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Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi accepts a garland during a ceremony on Jan. 20, 2012. (Ajit Solanki/Associated Press/Ajit Solanki/Associated Press)
Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi accepts a garland during a ceremony on Jan. 20, 2012. (Ajit Solanki/Associated Press/Ajit Solanki/Associated Press)

Ten years after 'Gujarat,' the man accused of sanctioning it is poised to become India's PM Add to ...

Crouched beside her husband waist deep in a rooftop water tank at 2 in the morning, Anjuman Bano listened to her Hindu neighbours debate. Would they smuggle the pair to safety? Or toss them to the mob howling for Muslim blood below?

Compassion prevailed. The fugitives were spirited to temporary shelter, and Ms. Bano cached in a storeroom while her husband plotted their escape. He wasn't fast enough: The mob burst in and dragged him away, hacking at him with a sword.

Nearly 2,000 people, almost all Muslims, died that night in 2002 and in the days that followed, as a spasm of violence convulsed the state of Gujarat. Another 200,000 were displaced; many lost all they owned and more than half still can't go home.

“Gujarat” – as the attacks are known in political and human-rights circles here, the state's name inextricably tied to the bloodbath – was a seminal moment in the modern history of India. It was the worst such conflict since partition in 1947, and reignited fears the country would always be plagued by sectarian violence.

There has been nothing like it since – but as the country marks the 10th anniversary of the riots this month, the anguish of victims brought into stark relief how little real progress has been made. The religious lines drawn by the violence have not been bridged. The victims have not been compensated. Few cases have gone to court. And Narendra Modi, the long-serving chief minister of Gujarat who stands accused of sanctioning and overseeing the attacks, has emerged as a leading candidate to become India's next prime minister.

“Strong evidence,” says Human Rights Watch, ties the carnage to the Modi government which, having come to power five months before it began, has been “subverting justice, protecting perpetrators and intimidating those promoting accountability” ever since the killing ended.

The international watchdog group has found that not only did rioters have detailed lists of Muslim residents and businesses, they were incited by phone calls and door-to-door campaigns conducted by officials of Mr. Modi's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and right-wing organizations affiliated with it.

“The state had evidence, it had machinery. It had the strength to control it if they wanted to. This is irrefutable,” says Harsh Mander, who had a senior post in the central government and was in Gujarat when the killing began. He resigned over what he calls the complicity of his colleagues, and has spent the past decade supporting victim efforts to end the impunity seemingly enjoyed by officials – and their leader.

“By international law standards, under the internationally recognized principle of command responsibility, Mr. Modi is completely guilty,” he says.

Despite this, Mr. Modi, 61, has emerged as one of India's more powerful political figures; he went on to win two more terms as chief minister and quashed opposition in the state. Figures as diverse as anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare and India's most respected industrialist, Ratan Tata, heap praise on him.

Whether he can be elected to lead a country that is home to 117 million Muslims will hinge largely on the ability of a grimly determined group of survivors such as Ms. Bano, and the human-rights activists and lawyers who back them, to hold him to account for what his supporters call “that unfortunate episode.”

Muslim complicity unproved That “episode” began when a car from a train carrying participants in a pilgrimage organized by Hindu nationalists to a famous – and disputed – religious site in the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh was set alight. Fifty-eight people were burned alive.

The attack took place 140 kilometres from Gujarat's capital, Ahmedabad, and was blamed on a Muslim mob. Two government inquiries failed to confirm this allegation, and last year those accused of committing the atrocity were acquitted for lack of evidence. But news of the burning spread to the capital within hours and set off a vicious campaign of retaliation against Muslims – Ms. Bano and her husband Hussein Qarar among them.

Listening through the door as a Hindu mob hacked at her husband, she was sure they would kill him. They didn't, although not for lack of trying. When the crowd moved on, after burning their house and shop to the ground, a Hindu neighbour brought Mr. Qarar's bloodied body to Ms. Bano, who dragged him to a government hospital.

Told that Muslim victims would receive no help, she called a family member who took them to a private clinic, where Mr. Qarar was saved. Months later, when he could travel, the couple fled Gujarat with their children (sheltered that night by a relative) to Mumbai, leaving all they owned in ashes.

A few days ago, Ms. Bano relived those events at a public event to mark the anniversary. Her family is newly returned to Gujarat; as impoverished refugees, they never found their feet in Mumbai. But coming home, she says, has been difficult: No one has ever been punished for attacking them, they have received no compensation and, she says, she doesn't feel safe.

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