The facts from Godhra

Print edition : July 20, 2002

Investigations into the burning of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra on February 27 seem to be directed to prove the Narendra Modi government's conclusion that it was a pre-planned terrorist act.

"It was a pre-planned attack. The charred bodies which I saw at Godhra railway station testified to the black deed of terrorism."

- Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, February 28, 2002.

ON the day that the Sabarmati Express burned in Godhra, taking the lives of 59 passengers, Chief Minister Narendra Modi and his Sangh Parivar brotherhood had concluded that it was the result of a "terrorist" conspiracy. Since then, investigations into the case have been directed towards proving their theory. But more than four months after the incident, a number of questions remain unanswered. The charge-sheet filed by the Criminal Investigation Department (Crime) is vague about how the S/6 coach caught fire on the morning of February 27. It mentions that a mob of Muslims from Godhra burned the compartment. Details of how it was ignited are not mentioned. But, when contacted, police officials were unwilling to give any further details.

The burning train at Godhra, February 27.-AP

There does not seem to be much evidence to prove that it was indeed a "pre-planned", much less a "terrorist", attack. The Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) report has ruled out the possibility that the compartment was set on fire from outside by a mob. The report, which is part of the charge-sheet, states that, "no inflammable fluid had been thrown inside from outside the coach". It also rejects the possibility that any inflammable liquid was thrown through the door of the bogie. The report concludes that around 60 litres of inflammable liquid was thrown by someone standing between the compartment and the northern side door of the bogie.

Working on the assumption that the fire was caused by an inflammable liquid, the FSL team conducted an experiment at the spot of the incident, testing out various ways in which a fire could have been ignited. From the railway platform, the team threw buckets of water into the coach, whose window was seven feet above the ground. Only 10 to 15 per cent of the water entered the compartment. If the inflammable liquid was thrown from outside, the FSL report noted, then most of it would have fallen around the track outside and the resulting fire would have caused damage to the bottom of the outer part of the coach. But since this part of the coach was not burned severely, the report ruled out the possibility that inflammable fluid was thrown from outside.

If the coach was set on fire from the inside, who did that? Passengers have given police statements saying that the windows and doors of the compartment were closed when the stone-throwing between kar sevaks on the train and local vendors on the platform began. This occurred when the train stopped for the first time outside the Parcel Office, a minute after it moved out of Godhra station (see box on the sequence of events). Yet, police investigators insist that the FSL report supports their contention that it was a "pre-planned conspiracy by local criminals" who entered the train and set it on fire. "Our investigations show that around 15 to 20 people from the mob entered the compartment with more than 60 litres of fuel and set it on fire. The FSL report also states that three doors of the compartment were open. They could have entered the compartment," says a police officer investigating the case.

But the doors may have been opened later while passengers escaped. One passenger, in his statement to the police, speaks of getting out through the door to his right. Moreover, none of the passengers has said in his/her police statement, that he/she had seen anyone enter the compartment. All of them stated that a mob set the coach on fire. Some kar sevaks in S/6 and adjoining compartments, who were interviewed by a newspaper, also ruled out the possibility of anyone from the mob having entered the compartment. They said that the doors were bolted from inside, and that later when they tried to open them, they were found locked from outside.

Investigators have ruled out the possibility of the fire having been caused by an accident. "There was no fuel inside the train," said an investigating officer. He dismissed the possibility that kar sevaks carried fuel for cooking on their journey. Grain was also found inside the compartment, but the investigator said that it belonged to a family that was travelling to its village for a wedding.

EVER since the public disclosure of the FSL report, the Congress(I) has been accusing the Sangh Parivar of having masterminded the tragedy. "The FSL report shows that someone inside the train set it on fire. No Muslim could have entered the compartment. That too with 60 litres of petrol. The mentality of the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) leadership is such that they are even capable of killing their own kar sevaks for their own gain. Believe me, I know them very well," alleges Shankarsinh Vaghela, a Congress(I) leader, who was with the Bharatiya Janata Party until a few years ago. No one could have entered the already crammed compartment unnoticed. The kar sevaks, who were aggressive throughout the journey, would not have allowed a Muslim in, he pointed out.

