By Gagan Sethi*
The Gujarat High Court’s decision to commute the death sentence into life imprisonment to 11 of the convicts involved in the gruesome Godhra train burning case of February 27, 2002, even as sharply criticising the Gujarat government and the Indian Railways for miserably failing to maintain the law and order, has opened up fresh possibilities of re-examining the event, which triggered one of the worst anti-minority riots in independent India.
While the HC has, at the same time, refused to change the trial court verdict, which acquitted 63 persons, including Maulvi Umarji, accused of being the mastermind behind the fire, there is reason to wonder what led to the incident, which was immediately described by the Gujarat government as a “criminal conspiracy” hatched in Pakistan, without even waiting for the investigators begin doing their job to find out how on that fateful date 58 people, most of them kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya, were burnt alive.
While one can never condone any act of violence, one has to look at the factors precipitating it in a much more nuanced way. What is well known is, the train, Sabarmati Express, was returning with passengers, about 1,700 of them kar sevaks, from Ayodhya. However, there is little understanding of the fact that the provocations existed ahead of the incident in the train, with misbehaving kar sevaks insisting upon Muslim travellers to shout “Jai Shri Ram”. Even the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in its Interim Report had wondered why no action, including a police escort, was taken at the time, in view of the communally charged atmosphere in Godhra.
Godhra has roughly an equal population of Muslims and Hindus, with a long and bloody history of communal tension and violence. The Muslims in Singal Falia, situated near the railway station, who allegedly attacked the Sabarmati Express, belong to the Ghanchi community, which is largely uneducated and poor. Many of them have been allegedly under the influence of tabliqis of the Deobandi tradition, and have had the history of participating in communal violence.
The train reached Godhra railway station five hours late, at about 7.45 am, though it was scheduled to arrive there at 2.45 am. There was scuffle between the kar sevaks and the Ganchi tea vendors, who entered the train. An old Ghanchi vendor was ordered to shout “Jai Shri Ram”, and his beard was reportedly pulled when he refused. This was followed by stone throwing and physical assaults. A Muslim lady, who waited for the train to go to Vadodara with her two young daughters, seeing the fracas, tried to leave the station. They were stopped by a kar sevak, who reportedly grabbed one of the teenaged daughters, but failed.
The issue is, whether these events, which possibly may have sparked the attack on the train after it began moving away from the station but was stopped by chain pulling, were ever examined. The available evidence has gone to show that there was no pre-planned terrorist attack, triggered by ISI, as claimed in the Gujarat assembly on February 27 (statements by senior minister Ashok Bhatt and minister of state for home Gordhan Zadaphia), and later in the press note, which was issued late in the evening which quoted Modi as saying that Godhra was a “preplanned inhuman collective violent act of terrorism”.
The fact is, the police, especially the DSP, arrived at the scene of the incident at the site of the incident at 8.30 am, by which time the mob had already dispersed. According to one report, since he heard no cries or any sounds from coach S6, he had no apprehensions of massive civilian casualties in that coach. This was discovered only later when the district collector entered the coach. Reportedly, all the bodies were in a heap in the centre of the coach S6. There is reason to wonder: Why did the Gujarat police not call forensic experts for a physical examination of the burnt railway coach for two long months even though it was freely accessible to the public from day one?
Interestingly, while the terror charge was dropped subsequently, the trial court, in its judgment delivered in 2011, upheld the conspiracy theory, giving death sentence to many as 11 of those participated in the train burning incident of February 27. Yet, the acquittal of 63 persons out of the 94 who were identified as culprits suggested that there was no conspiracy, even though the court did not say so in so many words.
There is also the need to re-examine whether what Justice UC Banerjee Committee, examining the train burning incident, said on January 17, 2005, had any truth. Even as brushing aside the “miscreant activity theory”, it suggested the fire may be an accident, spread because of the type of inflammable material used by the railways, insisting, “All is not well with railway safety. The entire approach of the Railways has been very casual and it is unfortunate that the Western Railway did not adhere to any norms of the accident manual.” The issue that needs scrutiny is: Whether we need to invest hi-speed trains or a railway protection force, which encompasses intelligence and prevention and not just catching beggars and those with ticketless travel.
*Chair, Janvikas, Ahmedabad
This article was first appeared in The Hindustan Times