The mystery of the Godhra fire

Print edition : March 28, 2003

A year after the Godhra tragedy, the mystery behind the fire on the Sabarmati Express remains unsolved, despite attempts by investigators and State officials to prove the claims made by the Narendra Modi government.

in Godhra

The interior of the burnt S6 coach of the Sabarmati Express, on the first anniversary of its burning. The coach has not been shifted from Godhra railway station.-

"It (burning of the Sabarmati Express) was a pre-planned act. The culprits will have to pay for it. It was not communal violence. It was a violent, one-sided, collective act by only one community."

- Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, in a press statement made during his visit to Godhra on February 27, 2002.

AFTER Narendra Modi pronounced this verdict, the Godhra incident was used to carry out a retaliatory pogrom, in which more than 1,000 Muslims were killed. Modi then manipulated the public sympathy and sense of insecurity generated in the post-Godhra phase to engineer a landslide election victory. Yet, a year after the incident, how the S6 compartment of the train actually caught fire, killing 59 people, remains a mystery.

Investigators are zealously trying to prove Modi right. Desperately trying to corroborate Modi's statement with evidence, the Special Investigation Team (SIT) has arrested 75 people. With every new arrest and with every new charge-sheet filed, the SIT's story keeps changing. The latest twist in the tale is the decision to charge the 123 accused in the Godhra case under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). The decision was taken after the arrest of Maulana Hussain Umerji from his home in Signal Falia, Godhra, on February 6. Umerji's arrest has bolstered the SIT's conspiracy theory.

Investigators allege that Umerji masterminded the plan to torch the train. "We have evidence that a core group of around 15 to 20 people were involved in the conspiracy. Umerji gave them instructions to torch S6," says Rakesh Asthana, who heads the SIT.

Charging the accused under POTA would make it easier for the prosecution to prove its case. Only under POTA are confessional statements recorded by the Superintendent of Police admissible in a court of law. Moreover, POTA allows investigators to use electronic interception devices such as telephone tapping and videography.

Umerji was arrested after a known criminal, Zabir bin Yameen Behra, deposed against him before the Chief Judicial Magistrate in Godhra. Umerji's arrest created panic. The Muslim community in Godhra observed a bandh for five days. Umerji is a respected social worker and a businessman. Human rights groups have also supported Umerji, who was actively involved in social and relief work during the riots and also during the Kutch earthquake. Many relief committee organisers have stopped work, fearing that they will also be targeted.

The other main conspirator, according to the SIT, is Razak Kurkur, who allegedly heads a local criminal gang involved in crimes on trains. "They stored, in his Aman Guest House, around 140 litres of petrol that was used to torch the train," says Asthana. "The actual operation was conducted by six people who cut open the vestibule and opened the closed doors of the compartment, poured the petrol, lit the fire and jumped out. Zabir, who testified against Umerji, is one of those who entered the train."

However, there are holes in the SIT's story. How did the accused get 140 litres of petrol into the train in such a short span of time? Not one of the witnesses saw people pouring any fluid down the aisle. Not one of the railway officials present saw anyone enter the compartment. Is it possible that the petrol was already stored inside the compartment? "We have ruled out that possibility since the owner of a local petrol pump said he sold the petrol to Kurkur the day before," says Asthana. What was the motivation for the attack? The SIT chief says he still does not have an explanation for that.

Chief Minister Narendra Modi and his entourage examine the burnt coach shortly after the incident.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Previous attempts by the SIT to prove the involvement of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) have fallen flat. After the police initially arrested Haji Bilal, an independent corporator, as one of the key accused, they claimed that he had a second passport, using which he travelled to Pakistan. But they were unable to come up with any fake passport or evidence of an ISI link. Earlier, Mohammed Hussain Kalota was named as one of the main accused in the case. Now, the SIT does not consider him part of the main group of 20 `core conspirators', but as a leader of the mob. Two SIMI activists, Hasseb Raza and Firdaus Ansari, were arrested and it was claimed that they were both in touch with Kalota and Bilal and were on the railway platform on February 27. They were released after the police found no evidence against them. Now, all that the SIT has to cling on to is the `local conspiracy' theory.

The judicial commission appointed by the State government to look into the Godhra incident and its aftermath has just finished hearings on the Godhra incident. The sequence of events, as indicated by the testimonies of witnesses, is as follows:

7-42 a.m.: The Sabarmati Express arrives at Godhra station. Some Ram sevaks get down to buy tea and snacks from platform vendors. An argument ensues between a Muslim vendor and the Ram sevaks over the payment for the tea.

