, by not holding him accountable, they are condoning it. I think it sends a very wrong message that France supports Modi’s totalitarianism.”

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