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The tales of horrifying communal violence during Narendra Modi's supposedly golden reign as chief minister in Gujarat seem distant to modern India – something for historians or now-irrelevant human rights reports.

Until you speak to the survivors.

These Muslims still live in the slums of Ahmedabad, some in begrudgingly provided resettlement communities, and they will tell you stories of what happened in 2002 if you ask them, which I did last year.

They will speak of the stones that fell on their neighbourhoods and houses; of the fires that tore through their businesses; of a woman who was burned alive as her sister watched from a rooftop; of the police who stood idly by as hordes of hardline Hindu nationalists stormed past; of the desperate fight to win assistance in the aftermath from Mr. Modi's government, which was busy hosting investment summits.

Mr. Modi was denied a visa to visit the United States in 2005 in the wake of the riots, which killed more than 1,000 people. He was eventually cleared of wrongdoing by India's Supreme Court and went on to win national elections last year. His ascension to Prime Minister was accompanied by fear that religious tensions in pluralistic India would intensify.

And that's why his strong condemnation of religious violence this week should be welcomed.

"My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the minority or the majority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly," Mr. Modi said in New Delhi. "I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard." Mr. Modi's comments come after a series of attacks on Roman Catholic churches around Delhi – from stone-throwing to burglaries and arson.

They also follow U.S. President Barack Obama's trip to New Delhi, where he said: "India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along religious lines."

Mr. Obama followed that up with similar comments at a prayer breakfast in Washington, where he said recent "acts of intolerance" in India would have "shocked" Gandhi.

Mr. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), recently lost New Delhi's important state-level elections. His comments also do not come immediately after any anti-Muslim violence or comments from members of the BJP – which gets much of its support from India's Hindus, who make up roughly 80 per cent of the population. India still has a sizeable Muslim population of about 160 million.

BJP members accuse those who link Mr. Modi to communal violence of doing so only for their own political gain – and they have a point that other parties have also ignored communal violence. But critics have real reasons to worry. Human Rights Watch said there was "strong evidence" linking the Gujarat violence to Mr. Modi's government, and noted that anti-Christian violence ratcheted up after the election of a national BJP government in 1998. This included "the killings of priests, the raping of nuns, and the physical destruction of Christian institutions," the group wrote in 1999, noting that the government was "exploiting communal tensions for political ends." Thousands were forced to convert to Hinduism, under threat of violence.

Mr. Modi, who ruled for more than a decade in Gujarat, rose through the ranks of the Hindu nationalist RSS, or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – whose members were implicated in the Gujarat riots. During the general election, Amit Shah, current BJP president and aide to Mr. Modi, called for Hindus in an area that had recently seen communal violence to take "revenge" on Muslims by voting for the BJP. He was censured by India's Election Commission for promoting "hatred and ill will." Other MPs have encouraged Hindu women to have more children, playing on fears that Muslims have more children. One hardline BJP politician even called Gandhi's assassin a patriot.

Although Mr. Modi cannot be held responsible for everything uttered by India's Hindu nationalists, he is a product of that movement – and should realize that failure to condemn these remarks may result in very real consequences for religious minorities in India.

But just as Mr. Modi must stand ready to condemn those who inflame communal hatred, his critics – and perhaps more important, his supporters – should applaud him when he does take a stand on these issues, making it easier for him to do so next time.