Incoming prime minister Narendra Modi’s promise of a ‘shining India’ through economic reforms and development captured the imagination of the country’s voters and allowed his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to win the first majority government in three decades.
However Modi’s history of divisive religious politics as chief minister for the northwestern state of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014 and the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist ideology have left many of India’s Muslims and other minorities wary about the country’s new leader.
In particular, Modi’s handling of the communal violence that shook Gujarat in 2002 has continued to define him for many of India’s Muslims. The troubles began when a train full of chanting Hindu activists returning from a disputed religious site stops in the town of Godhra. A conflict with a group of Muslim residents follows, and the train is engulfed in flames, killing 59 people, mostly Hindu women and children. Soon afterwards, Hindu mobs lay waste to Muslim neighborhoods, leaving more than 1,000 people dead as police stand by.
That Modi’s government did little to stop the rioting is hardly in dispute. It’s also clear that Modi capitalized on the incident politically. In its aftermath, Modi undertook a Gaurav Yatra, or ‘procession of pride’ across the state. Footage from one of Modi’s rallies at the time released by filmmaker Rakesh Sharma shows the chief minister as anything but conciliatory.
“Sixty innocent Rambhakts [devotees of the Hindu deity Ram] were burnt alive in Gohra,” Modi says to the crowd. He asks if those in attendance burned shops, killed or raped in response, to which his audience shouts “No!”
“Enemies of Gujarat go around saying that each village was in flames,” Modi says. “In each village, people were being killed…their heads smashed. They’ve defamed Gujarat so much…in response, I had to embark on this Yatra.”
New York Times reporter Celia Dugger interviewed Modi a few months after the riots.
“I asked him if he had any regrets about what had happened in his state,” she says in a Times’ video. “In that period, women were openly raped, hundreds and hundreds of people were killed. He told me his greatest regret was that he didn’t manage the media very well. I left the interview felling chilled by my interview with the chief minister. He had not shown any regret or expressed any empathy for those who had been slaughtered in his state, on his watch.”
The degree to which Gujarat state officials aided and abetted the mobs in 2002 has been a matter of intense debate in India. In 2012, Maya Kodnani, a state minister under Modi who had been a BJP state legislator at the time of the riots, was sentenced by a special court along with 30 others for her role in fomenting the riots.
A 2012 report from Human Rights Watch said that Modi’s state government had stymied investigations into the killings and that “strong evidence links the Modi administration in Gujarat to the carefully orchestrated anti-Muslim attacks,” including the fact that rioters had lists of Muslim businesses and that many of the attacks took place within sight of police stations.
Modi himself has always denied wrongdoing. He says that the accusations against him are motivated by politics. He defended his actions during a 2012 interview with Urdu-language newspaper journalist Shahid Siddiqui. “If Modi has sinned, then Modi should be hanged,” he was quoted as saying. “But, even after trying sincerely to save many lives, some people want to bad-mouth me due to political reasons, then I can’t answer them.”
Indeed India’s Supreme Court appointed a special investigation team in 2009 to probe his role in the riots and last year reported that it did not find sufficient evidence of his involvement in the killings. The denials haven’t convinced many—in part because it took seven years to order an investigation into the riots, by which time much evidence was lost or destroyed.
In 2005, the U.S. State Department denied Modi a diplomatic visa and barred him from travel to the U.S. “Mr. Modi shall not be granted the privilege of U.S. visa because of the very serious doubts that remain and that hang over Mr. Modi relative to his role in the horrific events of 2002 in Gujarat,” Katrina Lantos Swett, vice chairwoman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, told the New York Times last year. The ban was dropped following Modi’s recent election.
Though Modi has always denied any wrongdoing in Gujarat, his campaign was keenly aware of the criticisms. During the election, he distanced himself from the most hardline Hindu nationalist elements of the BJP, and following his victory, his website featured photos of Muslim supporters.
In a victory speech in India’s parliament May 21, Modi declared “the government’s motto will be to be with everyone and for everyone’s development.” India’s Muslims and other minorities can only hope that “everyone” includes them, too.