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By Annie Banerji
AHMEDABAD, India, Sept 3 Ten years on, Abdul
Sheikh can still hardly believe that the doctor who had
performed an ultrasound scan on his pregnant wife turned out to
be a ringleader in the orgy of violence that killed both the
mother and her unborn child.
"I remember hearing the commotion and I rushed out to find
Dr. Kodnani inciting a mob of thousands, screaming 'kill those
bastards!'," said Sheikh, one of the witnesses whose testimony
led last week to the jailing of 31 people for hunting down and
slaughtering dozens of Muslims in 2002.
Among those convicted by the court was the gynaecologist,
Maya Kodnani, a sitting lawmaker for the Hindu nationalist
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the western state of Gujarat.
The eyewitness accounts of Kodnani handing out swords to
Hindu thugs and urging them on to bloodshed are an embarrassment
for India's main opposition party as elections loom in 2014,
underlining its struggle to present itself as moderate and
responsible rather than hardline and dangerous.
"The party's core is radical," said political analyst Amulya
Ganguli. "It is an albatross around its neck and it will
continue to drag it down."
That has been shown by the party's muted reaction to the
verdict. Political commentators say the BJP's failure to condemn
the actions of Kodnani and the others convicted is significant,
a clear sign that it fears alienating its core support base.
Party officials have dodged questions about the political
fallout from the case, limiting their comments to praise for
Gujarat's criminal justice system.
The verdict is also a blow to the BJP's best hope for prime
minister, Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat. Critics say
he turned a blind eye to the 2002 religious riots in which up to
2,500 people were slain after suspected Muslims set fire to a
train carrying Hindu pilgrims.
Modi says he has nothing to apologise for, but it was he who
appointed Kodnani as state minister for women and child
development in 2007, even though she had already been implicated
in the carnage.
"It's hard to think of a more grotesque appointment, even
harder to understand the sensibility that would vest someone who
had conspired in the murder, amongst others, of a pregnant
woman, with the responsibility for the welfare of women and
children," columnist Mukul Kesavan wrote in the Times of India.
These days there are no signs of the terror that gripped
Naroda Patiya, a Muslim-dominated slum in the Gujarati city of
Ahmedabad, on Feb. 28, 2002. Children play with goats and
chickens in cobble-stoned alleys, while women bask in the sun on
the porches of their tiny green, pink and blue houses.
Still, people cannot forget the thick smoke that engulfed
their neighbourhood, the shattering of glass, the gunshots, and
the 95 relatives and friends who were hacked, beaten or burnt to
death in the highly organised attack, the worst incident of
bloodletting during the riots.
School teacher Nazir Khan remembers hiding with his wife in
an underground water tank for over four hours as the mob looted
his home, smashed furniture and set his house ablaze.
"I could hear their muffled voices saying 'we must finish
those leeches today', while we almost choked on the smoke," said
Khan. "I always thought these scenes happened in movies, but I
was wrong. Each traumatic second of that day is etched in my
One of the most prominent figures in court was Babu
Bajrangi, who was accused of disembowelling a pregnant woman
with a sword. He was a leader of Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of
a Hindu nationalist organisation affiliated with the BJP. Its
extremist activities have sometimes embarrassed the party.
One of Bajrang Dal's goals is to build a temple on the site
of a 16th-century mosque that was torn down by Hindu fanatics in
1992. The razing of the mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya
sparked religious riots in which some 2,000 people were killed.
Although some BJP leaders were among the crowd of zealots in
Ayodhya, after that incident the party sought to moderate its
"Hindutva" (a word literally meaning 'Hindu-ness') philosophy,
and, after removing the mosque-temple dispute from its
manifesto, it won enough allies to form a coalition government
and rule the country between 1998 and 2004.
The "acceptable face" of the BJP was Atal Behari Vajpayee,
the prime minister whose image still appears on party banners.
Since then, the party has not produced a leader with both
charisma and appeal that goes beyond urban middle class voters.
MODI VIEWED WITH SUSPICION
Modi, 61, certainly has ambition and personality. He is
highly respected by prominent businessmen for his good
governance of Gujarat since 2002, and the long economic boom
there for which his liberalisation and investment drive is
He is widely expected to win state assembly elections in
Gujarat later this year, and opinion polls show that, if it were
up to urban Indians, Modi would be the next prime minister --
not Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and presumed
leader-in-waiting of the ruling Congress party.
Modi's problem is that he is viewed with suspicion by many
voters, not least Muslims, who represent more than 13 percent of
"Sure, no one denies that he's made our state prosper," said
Saleem R. Sheikh, who lost his 27-year-old son in the Gujarat
riots. "You have big companies here, big buildings, but can that
overshadow what happened? Will that money bring my son back? Who
are you trying to fool Mr. Modi?"
Last week's court ruling, which highlighted the political
affiliation of the main culprits in the Gujarat killing spree,
could make it more difficult for the BJP to win the support of
parties it would need to form a coalition government in 2014.
Some of those politicians already have serious doubts about the
idea of a Prime Minister Modi.
Even foreign governments are wary. Modi has been denied a
visa to the United States and in recent years many diplomats
have gone out of their way to avoid meeting him.
"The verdict is a further blow to his prime ministerial
ambitions," said Ganguli. "The dilemma for the BJP is that the
only candidate they have is a hugely divisive figure."
(Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Ross Colvin and Daniel