`But who lit the fire?'

Print edition : February 11, 2005

During the post-Godhra violence, in Ahmedabad. - MANISH SWARUP/AP

The Banerjee Committee report on the Godhra train fire, corroborated by independent expert analysis, knocks the bottom out of the "conspiracy" theory hatched by Hindutva forces to rationalise the terrible pogrom of Muslims that followed.

BARELY seven weeks after the butchery of Gujarat's Muslims began on February 28, 2002, Atal Bihari Vajpayee stunned the world by virtually defending and justifying the carnage even while describing it as a "tragedy". India's Prime Minister, addressing a Bharatiya Janata Party meeting in Goa, taunted and chided Muslims by saying "wherever they are, they live separately", and nonchalantly asserted: "If a conspiracy had not been hatched to burn alive the innocent passengers of the Sabarmati Express [at Godhra], the subsequent tragedy in Gujarat could have been averted. But this did not happen." He then rhetorically asked: "But who lit the fire?"

Vajpayee had (belatedly) visited Gujarat just 10 days earlier. There, he had made remarks regretting the communal killing and mildly reprimanding Chief Minister Narendra Modi. This raised the expectation that he would sharply demarcate the BJP and its national government from Modi, in particular his obnoxious "action-reaction" rationalisation for the worst carnage in independent India's history.

Vajpayee disgraced himself and brought ignominy to his high office by supporting that very rationalisation. But that he should have done so at that fateful moment was no accident. For Hindutva, Godhra was and remains a powerful symbol, yet another concentrated re-creation of a long history of victimhood, of the subjugation of "non-violent", "peace-loving" Hindus by ruthless and violent aggressors.

Godhra served as a justification for demonic retaliation and retribution - Hindus "getting even" with their oppressors by finally "waking up" and taking to arms. The inherent justice presumed in this retribution overwhelmed, in the eyes of BJP supporters, all other injustices and iniquities, including the gross disproportion in the violence (2,000 Muslims killed and many more raped, while 59 Hindus died) and the complete communalisation of the State, or the sheer perversity of taking the "eye-for-an-eye" logic to its conclusion.

The image of the burning coach has been politically exploited ever since. As has the presumed idea of a prior conspiracy to kill 59 kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya, the Modi government has accused and harassed more than a hundred Muslims for being part of the "conspiracy" and has filed 10 charge-sheets against them.

This "conspiracy theory" and the vicious politics associated with it has now been dealt a grievous blow by the interim report of the U.C. Banerjee Committee appointed by the Railway Ministry, which has concluded that the fire in Coach S-6 was purely "accidental".

The report's principal conclusion, ruling out the "petrol theory" and the "miscreant activity theory", has been stridently attacked both by the BJP national leadership and the Gujarat police on substantive grounds (it lacks substance and ignores weighty evidence that Muslims threw fireballs or lighted rags into Coach S-6), as well as procedural ones (regarding the timing of its sudden release just prior to the elections to three State Assemblies, without notice or warrant).

BJP general secretary Arun Jaitley has attacked Banerjee as an unreliable "retired justice" handpicked by Lalu Prasad for political reasons. He has repeatedly sought to discredit the report's main findings on the ground that it ignored "evidence" that 140 litres of petrol had been purchased from a nearby petrol pump and that some men threw an inflammable liquid into Coach S-6 from near the toilets.

The criticism is plain unconvincing because Jaitley has not read the report; nor did he provide any evidence that contradicts its findings. On the face of it, Banerjee's conclusion fully conforms to several accounts of the causes of the fire, including the first forensic laboratory report, the eye-witnesses' depositions (including of the railway staff who observed Coach S-6 from the cabins), and published photographs of the coach, which show that the smoke and the fire started from the top, rather than from the bottom. All these suggest that the fire was not caused by inflammable fluid thrown on to the floor.

Gujarat police officials claimed, while appearing before the Nanavati-Shah inquiry commission, that there was indeed a conspiracy, "hatched at the Aman Guest House two days before the carnage", which was linked to a "terrorist outfit". The officer concerned, however, refused to name the outfit. Gujarat officials also contradictorily claim that "60 litres of petrol" and "120 litres of flammable material" were poured into Coach S-6 to cause the fire.

Questions do arise about the timing of the release of "an interim report" just five weeks short of the final one that is due by February 22. But the Railway Board's records reportedly show that a request had been made to Banerjee to submit an interim report by January 15 (The Hindu, January 18). A delay of two days is hardly abnormal.

Yet, it must be admitted that the report's sudden release has created some misapprehensions and made it needlessly vulnerable to political attacks. The BJP's capacity for sheer childishness and mulishness must not be underestimated. It generally thinks that whatever does not favour it must be "prejudiced", inherently wrong and the result of a "secularist conspiracy". For months, it refused to accept politically the verdict of the last Lok Sabha elections, which by any standards were free and fair. Nevertheless, the Banerjee Committee would have enhanced its own credibility had it released the interim report somewhat earlier, or waited until after the elections.

