NEW DELHI - Indian prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi said on Friday he had been deeply pained by religious violence during his time as chief minister of Gujarat state, seeking closure on a deeply divisive issue that has dogged him for more than a decade.
Modi's remarks on his blog were the furthest the powerful Hindi nationalist has gone to commiserate with the victims of the 2002 religious bloodshed, one of India's worst since the 1947 partition of the subcontinent.
"I was shaken to the core. Grief, sadness, misery, pain, anguish, agony - mere words could not capture the absolute emptiness one felt on witnessing such inhumanity," he wrote.
"As if all the suffering was not enough, I was also accused of the death and misery of my own loved ones, my Gujarati brothers and sisters."
At least 1,000 people died in a wave of reprisal attacks across Gujarat after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set on fire in February 2002.
Critics accuse Modi of not doing enough to stop the revenge attacks on minority Muslims, a charge he denies.
Modi leads the race for the national election due by next May, campaigning on a platform to revive India's economy growing at its slowest in a decade, end red tap and corruption that have bedevilled the ruling Congress-led coalition.
However, critics, who accuse Modi of a deep-seated bias against Muslims, said his remarks did not go far enough.
Congress leader Manish Tewari said Modi's comments were an attempt to burnish his credentials for the election.
"It is an exercise in sanctimoniousness. If it takes 12 years to come out with such convoluted half-baked explanations it obviously goes on to show that you do not believe in the core idea of India, its intrinsic values which constitute liberalism," he said.
Polls say Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party will fall short of the simple majority required to rule and will have to fall back on regional groups to bolster its numbers in parliament.
But for some political parties, Modi, a three-time chief minister of Gujarat, remains a polarizing figure. One powerful group in the eastern state of Bihar broke off its alliance with the BJP after it elevated Modi to the national leadership.
Since the riots Modi has built up an image of a business-friendly efficient administrator under whom Gujarat is one of India's fastest growing states. But he has been unable to fully shake off allegations of bias.
On Thursday, a Gujarat court upheld the result of an investigation that cleared Modi of complicity in the riots.
On the blog posting headlined "Truth Alone Triumphs", Modi said he felt vindicated after an unprecedented level of scrutiny of his role. "Gujarat's 12 years of trial by fire have finally drawn to an end. I feel liberated and at peace," he said.
(Editing by Alison Williams)