Men are usually the victims of religious violence in India, but the mobs in Gujarat sought out children and women, who were raped and then burned alive. The investigative magazine Tehelka secretly filmed a man bragging of how many Muslim women he'd assaulted, as his wife sat beside him nodding her approval.
And while all this went on – the rampage was in full force for more than two weeks and took four months to die out completely – the state did nothing. Muslims poured into police stations begging for help to protect their property, and their lives. Human Rights Watch has documented how police abandoned them or simply replied, “We have no orders to save you.”
This question of orders is critical because the accusations against Mr. Modi hinge on the testimony of officials who were with him early in the killing spree and say he gave instructions that police were not to intervene, a charge he denies.
However, the chief minister joined a right-wing Hindu organization as a teenager, makes no secret of his sympathies and has never expressed regret for what happened. In fact, when speaking Gujarati, the main language in the state, he boasts that he was “the only one ‘man enough' to stand up to ‘them.'”
To his supporters, Mr. Modi is a kind of miracle worker. Under him, Gujarat has posted double-digit economic growth, built new infrastructure from roads to ports to telecom networks, established a business-friendly environment that has wooed the powerful Tata Group and many others to set up operations and, so the story goes, nearly wiped out government corruption.
“Gujarat is the most developed state in India, because of the very able leadership of Modi,” says S.V. Zala, head of political science at Gujarat University. “He is very dynamic and visionary and without any fear.” Opinion polls suggest that 90 per cent of Gujaratis – about the number of Hindus in the state – share that view.
The BJP, now the national opposition party, is poised to mount a serious challenge in national elections in 2014, but it has elderly and uncharismatic leaders and will need someone new at the helm. Many view Mr. Modi as the best candidate, and he does not hide his ambitions.
In fact, other states have posted higher growth rates and adopted anti-corruption and pro-business legislation sooner, but he has proved deft at managing his image, notes Zoya Hasan, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi formerly on the government's National Commission for Minorities.
“He has succeeded in polarizing Gujarati society on Hindu-Muslim lines – when faced with criticism from outside, he presents it as an attack on Gujarat.”
Yet despite his best efforts, the events of 2002 haunt Mr. Modi. The United States has twice denied him a visa. (Canada, in contrast, was a major sponsor of a “Vibrant Gujarat” event he held to woo business last year.) “There is a silent discomfort” on the part of other parties, whose co-operation he would likely need in this era of coalition politics, Prof. Hasan says. They know that, if nothing else, supporting him would cost them Muslim votes.
Justice delayed, then denied After being pressed to act, the police finally laid charges in the attack on Ms. Bano and her husband. The case dragged through the courts for seven years, with the judge openly expressing sympathy for the accused and eventually acquitting them.
It's a common story. Ten years ago, Yusuf Mansuri, 33, cowered in a police station with his family while their home was levelled and his neighbours murdered. Afterward, he insisted on an investigation, saying he knew the names of many of the attackers, but was sent away.
When he persisted, he and his father were arrested and accused of killing the one Hindu among the 112 who died in their neighbourhood, the only case on which police took action. Eventually, he got out of jail, left his job as a bus conductor and put himself through law school to continue the fight. “We will get justice,” he vows.
Ms. Bano is less convinced. “Modi did it – he's the one,” she says with a shrug. “But he won't face justice.”
Mr. Mander, the former administrator, shares her skepticism, but sees a bigger picture: “The Chief Minister's guilt in enabling the violence is beyond doubt, whether or not he sees the inside of a jail. But the important thing for me is that he is being held to account by the people.”
Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in New Delhi.