Modi, the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, usually gives media interviews only on the condition that there will be no questions about his role in the Gujarat religious riots of 2002, in which more than 1,000 people died, according to official figures -- most of them Muslims who were killed by marauding Hindus. Human rights groups have reported that Modi -- who became chief minister in 2001 -- did not do enough to stop the killings and even looked the other way.
For the interview with Reuters in late June, however, he waived the ban.
Many Indians have been waiting to hear Modi's thoughts on the riots, especially now that he is emerging as the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's candidate for the prime minister's post in national elections next year.
But rather than easing decade-old tensions, Modi triggered another controversy by using a dog-centered analogy to describe his abhorrence of violence.
According to the Reuters story, Modi responded to a question about whether he regretted the violence by saying: If "someone else is driving a car and we're sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I'm a chief minister or not, I'm a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad."
For someone who has consistently refused to express regret or apology for the bloodshed -- and in a country where stray dogs crowd the streets and accidents are common -- the analogy was shocking.
The outraged reactions swung from politics to dog rights to driving habits.
“His comment is very bad, dangerous and humiliating,” said Kamal Farooqi, a senior leader of the Samajwadi Party, which has a sizable Muslim following in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. “What is he really saying? Are Muslims less than puppies?”
The ruling Congress party’s spokesman, Ajay Maken, said Modi should apologize to the nation “for the kind of words and analogy he has used.”
Law Minister Kapil Sibal took issue with the standards of Modi's transportation arrangements. “He should have seen how the driver is driving the car, even if he was sitting in the back seat,” Sibal told reporters. “What was he doing in the back seat? He should tell his driver to drive safely.”
The analogy confounded journalists, too.
A news anchor with the ABP News television channel asked her panel guests: “Isn’t Modi known to measure his words carefully and foresee the impact of his statements?”
The news anchor on the CNN-IBN channel asked: “Is he talking about his love for dogs? Is he making a political statement?”
Modi’s party, the BJP, reacted angrily to the criticisms of Modi.
“What he is saying is that any human being would be saddened if even a puppy comes under the wheel,” said Nirmala Sitharaman, the BJP spokeswoman. “If this is being interpreted, and unsustainably interpreted, to mean ‘Oh, a certain community has been compared to a dog,’ it is unfortunate, and I would only use the word despicable.”
On Twitter, # puppy trended.
In context of a riot,whose images haunt until today, where so much loss of life, for Modi to say puppy under wheel of car,unfortunate words
— Sagarika Ghose (@sagarikaghose) July 12, 2013
— YP Rajesh (@yprajesh) July 12, 2013
— Arvind Virmani (@dravirmani) July 12, 2013
Modi tweeted, as well. Of course, he used the opportunity to make a thinly veiled reference to Hinduism.
In our culture every form of life is valued & worshipped. My original interview with Reuters http://t.co/4WNxHRFoS2 ...People are best judge
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) July 12, 2013
Clarification: An earlier version of this post said that in the religious riots in Gujarat in 2002, more than 1,000 Muslims were killed by marauding Hindus. According to official figures, more than 1,000 people died in the riots, most of them Muslims. The post has been updated.