The British government has said it is to end a 10-year boycott of India's most controversial politician, Narendra Modi, in order to promote the UK's “national interests”. The move has already been welcomed by the chief minister of the state of Gujarat as well as business leaders but condemned by human rights activists who blame him over the murder of hundreds of Muslims a decade ago.
Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire said in a statement he had asked the British High Commissioner to India, Sir James Bevan, to arrange to visit Mr Modi, a right-wing Hindu nationalist, in the coming weeks. He said Britain wanted to develop closer cooperation with the business-friendly state of Gujarat and to secure justice for three British citizens who were among an estimated 1,000 people killed in 2002. “I feel that active engagement will help further these interests,” he said.
The decision to engage with Mr Modi at a senior level will likely prove to be controversial. Though he is a rising power within the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and could even emerge as India's next prime minister, he has never fully shaken off allegations that he at best acted insufficiently to prevent the rape and slaughter of hundreds of Muslims in the spring of 2002.
In August, one of Mr Modi's former ministers, Maya Kodnani, was jailed for 28 years after being convicted of her role in the killing of 97 people, when she handed out swords and urged Hindus to kill Muslims.
The killings followed the deaths of dozens of Hindu activists on a train fire which they accused Muslims of starting.
Mr Modi has always denied claims that he looked the other way while the violence was taking place and a special inquiry concluded earlier this year that there was no evidence to convict him. However, some legal actions in which he is named are still outstanding.
Activists also questioned the timing of the British announcement; Gujarat is to hold an election in December and election rules prohibit anything that could be seen to boost one candidate or another. “I think the timing is very suspicious,” said Teesta Setalvad, an activist with the group Citizens for Peace and Justice, which has campaigned for the victims of Gujarat. “It's obviously something that Modi will use.”
Fr Cedric Prakash, an activist and Jesuit priest from the city of Ahmedabad, said Mr Modi had enacted a number of laws he believed were in conflict with the “ideals of the British government”, including a
2003 Act which prevents people from converting their religion without the permission of the civil authorities. The law is still being challenged. “I really do not think it's appropriate”, he said of the British announcement.
Manish Tiwari, a spokesman for the ruling Congress party, which is battling to prevent Mr Modi securing a fourth term as chief minister in December, questioned what had led the British government to change its policy. He said Mr Modi and his government were still blocking justice for those who suffered in 2002.
“We are not one to tell another country how they should conduct their external affairs,” he said. “But suffice to say, any independent, non-partisan observer of the situation would conclude... there has been no change that should have caused this reappraisal.”
Mr Modi, who along with his supporters welcomed the UK announcement, adding on Twitter 'God is Great,' heads a state that is popular with Indian businessmen, celebrated for its infrastructure and which contributes 16 per cent of the country's industrial output despite having just five per cent of the population.
In recent months, Mr Modi, who was notoriously hostile to the media, has started a new PR outreach, granting interviews to selected outlets. Reuters reported that in April, the US consul general in Mumbai joined him at a solar energy event in Gujarat where his presence was seen as a sign that the United States - which has denied Mr Modi a travel visa due to the 2002 riots - may have been shifting its stance.
Britain's change in policy is likely driven by several factors, including a desire to improve trade with Gujarat and the realisation that Mr Modi is likely to remain a national political figure. There may also be the knock-on of political support for David Cameron from the hundreds of thousands of Britons of Gujarati origin.
Business leaders said the change in policy could help increase commerce. “Gujarat has long been recognised by the business community as one of India's more efficient states under Mr Modi's leadership,” said Mark Runacres, who heads the British Business Group in Delhi, which is made up of British and Indian companies. “Britain's relationship with Gujarat is underpinned by the strength of the Gujarati community in the UK. If this political decision helps build stronger commercial relations, so much the better.
An official at the British High Commission in Delhi said that behind the shift in policy in regard to Mr Modi was, “a calculation that the best approach was to talk to him”. The UK already has a visa and trade office and a British Council operation in the state.
As to the timing of the visit ahead of the election, the official said that once the policy had been decided it was felt it better to pursue it immediately.