NEW DELHI (AFP) - Indian Hindu hardliner Narendra Modi, seen as the key opposition challenger in next year's elections, has said he meant no offence when he compared victims of anti-Muslim violence to puppies run over by a car.
Mr Modi, in an interview published on Friday with an international news agency, spoke openly for the first time about 2002 anti-Muslim riots in western Gujarat state in which Hindu mobs killed over 1,000 Muslims. The controversial Bharatiya Janata Party leader, who is Gujarat's chief minister and was in power during the riots, said he felt "sad" over the violence - just the way one would feel "bad" when a car runs over a puppy.
The remark to Reuters news agency was splashed on Indian newspaper front pages on Saturday and trended on Twitter. "'Hindu nationalist' Modi kicks up storm with puppy remark," said a Times of India headline.
Mr Modi tried to counter the criticism by tweeting late on Friday: "In our culture every form of life (including puppies) is valued and worshipped." But critics were not appeased.
"His comment is very bad, dangerous and humiliating," said Mr Kamal Farooqi, a senior leader of the regional Samajwadi Party, which draws support from Muslims in India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh.
"What is he really saying? Are Muslims less than puppies?" asked Mr Farooqi.
Mr Modi said he would have felt "guilty" over the violence "if I did something wrong" but 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," said Mr Modi, without explaining why he was not at the wheel during the riots as chief minister.