Targeted For Being A Foreigner, No Help From Embassy: Frenchman Jailed After Attending Dalit Protest In UP

30 May 2024 17 min read  Share

A French documentary maker, who spent 30 minutes at a Dalit protest for land rights in Gorakhpur on 10 October 2023 while researching for a film on Dalit women, spent a month in jail after the Uttar Pradesh police accused him of violating visa conditions by attending the event. Valentin Jean Roger Henault said his French identity was criminalised and used by the media to raise allegations of “foreign funding” without any basis.

French documentary film maker Valentin Henault with Dalit activist Seema Gautam were booked by the UP police and slapped with serious criminal charges after attending a land rights protest in Gorakhpur on 10 October 2023.

Delhi: More than seven months ago, on 10 October 2023, the compound of the divisional commissioner’s office in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, was bustling with the loud cheers of hundreds of protestors, mostly rural Dalit women, when French national Valentin Jean Roger Henault arrived at the scene. 

The protestors had gathered at the site under the aegis of a Dalit outfit, Ambedkar Jan Morcha (AJM), demanding that the state government provide one acre of land to each landless Dalit, OBC (Other Backward Classes), and Muslim family. 

Henault, a 29-year-old French documentary filmmaker, arrived there to get first-hand experience of the demonstration to research for a documentary project that he had envisaged on the struggles of rural Dalit women in India. 

Hundreds of police kept a close eye on the event. Henault reached the protest site at around noon. He photographed protestors, many dressed in colourful saris and holding up blue flags, and shot videos of some speeches made by activists.  

Henault said he spent barely 30 minutes at the demonstration and left. 

His decision to travel to Gorakhpur, the political bastion of the current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, a Hindutva hardliner with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, to research the struggles of rural Dalit women turned into a seven-month ordeal for him.

Henault was arrested by police the next day and sent to jail for a month. He faced a conviction for violating visa rules and was stranded in India for months without his passport. 

Out of jail and, finally, back in France, Henault spoke to Article 14 on how the police in Gorakhpur criminalised his attempts to research for a future documentary. He said that his French nationality was underlined by local media to discredit, without verifiable source or evidence, the Dalit outfit’s protest and propagate that its organizers had received “foreign funding”. 

Henault said he got no support from the French embassy or its officials three weeks after he was jailed.  

"They refused to intervene at a diplomatic level," he said. 

“They just came to jail to visit me, but they had nothing to tell me and nothing to give me. They didn't provide me with the contact of any lawyer. They refused to intervene at a diplomatic level,” said Henault. “But they perfectly knew my case was a political arrest.”

The French embassy did not respond to questions about Henault's case emailed on 18 May. 

Vanessa Dougnac, a Delhi-based freelance journalist who worked in India for two decades, left India in February after authorities threatened her with expulsion for what they claimed was “malicious and critical” reporting.

Henault was not the only one jailed that day. 

The police arrested at least 10 persons, mostly Dalit activists and journalists, on charges of attempt to murder and rioting even though, as Article 14 reported in October 2023, the demonstration concluded peacefully with no evidence of violence.

Article 14 dialled the official phone numbers of senior police officers—the SP City and SSP—multiple times for a comment on Henault's case but was unable to reach them. Questions were sent to them via text message on their official numbers. The same was also sent on WhatsApp and emailed on their official email IDs. The article will be updated if and when they respond.

Station House Officer (SHO) of cantonment police station Randhir Mishra confimed that Henault had gone back to France after his case was closed. But when asked to provide details on how Henault's case was closed, he said he would not be able to speak about the files immediately due to election duty.

A Frenchman At The Protest Site

When Henault reached the protest site around noon on 10 October 2023, Shravan Nirala, the convenor of AJM and organiser of the event, welcomed him from the stage. 

Nirala’s “imprudent” act, drawing attention to a foreign face amidst a sea of rural women, might have “triggered the police”, said Henault, recalling how the trouble began. 

He said he had no connection with the protest. “Nirala shouted on the microphone, ‘The whole world is with us! Our partner from France has arrived’. This was a lie,” said Henault. “I’m not their partner. He used me to appear ‘international.’”

The Frenchman said he felt betrayed that the AJM convenor put him at the forefront when he had specifically asked him not to draw attention to him a few days earlier. 

Nirala, who is contesting the 2024 Lok Sabha election as an independent candidate, told Article 14 that he regretted that Henault had to go to jail for attending the protest, especially if it was due to “some mistake” he committed. He said when he spoke about Henault from the stage, he had only good intentions.

