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. 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 more than 1,000 Muslims. The controversial Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 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 yesterday and trended on Twitter. "Hindu nationalist Modi kicks up storm with puppy remark" said a headline in The Times of India . 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 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 Farooqi. 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 Modi, without explaining why he was not "at the wheel" during the riots as chief minister. National Law Minister Kapil Sibal waded into the row, asking what Modi "was doing in the back seat" during the riots. Modi, whose state has thrived economically under his leadership, is expected to be considered as a candidate for prime minister if the BJP wins the elections to be held by next May. Modi paints himself as a pro-business reformist who can revive the fortunes of the world's largest democracy. But he remains a divisive figure after being accused of doing nothing to stop religious riots in his state.