MUMBAI // A Hindu nationalist leader accused of complicity in one of India's worst outbreaks of religious violence in decades was questioned by investigators for the first time over his alleged involvement yesterday. Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, was questioned during two marathon sessions lasting nine hours by the Special Investigations Team, appointed by the supreme court last year to investigate the riots in the state in 2002, in which 2,000 Muslims died.
The session, which concluded early yesterday, was the first time an Indian government head has been questioned by an investigating agency for a crime involving mass murder. Mr Modi did not reveal what he told the team but said he co-operated with the investigators and recalled "to the extent possible the sequence of events that had taken place eight years ago". The team is expected to submit its report to the supreme court by April 30. The report could determine whether Mr Modi will be brought to trial for the massacre.
"It is a very big step forward in trying to understand and unravel quite a few mysteries in the matter," said RK Raghavan, the head of the investigations team. "I am happy that we were able to get the chief minister for questioning. I have greatest concern for the victims and I have never failed to take my eye away from justice." Previous investigations conducted by the Gujarat government have absolved Mr Modi, a prominent member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, of any crimes, but private investigations have proved the contrary.
"[Mr Modi's questioning] affirms that India is still a democracy and there is hope for justice - however delayed," said Harsh Mander, a social activist and author of Fear and Forgiveness: The Aftermath of a Massacre, based on the Gujarat riots. In 2007, Tehelka, a national weekly, conducted a sting operation that produced confessions by several of Mr Modi's acolytes, who said Mr Modi gave them free rein to rape and murder. A few others revealed how Mr Modi had planned and executed the massacre.
Mr Modi has also been accused of subversion of justice, by ordering police to go slow in their investigations into the rioters. Last April, India's Supreme Court issued a directive to investigate the role of Mr Modi, his cabinet colleagues, senior bureaucrats and police officials in the events, after a complaint filed by Zakia Jafri, the widow of a Muslim parliamentarian who was hacked to death by rioters in Ahmedabad, Gujarat's largest city.
Mrs Jafri provided the court with phone records revealing that Mr Modi had taken a call from her husband before he was killed - believed to be a desperate pleading for help, which never arrived. A three-volume report called Crime Against Humanity released in 2002 by the Citizens for Justice and Peace, a Mumbai-based group, labelled Mr Modi the "chief author and architect of genocide". "It was not simply the number of lives lost," said Teesta Setalvad, the secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace. "It was the cold-blooded manner in which they were taken. It was not simply that 19 of Gujarat's 25 districts burnt while Neros watched, fiddled and smirked but the sinister similarity in the way they were set alight. Militias were armed with deadly training, weapons, technology and equipment."
Even if evidence against him is circumstantial, "Modi is guilty beyond doubt of the crime of omission," said Mr Mander. "He ought to be punished for mala fide, deliberate failure to stop the genocide," he said. "Killings and bloodshed cannot continue for days unless there is complicity of the top leadership." In the last eight years, Mr Modi has shown no remorse. "He has never gone on record to say that he regrets what happened in 2002," Mr Mander said.
Mr Modi, who is currently serving his third term as chief minister of Gujarat, has so far sold the idea that the country should to forget the communal violence because of the economic success of his state under his leadership. Gujarat today is an economic behemoth. For nearly half a decade, Gujarat's economy has been growing annually at 12 per cent, nearly as fast as China's. If it were a country, Gujarat - nearly twice the size of Ireland - would be the 67th richest nation on earth, ahead of several European states.
The state accounts for one-fifth of India's industrial output, three-quarters of its petrochemical production and one-third of the country's entire banking finance. Gujarat's villages are supplied with 24-hour electricity and water, and are connected to cities with the best road infrastructure in the country. Mr Modi has the support of the billionaire industrial tsars Anil Ambani and Ratan Tata, who view him as a leader with a broad economic vision. To them and many other businessmen, Mr Modi, unlike other politicians, has zero tolerance for corruption or nepotism.
But in his governance of Gujarat, Mr Modi's critics claim he has sheared the vision of India's founders, such as Gandhi, who was Gujarati, of its emphasis on a diverse, secular country. No matter how hard Mr Modi tries to shun the legacy of the 2002 violence, it continues to follow him. "It has taken eight long years," said Mrs Jafri. "But now that he [Modi] has played his cards, our lawyers will take it up from here on and we hope some justice will be done."