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Britain ends 10-year boycott of Indian minister Narendra Modi

October 22, 2012

Narendra Modi.—File photo

AHMEDABAD: Britain held talks Monday with Indian regional leader Narendra Modi, ending a 10-year boycott over deadly religious riots in Gujarat state that left more than 2,000 dead, including three Britons.

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 India's worst religious violence since independence.

After the riots, Britain stopped dealing directly with Modi but the government this month changed its policy and announced that its ambassador to India, James Bevan, would travel to Gujarat.

“This is about engagement, it is not about endorsement,” Bevan told reporters after the meeting.

“If you want to engage effectively with an Indian state... you need to engage with the chief minister.”Bevan said Britain was keen to improve its overall relations with India and he also noted that several public figures had recently been found guilty over the riots.

Modi's office said the discussions included opportunities for British companies in Gujarat, one of India's flagship states for attracting foreign direct investment.

“Had a great meeting... to strengthen Guj-UK ties in economic and social sectors,” Modi said on Twitter.

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. Modi is accused of failing to halt the orgy of revenge 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 government said it still wanted “to secure justice for the families of the British nationals who were killed in 2002”.

Bevan on Monday also stressed the well-established ties with Gujarat due to large numbers of Indian-origin families who have migrated to Britain from the state.

But Tanveer Jaffery, whose father was killed in the riots, said that the British government needed to fully explain the end of the boycott.

“There was a gross violation of human rights in 2002 when the state machinery connived with the rioters,” Jaffery told AFP.

“This move is surprising. What assessment has the British made of the Modi government to compel them to change their stance?”Modi, a senior leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), 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 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 women's minister from 2007-2009, was seen as a setback for 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 by Indian standards, and the availability of educated but cheap labour.