Another point to be considered is that before the Godhra incident the kar sevaks had been creating trouble on the trains to and from Ayodhya. They harassed, bullied and abused Muslim passengers, and forced them to say "Jai Shree Ram". Many non-Muslim passengers were also harassed and not allowed to sit on the seats that they had reserved for themselves. On the train that burned, even the ticket conductor was pushed out of a reserved compartment. Jan Morcha, a Hindi daily published from Ayodhya, carried a report on February 25 about how kar sevaks had harassed passengers, and even beaten some of them, on the Sabarmati Express. This was before February 27. Hours after the tragedy, Hindutva mobs attacked Muslim homes in several parts of Gujarat.

While the question how the train was burned remains unanswered, the events preceding the incident have emerged quite clearly from the statements of several railway officials and passengers. The train arrived at Godhra station at 7-42 a.m. Some passengers got down to buy tea and snacks from vendors on the platform. A scuffle between a kar sevak and a Muslim tea vendor occurred over the payment for tea. The train started from Godhra station at 7-47 a.m., leaving some passengers on the platform. A minute later, it stopped because the chain had been pulled in four coaches. While the train halted, there was stone-throwing between the passengers and some Muslim residents of the locality who hid behind the Parcel Office. The train started moving again at 8 a.m. Five minutes later, it stopped for the second time near the 'A' cabin of Godhra station. A local mob came running from the Parcel Office towards the train and more stone-throwing and violence took place. The coach was set on fire sometime before 8-17 a.m. The police arrived at 8-25 a.m. and started firing to disperse the mob.

Petitioners have submitted affidavits before the K.G. Shah Judicial Commission, which is inquiring into the Godhra incident and its aftermath, stating that the tragedy was not pre-planned. They say it was an unfortunate outcome of the spontaneous scuffle that broke out on the Godhra station platform that morning. However, they offer no explanation as to how the fire broke out. One of the petitioners, Amrish Patel, is an advocate and a social activist, while the others are a group of Ghachi Muslims from Godhra who feel that injustice has been done to their community by portraying it as one of criminals.

While police investigators say that they are close to cracking the case and will announce the results of the investigations soon, others allege that the police still have very little evidence. In fact, the interim charge-sheet is not sufficient for any meaningful trial; the police will have to file a supplementary charge-sheet. Several questions have been raised about the manner in which the police have tortured the 61 accused in custody. Some of them have been injected with sodium pentathol or "truth serum", a dangerous drug that makes people speak freely. This is internationally considered a method of psychological torture. Says The Yale Herald: "It is a short-acting barbiturate that depresses the central nervous system, slows heart rate and lowers blood pressure. In the relaxed state produced by the drug, subjects are more susceptible to suggestion and are therefore easier to interrogate. However, the drug does not actually guarantee that prisoners will tell the truth. Often it makes subjects 'gabby' without revealing any important information." Investigators justify its use saying that they had taken the court's permission and that it was carried out under the supervision of an expert medical team. That still does not detract from the fact that it was a blatant human rights violation.

Regardless of what methods are used, how much evidence is gathered or how quickly the investigation is wrapped up, whether the truth about the burning of the Sabarmati Express will ever be known is another story. Powerful Hindutva leaders had already written the script on the day of the tragedy itself.

Sequence of events

7-42 a.m.: The train arrives at Godhra station.

7-42 to 7.47 a.m.: During the five-minute halt there is a scuffle between a kar sevak and a Muslim tea vendor.

7-47 a.m.: The train starts from Godhra station, leaving some passengers on the platform.

7-48 a.m.: The train stops after the chain is pulled in four coaches.

7-48 to 8-00 a.m.: There is stone-throwing between passengers on the train and Muslim residents who hide behind the parcel office of Godhra station.

8-00 a.m.: Train starts moving again.

8-05 a.m.: Train stops for the second time near Cabin 'A' of Godhra station.

8-05 to 8-17 a.m.: A group of people come running from the parcel office towards the train and there is more stone-throwing and violence. The coach is set on fire.

8-25 a.m.: The police arrive and open fire to disperse the mob.

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