7-47 a.m.: Train departs from Godhra. While getting on to the train, the Ram sevaks try to pull into the compartment a girl standing on the platform with her mother. But she manages to pull away from them.

7-48 a.m.: The chain is pulled, as many Ram sevaks were still left on the platform. Stone-throwing starts between the Ram sevaks and local Muslims, who have gathered behind the Parcel Office.

8 a.m.: The train starts.

8-05 a.m.: The train stops again, owing to pulling of the vacuum brakes. Local Muslims, armed with weapons, rush to catch up with the train. They collect in separate groups outside the compartment. They start throwing stones and shouting slogans. Coach S6 catches fire.

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

Several passengers reported that they were harassed by Ram sevaks throughout the journey. The latter travelled ticketless and took over the reserved compartments, packing them to thrice their capacity. They threw out ticket checkers who attempted to enter the compartment. At every station, they shouted aggressive anti-Muslim slogans. At Godhra station, they refused to let a passenger buy tea from a Muslim vendor and pushed him out of the coach, while abusing him.

Sophiya Sheikh (18), a resident of Vadodara, was on the platform waiting for the train along with her mother and sister. They saw the Ram sevaks get off the train. One of them grabbed Sophiya from behind, put his hand over her mouth and dragged her towards the train. He let go after her mother screamed for help. Sophiya's statement has been recorded and attached in the second police charge-sheet.

Statements by local officials who deposed before the commission suggest that the Godhra incident occurred after a spontaneous fight between local Muslims and Ram sevaks travelling on the Sabarmati Express. Assistant Station Master Rajendraprasad Mina testified that no crowd was waiting for the train to stop. The crowd gathered after the train stopped for the second time. He said the mob did not arrive together. Groups of 10 to 15 persons gathered, including women and children. Mohan Yadav, a Railway Police constable at Godhra, said that he did not see any suspicious movement throughout the route between the `A' cabin and his office before the arrival of the train. Raju Bhargava, the Police Superintendent of Panchmahal district, said that when he arrived, he saw passengers sitting on the tracks and many Ram sevaks with saffron scarves were shouting anti-Muslim slogans.

Bhargava said passengers were injured on the upper part of their bodies. This raises questions about the SIT theory that petrol was poured through the aisle of the coach. If the petrol had been poured down the aisle, the fire would have spread from bottom up, injuring people on the lower part of their bodies. Moreover, Bhargava also said that he did not smell any inflammable fuel such as petrol, diesel or kerosene. While several witnesses have been brought before the commission, it is puzzling why Asthana, who is leading the SIT investigation, has not been called to testify.

Although the forensic laboratory report concludes that the fire started from inside with at least 60 litres of petrol, others feel that the report is based more on conjecture than on proof. "There is no evidence of fluid fire," says Mukul Sinha, human rights lawyer for the Jan Sangharsh Manch. "All the victims were injured on the upper part of their bodies. None were injured on their feet. Nawab Singh Chowdhry, a Railway Police Force inspector, has also testified that he put out a part of the fire with water. An expert in fire fighting, Chowdhry has also said that oil fires are not extinguished with water. This proves that the coach did not burn because of a petrol fire," according to Sinha. However, both the SIT's evidence and the forensic laboratory reports state that petrol was used.

The manner in which the main evidence was handled also raises questions. Several people, including Chief Minister Modi, State Home Minister Gordhan Zadafia and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Dr. Jaideep Patel, along with media crew and VHP volunteers, were allowed inside the compartment before the forensic tests were done or the first information report (FIR) was filed. Anyone could have tampered with the evidence. The compartment should have been sealed until police investigations were completed. In fact, Dr Jaideep Patel had boasted to this correspondent that he entered the burnt compartment even before the police did. Can evidence collected after the coach was tampered with be admitted as evidence in the court?

Even today, the S6 coach lies at the far corner of the Godhra railway station. It has become some kind of tourist landmark, attracting visitors from nearby towns.

The investigation into the Godhra incident throws up more questions than answers. The SIT's story has some gaps that are not adequately explained. With the Modi government keen to portray itself as being tough on terrorists, the truth of what really happened at Godhra may never be known.

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