NEW DELHI — An Indian court on Wednesday convicted 32 people, including a former state minister and a radical Hindu leader, of involvement in riots 10 years ago that left 95 Muslims dead in the Naroda Patiya neighborhood in the western state of Gujarat.
The verdict acknowledged for the first time the role of a politician in inciting Hindu mobs after 58 Hindu pilgrims and activists died in a train fire that Muslims were suspected of starting.
More than 1,000 Muslims died across the state in the wave of reprisal attacks, and human rights groups accused the government of looking the other way. The massacre in Naroda Patiya, on the outskirts of the city of Ahmedabad, was the largest of the attacks.
The court convicted Maya Kodnani, who at the time of the riots was an elected official from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, of criminal conspiracy and murder. Kodnani later became minister for women and child development in the government of Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, but she left the government after her arrest in 2009 in connection with the riots.
Modi has been held at arm’s length by the United States and other Western nations because of his government’s alleged involvement in the riots. He has refused to apologize, saying his government played no role.
Wednesday’s verdict, many activists said, will embolden Modi’s opponents in the run-up to crucial state elections later this year, when Modi will seek a third term. His supporters say that a third victory in Gujarat is crucial for him if he is to be considered as a potential national leader in elections across India in 2014.
“For the first time, this judgment actually goes beyond neighborhood perpetrators and goes up to the political conspiracy,” said Teesta Setalvad, a human rights campaigner who has helped riot victims in court. “The fact that convictions have gone that high means the conspiracy charge has been accepted and the political influencing of the mobs has been accepted by the judge. This is a huge victory for justice.”
The court also convicted Babu Bajrangi, a powerful Hindu leader, of inciting the violence. In a 2007 sting operation by the Indian magazine Tehelka, Bajrangi confessed to participating in the attacks on Muslims.
Twenty-nine people were acquitted.
More than 300 people, including victims, witnesses, doctors and journalists, were deposed before the court, which began hearing the case in 2009. Many victims and legal workers received anonymous death threats warning them against participating in the case.
In another high-profile verdict Wednesday, India’s Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Ajmal Amir Kasab, the lone surviving Pakistani among 10 gunmen who launched coordinated terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008. That attack killed 166 people, including six Americans.