Massacre trial reveals BJP's radical hard core

Abdul Sheikh can still hardly believe that the doctor who 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.

Up to 2,500 people, most of them Muslims, were hunted down and hacked, beaten or burnt to death in the Naroda Patiya massacre – one of India’s worst religious riots – in 2002.
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AHMEDABAD // Ten years on, Abdul Sheikh can still hardly believe that the doctor who 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 Mr Sheikh, one of the witnesses whose testimony led last week to the jailing of 31 people for the slaughter of dozens of Muslims in 2002.

Among those convicted by the court was the gynaecologist, Maya Kodnani, a legislator for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the western state of Gujarat.

She was sentenced to a total of 28 years in prison on Friday. The witness 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, undermining its struggle to present itself as a moderate and responsible political force.

"The party's core is radical," said the 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 said the BJP's failure to condemn the actions of Kodnani and the others convicted is significant, a sign that it fears alienating its core support.

Party officials have dodged questions about the fallout from the case, limiting their comments to praise for Gujarat's justice system.

The verdict is also a blow to the BJP's best hope for prime minister, Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat.

Critics said he turned a blind eye to the 2002 riots in which up to 2,500 people were slain after Muslims were blamed for a fire in which 59 people died on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims.

Mr 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, among others, of a pregnant woman, with the responsibility for the welfare of women and children," the columnist Mukul Kesavan wrote in the Times of India.

These days there is no sign of the terror that gripped Naroda Patiya, a Muslim-dominated slum in Ahmedabad, on February 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 gun shots, and the 97 relatives and friends who were hacked, beaten or burnt to death in the highly organised attack, the worst bloodletting during the riots.

Nazir Khan, a schoolteacher, remembers hiding with his wife in an underground water tank for more than 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," he said. "Each traumatic second of that day is etched in my mind."

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.

Opinion polls show that, if it were up to urban Indians, the BJP's Mr 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.

Mr Modi's problem is that he is viewed with suspicion by many, not least Muslims, who represent more than 13 per cent of the electorate.

"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?"