The 2002 Gujarat riots were investigated not just by the United Kingdom, but also by the European Union. A new BBC documentary has revealed that an inquiry by the UK government indicted Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, for the “climate of impunity” that led to the “ethnic cleansing” of 2,000 Muslims. But the European Union has declined to make its report public, citing the potential harm its release could cause to its relationship with Delhi.

“Disclosure of this document to the public would harm the relations between the EU and India, by undermining the confidence and trust in EU-India partnership, thus prejudicing EU’s capacity to protect and promote its interests in this context,” an official of the European Union wrote in response to Dutch activist Gerard Oonk’s request for access to the EU’s inquiry report on the 2002 Gujarat violence.

Scroll has reviewed the correspondence between Oonk and the European External Action Service, the European Union’s diplomatic wing. A spokesperson of the diplomatic service has confirmed its authenticity.

Commenting on the European Union’s decision not to disclose the report, Oonk, former director of a non-profit organisation called the India Committee of the Netherlands, said in an email to Scroll: “From the strong wording of the letter in terms of the political damage that publication of the report would cause, one can only conclude that the statements on the role of Modi and his ministers are most probably quite negative.”

Of the 27 member states of the European Union, several countries, including Germany, France and Belgium, have significant economic ties with India. The UK is no longer part of the European Union, but it was in 2002, when Gujarat was convulsed with anti-Muslim violence.

A BJP supporter with a poster of Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad in December 2012. Credit: Reuters.

A request and two denials

On June 1, 2022, Oonk wrote to the European External Action Service, asking for a copy of “EU mission reports on the large-scale violence against Muslims and its aftermath that took place in the state of Gujarat (India) in February 2002”.

In its response on October 28, the diplomatic service identified two relevant documents.

The first was a joint report dated April 18, 2002, on “the Gujarat events” by the heads of the European diplomatic missions posted in India. It offered “an assessment of the EU Delegation on the same events…and the terms of reference for a possible confidential demarche by the Indian authorities vis-à-vis these events.”

The European External Action Service refused to disclose this report in entirety, sharing only a part of it with Oonk. “In our assessment, the public disclosure of this document in full would risk prejudicing the international relations between the EU and India,” wrote Nereo Penalver Garcia, head of division for parliamentary affairs at the European External Action Service, in the response to the activist.

“More precisely, it would affect the capacity of the EU and its Member States to follow their strategic objectives and agreed actions in and with India in all fields of cooperation, from security and foreign agenda to the sectorial areas of cooperation, by eroding the trust between the counterparts,” Garcia added.

The second document that the European External Action Service identified was the “Common report on the March/April 2002 events”, which it said it was not in a position to share either in full or part. “Our examination concluded that the second document contains sensitive elements and assessments of the events in Gujarat that took place in 2002,” Garcia said.

Oonk filed an appeal on November 9 to get full access to the documents. Rejecting it, Gianmarco Di Vita, the Director-General of the European External Action Service, said in a letter dated November 22 that the decision to not make the full documents public had been taken after a thorough analysis of the documents’ content.

“The full disclosure of the two identified documents to the public would hamper the on-going cooperation with India, both at political and operational level,” Di Vita said. “It would also harm maintaining an environment of mutual trust in future diplomatic dialogues and ultimately damage the EU’s and its Member States interests in relation with this country.”

The authenticity of the correspondence was confirmed by the European Union. “This correspondence was established following a citizen’s request for access to the document,” a spokesperson of the European External Action Service said on email.

‘Widespread rape’

While the European Union did not share the full joint report by the European heads of missions with Oonk, it shared a part, which Scroll has seen.

According to these excerpts, the actual deaths in the Gujarat violence were more than the official numbers and there was “widespread rape of Muslim women”. “Muslim businesses, including businesses partially owned by Muslims were systematically targeted and destroyed,” the report noted. “This was followed by calls for an economic boycott of Muslim owned businesses.”

Over 140,000 people had been displaced in the violence, it said, of which 100,000 were Muslims. “Conditions in refugee camps are extremely poor.”

It also noted that the initial compensation offered by the Gujarat government was “discriminatory”: Rs 200,000 for Hindu victims, and Rs 100,000 for Muslims. This was later modified “at the request of the Central government”.

These findings, the report said, were based on information gathered from governmental and quasi-governmental organisations such as the National Human Rights Commission and the National Minorities Commission, media sources, local and foreign non-governmental organisations, and fact-finding teams sent by European Union member states to Gujarat.

The declassified portion of the EU joint report on the Gujarat riots. Courtesy Gerard Oonk

Incidentally, during a debate in the European Parliament in May 2002, Poul Nielson, European Commissioner in charge of development and humanitarian aid, had confirmed the deployment of a European fact-finding team.

“It was necessary to send a mission to Gujarat to assess whether the riots had implications for the principles on which our cooperation is based, including respect for human rights and democracy and the rule of law,” Nielson said. “The findings were deeply worrying. Violence was not only widespread, but in many cases extreme brutality was used.”

Nielson had told the European Parliament that the unofficial death toll was “at 2,000” with most of them being Muslims. “The mission also heard accusations from the Indian media and the Indian Human Rights Commission that the Gujarat state authorities had been complacent in their handling of the Hindu rioters.”

A few weeks before on April 15, 2002, the European Union Commission and member states held a general affairs council meeting in Luxembourg. The council “expressed its concern at the sectarian violence in Gujarat”.

After Modi was sworn in for his first term as prime minister, Spanish politician Izaskun Bilbao Barandica in July 2014 raised his alleged involvement in the Gujarat riots, in the European Parliament.

Vice President Caroline Ashton, responding on behalf of the European Commission, sidestepped giving a direct response. Ashton said that the European Union-India cooperation agreement that was signed in 1994 will also provide the framework for the EU-India Free Trade Agreement. “…Which…would not include specific Human Rights-related provisions on social, racial and religious discrimination.”

Narendra Modi arrives at JFK Airport in New York in September 2014, his first visit to the United States after his visa ban was revoked.

Why now?

Oonk, the Dutch activist, is the director of the India Committee of the Netherlands, formed in 1980 to work with “independent social movements and NGOs fighting for the rights of the poor and oppressed”.

He said he was banned from entering India in 2002. While no official reason was provided for the ban, it was imposed after the India Committee of the Netherlands raised issues relating to Dalits and Muslims in Gujarat with the public, and in the Dutch and European Parliament, he said.

Oonk told Scroll that he had sought access to the European Union’s report after he was approached by a BBC journalist who was looking for it. The journalist had seen a reference to the report in a 2003 article on a website run by Ook. “I told him I could request it from the EEAS which I did,” he said.

The BBC documentary mentions the European Union report but does not elaborate on its findings. However, it cites extensively from the UK government report which found that the violence had “all the hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing”. India’s Ministry of External Affairs has alleged that the documentary pushes a discredited narrative and displays a “colonial mindset”.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that the BBC documentary did not refer to the European Union report.