"Whenever we welcome a special guest, we compliment them to honour them with our heart. Henault is a brave person and highly sensitive towards the poor,” said Nirala. 

“I definitely felt bad that he had to go to jail…if due to some mistake from our end,” said Nirala.“But when the government already had ill intentions, they were just looking for an excuse.” 

Henault accused the police of using him to discredit the AJM movement and make it “appear like foreign-funded, a conspiracy from abroad.”

“I think the policemen wanted to appear like heroes, that they were doing a great job stopping conspiracies. That's why all these things were written in the newspapers. But the truth is that they just accused me with no proof,” said Henault. 

“I found out that they didn't even investigate my hard drives, my phone, my laptop or my notebooks. They just wrongly accused me and then closed the investigation the day after,” he said.

Seema Gautam, a Dalit women rights activist and second-in-command at the AJM, said the police used Henault to ramp up the conspiracy theory of “foreign funding” in the case. 

“They did it to defame us and to negatively impact our movement for the landless,” said Gautam. “We have not received a penny of foreign funding. I considered him a guest and didn’t even let him pay for a cup of tea.” 

Henault left India on 3 May 2024.

Arrested In Gorakhpur  

When Henault was leaving the site at around 12:30 pm, some policemen stopped and questioned him about his background and the purpose of his visit. 

The policemen followed him to his hotel, where they detained him.  

“They grabbed me quite violently and pulled me out. I just had the time to take my phone. They were also filming me in the meantime with a phone,” said Henault.

Henault was taken to the cantonment police station, where police, including a senior officer, interrogated him thrice. 

“He told me, ‘Why are you here? We don't need people like you. These people, the Dalits, are living a very happy life here in India’,” Henault said. 

Initially, Henault believed that the police would interrogate and let him go. He was wrong. 

After making him wait for several hours, the police placed him under arrest and lodged an FIR against him the next day, even before the sun was out.  

The protesters planned to stay until their demands were fulfilled, while Yogi Adityanath was supposed to visit Gorakhpur the day after.

In police custody, Henault said he was shown many pictures of the protestors and was asked to identify them. When he could not, since he did not know them well, the police spoke to him rudely.

 “They started talking roughly, saying, ‘Why did you want to make a documentary?” said Henaul. “Go back home, we don't need you here’.” 

Henault was produced before a local magistrate’s court and sent to jail.  “There was no lawyer. Then I was directly taken to jail, on a motorbike between two policemen,” he said.

They charged him with violating visa norms and booked him under section 14 B of the Foreigner’s Act, 1946. 

Hari Pillai, Henault’s lawyer, told Article 14 that in the FIR, the police had erroneously booked Henault under section 14 B of the Foreigner’s Act, 1946, which pertains to using a forged passport, even though he had a valid passport and visa. 

Later, in the chargesheet, the police changed tack and said that Henault had violated the conditions of the valid visa issued to him for his entry and stay in India under section 14 b of the Foreigner’s Act, 1946, said the lawyer. 

Pillai said that in the final chargesheet, police accused Henault of violating visa conditions by participating in “NGO activity” and attending the meeting organised by the AJM. 

French documentary film maker Valentin Henault was arrested by UP police on the charges of violating visa conditions.

Making A Case

The FIR against Henault, seen by Article 14, was lodged at 4:37 am on 11 October, on the complaint of Abhishek Singh, the in-charge of the collectorate police outpost. 

Singh noted that he saw Henault participating in the “illegal” protest demonstration and that he was coordinating with the organisers.  

Police said that while the business visa issued to Henault was for a visit to Dhanbad in Jharkhand, he violated its conditions and visited Gorakhpur to attend the AJM protest. Henault’s passport was issued on 18 October 2021 and was valid until 17 October 2031. 

A business visa was issued to him on 10 August 2023 and was valid till 1 August 2024. 

Henault said the police accusation was “absurd” as his visa was valid for all of India.

This was not his first visit to India. 

A year and a half ago, Henault traveled to India and toured places in West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Nagaland, and Rajasthan for several months. He returned to India on 10 August 2023 on a business visa to develop a documentary film project on the struggles of Dalit women. 

Henault approached a senior women's rights activist to guide him on his project. The activist connected him with Seema Gautam at AJM. 

