Modi government’s sordid human rights record vexes India–EU trade talks

As India seeks to continue negotiations with the EU on 26 August, questions on the unresolved Manipur crisis and rising Hindutva activism are likely to be tabled again

This still from PM Modi's meeting with German chancellor Olaf Scholz in New Delhi in February 2023 seems to foreshadow the EU's trepidation over sealing the free trade deal with India (photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
This still from PM Modi's meeting with German chancellor Olaf Scholz in New Delhi in February 2023 seems to foreshadow the EU's trepidation over sealing the free trade deal with India (photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Sarosh Bana

The much-protracted ongoing negotiations between India and the European Union (EU) for a free trade agreement (FTA) are being clouded by the Narendra Modi government’s questionable human rights record. 

A sharply worded resolution by the European Parliament (EP), the EU’s only directly elected institution, deplored particularly the ethnic violence that has ravaged the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur since 3 May. The continuing conflict has left more than 130 people dead, displaced 50,000 — most of who have sought refuge in the neighbouring state of Mizoram — and destroyed over 1,700 houses, 250 churches and 17 temples. The anarchy is threatening to push the state into civil war. 

While Prime Minister Modi was compelled by an Opposition no-confidence motion to attend Parliament towards the end of the monsoon session, where the Manipur mayhem was being discussed, both he and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments at the Centre and in Manipur have downplayed the catastrophe and sought to throttle coverage of the brutal fighting between the majority Hindu Meitei tribals and the minority Christian Kukis.

The governments also did not volunteer any information on the ghastly 4 May incident where two Kuki women were paraded naked by a Meitei mob of around 1,000, who groped them and then gang-raped one of them, but a video on the incident that surfaced 77 days later shocked and shamed the nation. The same day, two other young Kuki women working in a car-wash were allegedly abducted, gang-raped and murdered. 

The EU resolution exhorted “the Indian authorities to take all necessary measures and make the utmost effort to promptly halt the ongoing ethnic and religious violence, to protect all religious minorities, such as Manipur’s Christian community, and to pre-empt any further escalation”. It denounced “in the strongest terms nationalistic rhetoric deployed by leading members of the BJP party”, noting that “there have been concerns about politically motivated divisive policies that promote Hindu majoritarianism in the area”.

“The Manipur state government has also shut down internet connections and severely hindered reporting by the media, while security forces have been implicated in the recent killings, something that has further increased distrust in the authorities,” the resolution added.

Under the Treaty on European Union of 1993, the EU has included clauses in its international agreements that prescribe ‘appropriate measures’ against a party, including suspension of an agreement, if it fails to uphold human rights and democratic principles. The Treaty moreover bars third countries from objecting to EU promotional activities in their territories, such as funding of human rights defenders. 

India and the 27-nation bloc had held 16 rounds of negotiations from 2007 until 2013, when they were suspended following sharp differences on crucial issues. The two sides, however, relaunched their talks in June 2022 with the ambitious goal of reaching a comprehensive agreement latest by early 2024. 

Five rounds of discussions have been held till June 2023, and an Indian commerce ministry official reportedly announced that the next such meeting would be held on 26 August in New Delhi, following the G20 Trade and Investment Ministerial Meeting, under India’s G20 presidency, in Jaipur on 24–25 August. “Commerce secretary Sunil Barthwal is also likely to meet the EU director-general for trade, Sabine Weyand, in Jaipur,” the official mentioned.

India’s trade with the EU, its third-largest trading partner, has reached historical highs, with €120 billion worth of goods traded in 2022.

Despite the severe tone of its resolution, the EU appears unlikely to shelve its talks with India, as both sides foresee a successful trade relationship significantly reshaping the global economic order and deepening economic collaboration for mutual benefit. 

Besides, the EU’s own moral high ground has been queered somewhat with the six-page July report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, on Religious Freedom Concerns in the EU, outlining examples of 'restrictive policies in EU countries that violate religious freedom and result in, or encourage, discrimination against religious communities'. 'These include restrictions on religious clothing, ritual slaughter, and so-called "sects", along with laws that target Muslims, impact Jews, and penalize blasphemy and hate speech,' the report notes. 

However, though the EP resolution does not threaten suspension of talks if the Indian government fails to address the Manipur crisis, several of its members (MEPs) expressed themselves vehemently at the Parliament’s plenary session on Manipur that framed the resolution.

“Our joint resolution is crystal clear—we are calling on India to do everything within its power to end ethnic and religious violence, to punish perpetrators, and end Hindu extremism,” said MEP Bert-Jan Ruissen. “Without iron-clad guarantees in this area, we cannot talk about a new trade agreement with India.” 

Stressing that India’s worsening human rights situation should worry everyone, MEP Alviina Alametsä said: “Freedom of press has narrowed, journalists and activists have been arrested for false reasons, discrimination and hate have increased, and this is also what I saw personally when I visited India last December.”

MEP Ladislav Ilčić proposed an urgent visit to India by the European Special Envoy for Religious Freedoms, indicating that the manner in which the Indian government treats this proposal will show whether it is powerless in such cases, or it knowingly allows the persecution of religious minorities by radical groups.

MEP Pierre Larrouturou asserted that since Modi came into power in 2014, he has been implementing a radical nationalist Hindu policy that has had terrible consequences for journalists, religious minorities and human rights activists.

India was quick to condemn the resolution. The Union ministry of external affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said on 13 July: “We have seen that the European Parliament held a discussion on developments in Manipur and adopted a so-called Urgency Resolution. Such interference in India’s internal affairs is unacceptable and reflects a colonial mindset. Indian authorities at all levels, including the judiciary, are seized of the situation in Manipur and are taking steps to maintain peace and harmony and law and order. The European Parliament would be well advised to utilise its time more productively on its internal issues.”


SAROSH BANA is executive editor of Business India in Mumbai; regional editor, Indo–Pacific region, of Germany’s Naval Forces journal; and India correspondent of Sydney-based cyber security journal Asia Pacific Security Magazine (APSM). He is a contributor to various publications and think tanks across the world as well.

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