Skip to main content

Former Gujarat minister and a member of India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Maya Kodnani, in a police vehicle, arrives at a special court in Ahmedabad, India, Friday, Aug. 31, 2012.Ajit Solanki/The Associated Press

A Gujarat court today handed down harsh sentences to 32 people for their role in bloody riots in which some 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in 2002. As the convicts were led from the court, one weeping woman stood out in a crowd of people wailing and clutching at the hands of relatives. Mayaben Surendrabhai Kodnani, sentenced to 28 years for murder and conspiracy to murder, is a former cabinet minister in the state government.

She is also a woman – and a physician, an obstetrician-gynaecologist who once had a thriving practice delivering babies at an Ahmedabad maternity hospital she founded. She held the position of Minister of Women and Child Development in the Gujarat government. She came to court to hear her fate in a silk saree and a string of pearls.

For a fascinated Indian public, it was a difficult image to reconcile with the one witnesses described to the court: Ms. Kodnani as a hollering Hindu nationalist who doled out swords and jugs of kerosene to the crowd that gathered outside the Muslim neighbourhood of Naroda Patiya on February 28, 2002, and exhorted them to chop and kill.

Ninety-eight people, including many children, were hacked to death or burnt alive at Naroda Patiya, the court found.

Whether women are less likely than men to commit acts of violence is the sort of question that can preoccupy an evolutionary biology or neurophysiology seminar for much of an afternoon.

In India, in any case, women are less frequent participants in public occurrences of all kinds, and Ms. Kodnani is the only woman charged with murder in relation to the events of 2002. She is also the sole physician among the hundreds of people who have been indicted in various courts in the decade since the killings.

But while Ms. Kodnani was one of the few women on the streets in 2002, numerous human rights reports – and a series of videos made by an undercover reporter for the investigative news organization Tehelka – found widespread female approval of the events, and that many women encouraged the male members of their families to participate in the carnage, exhorting them to kill and rape.

Ms. Kodnani is the highest-placed official to be convicted for her role, although human rights organizations have documented the role of her right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in tacitly permitting and even encouraging the killings.

"This is the first time that a judgment has implicated the political class – truth has won," said Teesta Setalvad, a prominent activist working on the Gujarat issue, told reporters at the courthouse when Ms. Kodnani was convicted on Wednesday.

The Special Investigative Team that made the case against Ms. Kodnani said last year that it did not have sufficient evidence to bring a case against the head of that government, Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who has long denied his complicity.

The BJP tried to distance itself from Ms. Kodnani after her conviction. "Kodnani was not a minister when the incident happened," said Gujarat government spokesperson Jai Narayan Vyas. "We are not denying she is an MLA from the party now. But an MLA is not a state government functionary … you can't link everything to the party."

But Harsh Mander, who heads the Centre for Equity Studies and has been one of the most dogged activists attempting to hold government accountable for its role in the killings, scorned that defence. "It's even worse: Maya Kodnani was spoken about from the very start, she was leading at Naroda Patiya, there was no doubt, and the most outrageous thing is that after all of this, she was appointed as a minister," he said. "The absence of remorse – it's rewarding someone who openly led a massacre."

Although the special court in Gujarat has now repeatedly rejected the Modi government's assertion that the riots were spontaneous, saying they were clearly pre-planned, Mr. Modi remains one of the country's most popular politicians.

His fortunes do not seem likely to be appreciably dented by this verdict – a survey of 9,000 people in 28 cities (released Thursday although conducted before the verdict) found 42 per cent of those surveyed identified him as their preferred choice for prime minister in the next government; the likely candidate of the ruling Indian National Congress, Rahul Gandhi, had the endorsement of only 26 per cent of those surveyed.

Ms. Kodnani, 53, is a three-time member of Gujarat's assembly. Her parents came to India from the Sindh region of what is now Pakistan in partition in 1947 and were both members of Hindu-nationalist organizations. Ms. Kodnani herself joined one as a young woman.

She went into local politics for the BJP 20 years ago, and rose swiftly up party ranks. She was said to be a powerful speaker, and a charismatic leader of populist protests over issues such as demolition of illegally-constructed Hindu temples. She is married to another doctor, and they have one child, a son, who is pursuing post-secondary education in the United States, according to local media.

Throughout her career, Ms. Kodnani was often the first woman to hold each post she attained, such as BJP president in the Gujarati capital. She was re-elected by a wide margin after the riots, and appointed to cabinet in 2007.

Her defence was that she was not at Naroda Patiya on the day of the killings, but her cellphone records said otherwise, as did 11 eyewitnesses who testified in the court.