As for the Gujarat police, the less said about their record in the Godhra case the better. They have unfailingly barked up the wrong tree and indicted as many as 131 people under POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) for the burning of the coach, of whom 104 have been arrested and detained. Their application of this draconian law is so full of double standards (all of Gujarat's 300-odd POTA detainees are non-Hindus, see Frontline April 7, 2004), their record of intimidating witnesses and accused so appalling, and their communal prejudice against Muslims so intense, as to cast doubts over all their claims.

Even so, let us assume that they are right in saying that a conspiracy was hatched to attack the train carrying militant kar sevaks. That still does not get them off the hook of establishing the causal link between the conspirators and the actual initiation of the physical processes that started the smoke and the fire in Coach S-6, eventually killing 59 people. They have to detail and validate the precise sequence of steps through which the process took place - whether caused by "conspirators", or accidentally.

They have completely failed to do that. All the forced confessions they extract and the fanciful hypotheses they manufacture about the fire, without a rigorous forensic analysis, will have no credibility unless they produce clinching evidence about what killed the 59 victims (was it asphyxiation from smoke, soot and toxic gases, or burns from the fire?) and through what processes.

ONE can only hope that the Banerjee report has such a convincing hypothesis, which bears scientific and forensic scrutiny. But its principal finding is strongly corroborated by the report of an independent inquiry by engineers and experts under the auspices of an activist group with an excellent record - the Hazards Centre of New Delhi.

The report is authored by two Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi professors - Dinesh Mohan with expertise in safety and human tolerance to injuries, and Sunil Kale, with expertise in thermodynamics and fluidisation - an Indian Railways mechanical engineer with experience in coaching, and the Hazards Centre's Duny Roy, with some solid work in occupational health, hazards and safety. It is written in a simple, easily accessible manner and illustrated with slides that bring out the specific nature of damage to Coach S-6.

The report's greatest merit is that it adopts an analytical framework that is systematic and rigorous - going through the pattern of the fire sparks on the coach, the type and causation of the fire, the depositions of 41 surviving passengers of the coach to the police, a critique of the post-mortem reports pertaining to 27 cases, and a correlation of the injuries sustained by 56 passengers with the spread of the smoke and the fire. The report establishes that:

* The fire probably originated in the region between the last two cabins (8 and 9) and it is highly unlikely that it could have started on the floor of the passage or the floor outside the toilets by someone throwing inflammable fluid.

* The resultant dense and high temperature smoke spread along the ceiling of the carriage and eventually resulted in a flash-over when the fire engulfed the entire coach from the top.

* In the above circumstances, people must have gathered trying to escape and been subjected to dense and toxic fumes and radiative heat, resulting in asphyxiation and death. (All quotes from the original.)

The Hazards Centre report does not claim to be the last word on the subject and calls for "a dual strategy of experimental and computer simulations" to understand the process of combustion so that its results could be used for "deciding the location of fire detectors" and other safety interventions.

Several elements of the report are noteworthy. It analyses the damage to Coach S-6 by comparing it with six other burnt coaches, including one that is now parked at Jagadhri. This caught fire while under maintenance in the washing line of Delhi Junction Station in November 2003 and has a burns-marks pattern similar to Coach S-6. The patterns indicate that the heat was more severe on the upper half of the coaches and greater at one end of the coach in both cases.

This fits in with the pattern of burns sustained by the victims: most of these are on the upper portions of their bodies and few below the abdomen. This could not be the case had the fire originated from the floor. Had the fire started on the floor of the passage or the floor outside the toilets, "inflammable plywood and foam in three tiers of seats would not be available for the fire to burn in this area. If the fire was started by an inflammable fluid on the floor, the flames would have been noticed right away in a very crowded carriage, precluding the possibility of a long smouldering source", says the report.

In all likelihood, combustible material placed below the lower berth (bench), including clothing and plastic goods, caught fire accidentally, probably because of a half-lighted match, a cigarette butt, or a cooking stove. This probably set the plywood base of the seat on fire, and then the latex foam on the seat. The foam creates "enormous clouds of hot, dense, asphyxiating, black smoke and this itself becomes the source of ignition for other materials as the temperature rises to flash point".

Latex foam and the rexine (vinyl fabric) covering the berth as well as laminated plastic partitions (sunmica) and vinyl flooring (linoleum) produce extremely poisonous gases on combustion, including hydrogen cyanide, free isocyanates and carbon monoxide, along with dense smoke.

It is this toxic smoke that probably caused a majority of the deaths, while direct fire burns were responsible for far fewer casualties.

THE report demonstrates how the post-mortem examinations were done in a hurry in the railway yard, each lasting an average of 38 minutes, and are unreliable. But the injury reports are far better and strengthen the main conclusions that the fire started in the luggage below one of the seats "in the 8th or 9th cabin and then spread through radiative and convective heating from the overhead smoke".

The Hazards Centre report highlights one major feature of the expertise now available with many NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and people's movements, through their capacity for public-spirited scientific and technological analysis.

Such groups are able to do a far better job than governments of understanding hazards and analysing safety issues. This has been demonstrated time and again in the recent past - during the reconstruction effort after the Uttarkashi, Killari and Gujarat earthquakes and the Orissa super cyclone, as well as during the Bhopal gas disaster.

The Banerjee committee would do well to draw upon such expertise before producing its final report. And the BJP would do well to accept that the truth about Godhra lies outside fanciful and communal conspiracy theories.

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