Rafale deal: Why is Vivek Raghuvanshi really in jail?

India stonewalls French prosecutors as more shocking details come to light

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with French President François Hollande at the Paris Climate Conference, 2015
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with French President François Hollande at the Paris Climate Conference, 2015

Ashis Ray

Nearly six months ago, the American publication Defense News had requested US President Joe Biden to raise the matter of the detention of its contributor from India, Vivek Raghuvanshi, with PM Narendra Modi, whose visit to Washington was then imminent. Raghuvanshi was in Delhi’s Tihar jail at the time.

Thereafter, it reported that 'senior White House officials [had] said press freedom would be among the topics discussed' but ‘would not commit to specifically intervene in the case (of Raghuvanshi)’. Raghuvanshi, a writer for Defense News for more than three decades, was imprisoned in mid-May this year by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on charges of espionage. The CBI has not, however, shared sufficient details of his alleged wrongdoing.

Sightline Media Group, which owns Defense News, has condemned the incarceration and called for Indian officials to produce more information on the accusations and his ongoing confinement.

According to the Hindu newspaper, the chargesheet filed by the CBI said Raghuvanshi ‘received about Rs 3 crore from foreign sources over a period of time’. The agency accused him of ‘illegally collecting minute details of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) defence projects and their progress’.

He was also charged with gathering ‘information about the future procurement to be made for the Indian armed forces, which revealed the country’s preparedness; classified communications linked to national security’. It was further alleged that ‘details about the strategic and diplomatic talks of India with its friendly countries were also accessed by the accused and shared with foreign intelligence agencies’.

A Rafale fighter jet (photo courtesy: Dassault Aviation)
A Rafale fighter jet (photo courtesy: Dassault Aviation)

None of the above is a credible charge that will hold up in an independent court. A sum of Rs 3 crore over, say, 30 years from an established American paper amounts to $12,500 a year or about $1,000 a month. Peanuts! Even if received over five years, it is less than what senior journalists in India make.

In case the CBI is unaware of this, it is a journalist’s job to be inquisitive. If Raghuvanshi was trying to dig up inside information from the DRDO, it was his duty as a defence writer to do so. It was also his responsibility in his professional capacity to be up-to-date with the procurement plans of the Indian armed forces, to get hold of classified material and familiarise himself with the latest strategic and diplomatic dialogues in the defence sphere. Defense News operates in a highly competitive market, and cutting-edge information is of the essence. Also, without any specifics of what he allegedly shared with foreign intelligence agencies, the CBI charge is baseless.

So, why really is Raghuvanshi behind bars? According to a Tihar insider, Raghuvanshi “did not know that writing about (a senior BJP Union cabinet minister’s) son… and his money from the Rafale deal would land him in jail within weeks”.

That commissions exchanged hands — in violation of Indian defence ministry regulations — in the Modi government’s purchase of Rafale planes from France for the Indian Air Force is more than just a suspicion in French anti-corruption circles. The French online journal Mediapart, launched by a former editor of the respected French daily Le Monde, revealed that the Modi government "is refusing to comply with a request for international cooperation made by French judges".

It confirms that "two investigating magistrates want access to key documents as part of their probe into alleged corruption in the sale of 36 Dassault-built Rafale fighter jets to India in 2016 for 7.8 billion euros".

The inquiry opened in June 2021. A request for cooperation was sent to the Indian government in November 2022 by the judges entrusted with a criminal probe into suspected ‘corruption’, ‘influence peddling’ and ‘favouritism’.

Mediapart wrote that it had secured a copy of a note written by former French ambassador to India Emmanuel Lemain, which said: "Many cases are handled by our Indian partners with very long delays, often in an incomplete manner." In France, too, the government has refused to declassify confidential documents, which the judges encountered during a search of Dassault.

Mediapart claimed the CBI and the Indian Enforcement Directorate (ED) discovered in a separate case that a certain "Sushen Gupta has received 12.8 million euros in secret commissions from Dassault, via a system of allegedly bogus invoices". It maintained: "In one note, Gupta says that he had given money to 'people… in office' to help facilitate the sale of the Rafale jets to India."

The French judges asked Indian authorities to facilitate searches in their presence at "one of the offices of Gupta’s companies" as well as at the "headquarters of Dassault Reliance Aerospace Limited (DRAL)", a joint venture company created by Dassault and Anil Ambani’s Reliance Group.

The 35-page complaint to the French Public Prosecutor’s Office by a French watchdog NGO Sherpa — which this correspondent has seen — asserts that the multi-role combat aircraft purchased by the Modi government was "much more expensive per unit" than the tender price quoted by Dassault to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government

Sherpa also pointed out that "on 4 July 2014, the company Airbus, representing the Eurofighter Typhoon consortium, which was the recipient of the initial call for tenders, addressed to the Indian defence minister (the late Arun Jaitley) a new offer. It appears from this letter that the company offered a 20 per cent reduced price, as well as a proposal, as required in the call for tenders, technology transfer and creation of around 20,000 jobs in India for positions of high qualifications".

The submission, then, questioned the "partnership associating Dassault Aviation and the Reliance Group, a group belonging to Mr Anil Ambani, close collaborator of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi", saying "the Reliance company seemed far from having the capabilities and experience necessary to engage in collaboration with the Dassault group".

It further pleaded: "The selection of this partner is therefore at least singular to the point of suspecting that acts of corruption, granting undue advantages and influence peddling were allegedly committed."

Also that: "The refusal of the Indian government to make public the general conditions relating to contract between Dassault and Reliance rightly fuels suspicions weighing on the DRAL compensation structure."

About the choice of Reliance as an offset partner by Dassault, which is a public sector enterprise, François Hollande, who was president of France when the deal was struck, told Mediapart: "We had no say in the matter. It was the Indian government which proposed this service group…"

At a meeting with Hollande in Paris in April 2015, Modi, according to Sherpa, ‘decided to everyone’s surprise to cancel the call for tenders (by the Congress-led government for 126 aircraft) in order to purchase 36 Rafales in “fly away” condition’.

The director-general of Dassault Aviation Loik Segalen was quoted by Mediapart as telling his company board that "it was imperative and obligatory for Dassault Aviation to accept this counterparty (Reliance) in order to obtain the Rafale India export contract".

Sherpa also maintained Dassault and Thales, a French technology firm which provides products and solutions to the former, paid millions of euros to Defsys Solutions, a Delhi-based concern controlled by Sushen Gupta and his family, "to win the contract". The payments, the NGO claimed, were made via entities called Interdev Pte Ltd, registered in Singapore; IDS Infotech Limited, based in Chandigarh; Infotech and Interstellar Holding Private Limited, registered in Mauritius.

"It should be noted that Mr Sushen Gupta would be the agent of Dassault in India, from which it results that it is possible to qualify it as an intermediary between the French group and its Indian partners." This statement, if true, flagrantly violated the government of India red line of no middlemen in defence acquisitions from abroad.

French negotiators ensured that the standard anti-corruption clause in Indian defence contracts was deleted from the final Rafale agreement. The Indian defence ministry resisted this, but were overruled by the prime minister’s office.

Ashis Ray is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent. The quotes from Sherpa’s complaint to French prosecutors have been translated from French

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