SHAFAQNA -An Indian court has convicted 24 men over a massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, one of a series of communal killings by Hindus 14 years ago that has long cast a shadow over the political career of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Mr Modi had just become chief minister of the state at the time and was accused by relatives of the victims of failing to respond to pleas for help when a Hindu mob stormed the Gulberg Society, a Muslim housing estate in Ahmedabad, and burned and hacked to death 69 people in February 2002. Among them was Ehsan Jafri, a Congress member of parliament.
P.B. Desai, the fourth judge to preside over the six-year trial, acquitted 36 other accused for lack of evidence, including Bipin Patel, a prominent local politician of Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, as well as a Congress politician and a retired senior police officer.
Those convicted were Hindus, mostly lower-middle class, and included Atul Indravadan Vaidya, a leader of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a rightwing Hindu organisation. Eleven of the convicted were found guilty of murder and will be sentenced on Monday. Of the original 66 accused, six died in the course of the trial.
Zakia Jafri, Jafri’s widow, said she was happy about the convictions and sad about the acquittals, describing the verdicts as “incomplete justice”.
The violent events of 2002 — when an accidental fire on a train that killed 58 Hindu pilgrims was blamed on Muslim attackers, triggering Hindu rampages in which over 1,000 people died — sullied Mr Modi’s reputation for years.
He was denied visas to the US, the UK and other western nations and was granted access again only when it became obvious that he was likely to become India’s prime minister at the head of a BJP government in the 2014 general election.
Mr Modi said in a blog in 2013 that he was “shaken to the core” by the Gujarat violence and denied that he had failed to deploy the security forces quickly in an attempt to stop the killings. Earlier, he had said he “should be hanged in public” if his administration was responsible.
However, some of the others involved in the crisis, including Ms Jafri, insist there has been a cover-up. Last year, the home ministry fired Sanjiv Bhatt, a senior police officer who had told an investigation that Mr Modi had said Muslims should be “taught a lesson” and Hindus allowed to “vent out their anger”.
Four months earlier, the Indian government placed the Ford Foundation, the US philanthropy group, on a national security watchlist following complaints about its links to Teesta Setalvad, an activist seeking Mr Modi’s conviction for human rights abuses in the Gujarat riots of 2002.
A Gujarat minister had accused Ms Setalvad’s non-government organisation of misusing Ford Foundation money to create “communal disharmony” and carry out “antinational propaganda against India in foreign countries”.
Mr Modi, a Hindu religious activist in his youth, has focused mainly on the need for economic development in India since he took office as prime minister two years ago, but some Hindu nationalists have continued to pursue overtly communal aims.
In one of the more notorious cases of Mr Modi’s tenure, a Muslim in Uttar Pradesh was lynched by a mob who accused him of eating beef from a sacred cow, and the subsequent police investigation and political dispute have concentrated as much on whether the meat was mutton or beef as on the need to catch the murderers.
Maya Kodnani, one of Mr Modi’s political associates and at one time a minister in his state government, was sentenced in 2012 to 28 years in jail for murder and conspiracy in another massacre in Ahmedabad, but was freed on bail two years later on health grounds.