Henault thought Gautam would be a good source to get him access to Dalit women who faced atrocities and violence. He reached Gorakhpur to research for his project but was not planning to shoot for it immediately. He had to first organise funds for it and planned on going back home to Europe and returning later to film in India.

Henault said he was aware of the AJM's demands when he arrived in Gorakhpur after spending two weeks touring the villages of Samastipur in Bihar. 

“I totally agreed with this necessity of providing land to landless families in order to help them reach true equality,” said Henault. “I knew that even when Dalit families own land, it often happens that they cannot use it and are deprived of it by land mafias and higher castes.”

The police crackdown against the protestors came as a shock to him. 

“It was absolutely peaceful. There were around 3000 or 4000 people, I think. Mostly middle-aged women,” said Henault. “And I had been told by the organizers that I could come without facing any issue. Here, they made a big mistake.”

While he was in jail, Henault read about the police action against the AJM protestors and feared that even more serious charges could be slapped against him. 

“We were very worried that they would add some new imaginary charges like UAPA,” he said, referring to India’s counter-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967.  

“At that time, the local newspapers were describing me as an urban naxalite, a spy, a man who has come to spread chaos in Uttar Pradesh, that I was financing the movement etc.,” he said.

The law has been used against activists and political activists in the decade-long rule of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government.  

From 2018 to 2022, 5,023 cases were lodged under the anti-terror law.

Role Of The Media 

Henault’s presence at the site and his arrest—on technical grounds of violating visa norms and not for violence—was sensationalised by local media

Unverified reports published in some popular Hindi dailies in the days following the protest, citing unnamed police sources, linked the demonstration to foreign funding, a leftist conspiracy and even speculated if there was an “international conspiracy” behind it or any terror angle.  

“I was often asked by the police and the administration of the jail ‘, Why were you in Gorakhpur?’ as if my mere presence there was already suspicious. I think it's a mindset there, suspecting foreigners,” said Henault.

Henault said that all reports published in the media speculating about his role in the protest and foreign funding were “lies.” 

In his initial days in jail, he said he was even harangued by other inmates. “Some prisoners who had read the newspapers were calling me aatankvaadi (terrorist),” he said.

More Fallout

The police also filed an FIR against Ganesh Shankar Tiwari and Arun Kumar, the manager and owner of the hotel where Henault stayed in Gorakhpur, on the grounds that they did not inform the local police about the presence of a foreigner, as mandated by law. 

On 14 October 2023, a case was lodged at Ramgarh Taal police station on the complaint of head constable Chandan Singh, posted in the local intelligence unit, under sections 7 and 14 of the Foreigners Act, 1946, pertaining to maintaining record of details about foreigners staying with them and furnishing them before officials if asked for, 

Henault stayed at the hotel for three or four days. 

The police said the hotel did not provide the mandatory information about his stay through a form C, either offline or online, to the regional Foreigners Registration Office. Also, according to the FIR, the hotel register, which was updated until 6 October, did not include Henault’s name. 

Henault checked-in to the hotel from 7:20 (am or pm not clear) on 7 October, said the FIR. Police said that it was only after they searched the premises they were provided with a proforma documenting information about Henault's stay and his passport and visa. The hotel was served a three-day notice by the Local Intelligence Unit to explain this, but when its manager did not provide any response, an FIR was lodged. 

‘Good Natured Person’

Gautam, the Dalit women rights activist from AJM, corroborated Henault’s account of how and why he came to Gorakhpur. She underlined that he had “nothing to do with the andolan (protest)” and was only interested in researching Dalit women and victims of sexual violence.

“Valentin wanted to meet Dalit women like myself who worked on the ground,” said Gautam. “He asked me if I could travel to either Delhi or Dhanbad to meet him. He was even willing to arrange for my travel.”

But since she was busy preparing for the October 10 protest—titled ‘Ghera dalo, Dera dalo’ or (Beseige and Encamp), loosely translated from Hindi —she could not leave Gorakhpur. 

Henault then offered to visit the city, where he spent two to three days interacting with the AJM team in their office and accompanying them during their field visits to villages. 

“He was interviewing people, taking pictures and videos, asking smart questions and jotting down key points,” said Gautam. “We thought it was a good thing at least someone cared to document what Dalit women faced on the ground.” 

Gautam remembered Henault as a “good-natured person”. 

Gautam informed him about the 10 October demonstration where many women would gather, and the two reckoned it would be a good idea if he attended it. 

