Gujarat Riots: New Court Verdict Raises the Heat on Narendra Modi

A court case in the western Indian state of Gujarat, dealing out justice a decade after some of the country's worst religious violence, may haunt the man vying to be India's next Prime Minister

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SAM PANTHAKY / AFP / Getty Images

An unidentified Indian prisoner consoles his son from inside a police vehicle in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, on Aug. 29, 2012, after his murder conviction. A former state minister and 31 others were convicted for their involvement in the Gujarat riots of 2002

On Friday, a special court in Gujarat sentenced a former state minister to 28 years and 30 others to life imprisonment for inciting violence, murder and rioting in the 2002 Gujarat riots in which 2,500 people were killed, the majority of them Muslim. The most high-profile conviction to date in the riots case, Maya Kodnani, a 57-year-old former minister and stalwart of right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that rules the state, was charged with inciting mob violence and murder during what is known as the Naroda Patiya massacre, during which nearly 100 Muslims were killed.

Earlier in the week, special prosecutor Akhil Desai had sought the death penalty for all those convicted. “In this case, more than 90 persons have lost their lives. Most of them were children and women,” Desai said in court. “For all the 32 accused, I have argued for death penalty or life imprisonment. The accused cannot be pardoned for such a crime.” In the end, Kodnani was handed 28 years, and the others life.

In February 2002, a train full of Hindu pilgrims and activists was set on fire by an allegedly Muslim mob in the town of Godhra, killing 59. For the next few months, a spate of gruesome retaliatory incidents, including rape, murder and torture, unfolded in Muslim neighborhoods in certain parts of the state. Naroda Patiya, an industrial and predominantly Muslim area, lying 8 km from the city of Ahmedabad, was among those attacked by Hindu groups, allegedly with the knowledge of certain members of the state government. Around 70 people, including Kodnani, were arrested in connection with the attack. Trials began in August 2009, and on Wednesday the court heard around 327 witnesses, including victims, doctors, forensic experts and government officials, before handing out the conviction.

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Kodnani, a doctor who ran the state ministry for women and child development, is sentenced to spend the next 28 years behind bars. She is the first senior BJP leader to be convicted in the Gujarat riots case, a blow to the sitting government headed by Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Modi has consistently maintained that the riots were spontaneous and there was no criminal conspiracy by the state government, as has been alleged by witnesses, and Kodnani’s conviction is deeply problematic for the rising BJP star. Modi inducted Kodnani into the cabinet as a minister in 2007, where she served for two years until being dismissed after her arrest. An editorial in Wednesday’s Hindu opined that “it stretches incredulity” that Kodnani could “could enter into a conspiracy with her co-accused without the government getting a whiff of the group’s criminal intentions and conduct, before, during and after the killing.”

BJP leaders immediately distanced themselves from the verdict, pointing out that Kodnani was a state legislator — not a minister — during the 2002 riots and that her conviction does not implicate her party colleagues. “Mayaben Kodnani was not a minister when the massacre took place,” Jai Narayan Vyas, spokesperson for the Gujarat government, told reporters after the conviction. “Her conviction cannot be linked to the government.” But political observers doubt Modi or the BJP, the main opposition party in the central government, will come out unscathed. “It is a damage that cannot be easily washed away, and the Congress Party is going to play hard on that,” says Bhaskar Roy, a Delhi-based political analyst. “[Kodnani] was a member of the state legislative assembly when this happened, but after the riots she was made a minister by Modi, and this can be interpreted as Modi rewarding her for what she had done.”

Modi has yet to make a public statement on the convictions. On Wednesday, the day of the conviction, the Wall Street Journal published an interview with Modi in which he stated, as he as in the past, that he doesn’t feel the need to apologize for the riots. “I think Modi should get the biggest punishment possible if he is guilty,” he said, referring to himself in the third person. “And the world should know there isn’t any tolerance for these kind of political leaders.”

Part of Kodnani’s conviction rested on technical evidence from the location of her mobile phone, tracked by investigators between Feb. 25 and March 7, 2002, which kept moving to areas where the worst of the rioting was taking place. This became key to Kodnani’s arrest. Investigators also allegedly found that Kodnani made several calls to Modi’s office in this period. “The state government has always said that these were official calls, but now it will become very difficult to explain why one of the main accused was in constant touch with the [chief minister’s] office,” says Mukul Sinha, a lawyer-activist with Jan Sangharsh Morcha, the nonprofit who had analyzed the mobile-phone conversations. “Modi is feeling the heat now … no matter what his external positioning, the forces that he had incited and instigated will catch up with him soon.”

While Kodnani and her co-accused may go on to appeal in higher courts in a process that could continue for years, observers in New Delhi are watching closely today to see the immediate fallout of the convictions in the heated political battle between the BJP and the ruling Congress Party. Modi and the BJP survived the 2002 riots and came back to power in the state in 2007. But with Gujarat going to the polls at the end of this year and the fight for 2014 national elections well under way, the political futures of both Modi and his party are looking less than certain.