On Friday, the Gujarat High Court upheld the conviction of Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi in the Naroda Patiya massacre case of 2002. More significantly, it overturned the conviction of former minister Maya Kodnani. In 2012, the trial court had described Kodnani as the “kingpin” of the single largest mass killing – of 97 Muslim men, women and children – during the Gujarat carnage. It was the first time a minister had been convicted of perpetrating communal violence in India.

The High Court’s judgement follows a string of legal victories for the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh Parivar, the family of organisations associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, including the acquittal of people associated with the Sangh such as Aseemanand and Pragya Singh Thakur in cases of alleged Hindutva terrorism.

Who is Maya Kodnani?

Kodnani joined the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti, the RSS women’s wing, while studying at the Baroda Medical College. She trained as a gynaecologist and started a practice in Ahmedabad, where she entered electoral politics in 1995, winning a municipal election. Kodnani rose quickly through the ranks in the BJP, contesting, and winning, the 1998 election from Naroda constituency in Ahmedabad. Two years later she was made Ahmedabad city president of the party.

What was she accused of?

According to eyewitness testimonies, Kodnani instigated large Hindu mobs to carry out massacres in Naroda Patiya as well as another neighbourhood in her constituency called Naroda Gram. In Naroda Patiya, a Human Rights Watch report published in 2003 narrated that “women and girls were gang raped in public view before being hacked and burned to death. Homes were looted and burned while the community mosque, the Noorani Masjid, was destroyed using exploding gas cylinders”.

The report stated that “Maya Kodnani, a BJP MLA from Naroda and Jaideep Patel, the Gujarat secretary general for the VHP were identified as ringleaders of the attacks”. The VHP is the extremist Sangh Parivar affiliate Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Why was she convicted in 2012?

In spite of the allegations, Kodnani faced little legal action. If anything, her political career prospered. In 2007, she was made a minister in the Gujarat government led by Narendra Modi.

The turning point came when police officer Rahul Sharma produced volumes of call records that supported witness testimonies that Kodnani was in Naroda at the time of the massacre.

Although the use of call records was commonplace in police investigations by 2002, the Gujarat police reportedly ignored them as evidence while inquiring into the massacres.

In 2002, Sharma was the superintendent of police in Bhavnagar, where he moved quickly to prevent the massacre of 400 students in a madrassa. For this, Sharma claims he was transferred to a desk job in Ahmedabad. He turned this into an opportunity, though, digging out reams of call detail records of several influential people accused of participating in the riots.

Given this substantial evidence, the Special Investigation Team set by the Supreme Court to investigate some of the Gujarat carnage cases moved to arrest Kodnani. She went underground, only to surface three days later after being declared an absconder.

Ironically, the call detail records that led to Kodnani’s arrest were not relied upon for her conviction. Manoj Mitta, who has extensively written about the Gujarat riots, blames the Special Investigation Team for the lapse, which failed to do the basic legwork to conclusively prove the phone number linked to the call records belonged to Kodnani. She was eventually convicted on the basis of witness testimonies.

The trial court held Kodnani “to be the kingpin of the entire communal riot and one of the principal conspirators who has actively instigated the rioters and has abetted them to form unlawful assembly to execute the conspiracy hatched under her leadership with other co-conspirators”.

Why was she acquitted?

In May 2014, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election, Modi said Kodnani’s conviction was a result of “political games”. In July of that year, a month after Modi took office as prime minister, the Gujarat High Court suspended Kodnani’s sentence and granted her bail on the grounds of ill health (she was suffering from gastric ailments).

On Friday, the High court acquitted her, ruling that none of the witnesses against her were reliable. Gujarat’s deputy chief minister Nitin Patel said Kodnani could rejoin politics if she so wanted.