Jailed In Gorakhpur 

Henault, who was released from jail on 10 November 2023, remembered the “awful”, cramped, unhygienic conditions. 

“There were around 200 prisoners in a barrack. You have no space at night, even to move or turn around. You sleep on the floor. You're provided nothing, not even sheets,” said Henault.

“I had my T-shirt and shorts, only one underwear, and no money. At night, other people were so close I could feel their breath on my skin,” he said.

Henault was also bothered by the loud noise of the television, which ran from 8 am to 11 pm, and the presence of mosquitoes. 

“Soon, my throat started aching. The air was very bad. There was dust everywhere. No window,” he said. 

Henault said he was then shifted to what the other inmates referred to as “pagalpur,” a barrack where mentally-challenged prisoners were kept. He finally found a bed when he was moved to a room in the prison’s hospital.  

"I got the privilege because I was white. I had some protection from an inmate in jail. Hospitals in jail not for the sick people but for those who pay the guard or are rich people,” he said. 

Since Henault spoke Hindi, he could speak with the other inmates. They exchanged stories. He said he was astonished to meet young Muslim undertrials imprisoned over unlawful conversion charges and entire families jailed for dowry deaths.

The thought of spending a few years in India waiting for the verdict of the court, in case his matter went to trial, “scared” Henault. He was desperate to return to France.

Only One Way Out 

Henault spent a month in jail before being released on bail by a chief judicial magistrate on 10 November 2023. The process was hindered by Henault's alleged inability to make phone calls from jail in the first two weeks, and it took him time to find a suitable lawyer.

Staring at an indefinite period of trial and extremely costly legal procedures to get his case quashed by the Allahabad High Court, Henault decided it was best for him if he pleaded guilty. 

“I realized that was my only way out. In the best-case scenario, a trial would last around two years. In the meantime, my visa had been cancelled,” said Henault. 

“I just received an email from the ministry of home affairs informing me about the cancellation shortly after I was released on bail,” he said. “There was no explanation.”

This made Henault’s stay in India illegal. He could not leave the country as his passport was with the police, and he could neither work nor stay anywhere legally. 

“I was in an absurd situation,” he said. 

During the process, he was exposed to procedural lacunae and corruption in the country's lower judiciary.

Henault moved an application of “confession of crime” in the CJM court where his matter was being heard. 

On the basis of this, he was convicted by CJM Adarsh Srivastava. 

In an order dated 4 April 2024, the magistrate Srivastava ruled that Henault had violated his business visa. 

But the court observed that a maximum punishment would “adversely impact” his “life activities and his personal life” and decided to treat the time already spent by him in jail—a month—as the term of imprisonment. A fine of Rs 50,000 was also imposed on Henault. 

Under the law, anyone convicted under section 14 b of the Foreigner’s Act, 1946 shall be punished with a term of imprisonment extending up to five years. 

Pillai, who corroborated the legal process through which Henault was convicted and let off, said that the CJM court agreed with their submission that the “facts of the case did not mandate a stringent punishment.” 

Stating that it was a “fit case” for discharge and acquittal, Pillai said that there was no independent witness to show that Henault attended a meeting of the NGO or was engaged in NGO activities. He, however, understood Henault’s concerns about putting himself through the legal system and his decision to admit to the offence technically. 

Henault found the court’s sentence order “quite funny.” 

“It states that I was obviously violating my visa by being in Gorakhpur. Once again, e-business visas can't be restricted to one state. So, somehow, the final order itself is illegal,” he said. “And I had to lie when confessing my crime because there was no crime.”

Even after Henault’s case was closed on 4 April and the cantonment police station returned his passport the same day, he could not leave India because a Look Out Circular (LOC) notice was issued in his name by the ministry of home affairs. 

This meant he could not leave India. He said he contacted the French Embassy to get the LOC cancelled, but they told him they they were unable to reach the Indian officials and they could not do anything about it. He then shared the contact number of the district police chief of Gorakhpur with them. 

The embassy officials contacted the police officer and "did something" though "at a very late stage”, said Henault.  

Henault said the LOC was withdrawn after the Gorakhpur police submitted a closure report on his case around 2 May. 

After being released on 10 November 2023, Henault spent his days with friends in another state in north India, where he started writing a book on his experience in Gorakhpur. 

“I'm still writing it,” he said. “Hopefully, it will be finished in a few months.” 

(Omar Rashid is an independent journalist who reports and writes on politics and social affairs.) 

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