x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Britain ends 10-year boycott of Gujarat over deadly religious riots

Britain held talks yesterday with the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, ending a 10-year boycott over religious riots in the state that left more than 2,000 dead.

AHMEDABAD // Britain held talks yesterday with the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, ending a 10-year boycott over religious riots in the state that left more than 2,000 dead.

Mr Modi, a Hindu nationalist who is tipped as a possible future prime minister, came to power in Gujarat shortly before the 2002 riots and is accused of doing little to prevent country's worst religious violence since independence.

Since the riots, British officials had been banned from dealing directly with Mr Modi but the government this month changed its policy and announced that its ambassador to India, James Bevan, would travel to Gujarat.

Gujarat is one of India's flagship states for attracting foreign direct investment, and state officials said that the talks yesterday touched on trade and industry issues.

Mr Bevan held "talks with Chief Minister Modi and other senior politicians, and he is also meeting with British firms who have infrastructure projects in the state", a British embassy spokesman said.

The riots in 2002 were triggered by the deaths of nearly 60 Hindu pilgrims in a train fire that was initially blamed on a mob of Muslims.

Mr Modi is accused of failing to halt the revenge attacks that left more than 2,000 people - mainly Muslims - dead, according to rights groups. The government figures put the death toll at about 1,000.

Among the dead were three British nationals who were burnt to death in Sabarkantha district of the western Indian state.

When Britain announced it would end the boycott, the junior foreign minister Hugo Swire said the government wanted "to support human rights and good governance in the state".

"We want to secure justice for the families of the British nationals who were killed in 2002," he added.

Mr Swire also stressed the well-established ties with Gujarat because of large numbers of Indian families who migrated to Britain from the state.

Mr Modi, a top leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, denies any misconduct over the riots. But he has struggled to shake off the allegations, and the United States has refused to grant him a visa since 2005.

Britain's resumption of links with Mr Modi came two months after a Gujarat court sentenced a former member of his government to 28 years in jail for her role in instigating the 2002 unrest.

The sentencing of Maya Kodnani, who served as minister from 2007-2009, was seen as a setback for Mr Modi's prime ministerial ambitions as India looks to general elections due in 2014.

Despite the scars of the sectarian violence, Gujarat in recent years has lured foreign firms with its reliable power supply, good infrastructure and the availability of educated but cheap labour.