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Guilty verdict

Print edition : Mar 25, 2011 T+T-
The burnt coach and belongings of kar sevaks at Godhra railway station in the early hours of the day after the incident.-SEBASTIAN D'SOUZA/AFP

The burnt coach and belongings of kar sevaks at Godhra railway station in the early hours of the day after the incident.-SEBASTIAN D'SOUZA/AFP

A special court in Ahmedabad rules that the Godhra train-burning incident was a pre-planned attack.

NINE years after a fire on the Sabarmati Express at the Godhra railway station triggered a communal pogrom in Gujarat, a special court in Ahmedabad delivered a judgment that has pleased the Narendra Modi government in the State.

On February 22, Justice P.R. Patel ruled that the train fire was the result of a conspiracy. He convicted 31 of the 94 persons arrested on charges of being involved in the incident. Of the 31, he sentenced 11 to death and awarded the remaining 20 life sentences. Curiously, among the 63 acquitted was Maulana Hussein Umarji, who was accused of being among the main conspirators. He was set free owing to lack of evidence.

While the prosecution has described it as a fair ruling, defence lawyers and several activists are appalled by the severity of the punishment. They believe that the investigation was never done in a fair manner. In fact, they claim that there was never enough evidence to convict those arrested.

The judgment is important, say activists, as the Godhra incident triggered the worst communal riots in India since Partition. Close to 1,200 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in riots that erupted all over Gujarat following the fire in coach S6 of the Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002. The case was that the coach, full of kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya, was burnt by a mob at Godhra station as part of a conspiracy. Fifty-nine people died in the incident.

One theory put forward during the course of the investigation by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) was that the conspiracy was hatched by elements from across the border or by Islamist terror groups. Sources in the agency told Frontline that there was substantive evidence to prove this. However, the main conspirators were never arrested. Another theory has been that it was a spontaneous riot fuelled by an altercation between kar sevaks and Muslim vendors at Godhra station. The Modi government has always maintained that it was a pre-planned attack.

Upholding the conspiracy theory, Justice Patel said that the conspiracy was hatched on the night of February 26, 2002, at the Aman Guest House in Gujarat, where a group of men, who are believed to be in Pakistan now, plotted the burning of the coach carrying the kar sevaks. Informed sources say his conclusion was largely based on statements by Jabir Behra, who participated in the meeting, and on those of a few witnesses who saw a group entering coach S6 and pouring petrol in it and setting it on fire. The statements of two men who apparently sold 140 litres of petrol in cans the night before to some of the accused also influenced the judgment.

While announcing the quantum of sentence on March 1, Justice Patel termed the case rarest of rare and awarded capital punishment to Bilal Ismail Abdul Majid Sujela alias Bilal Haji, Abdul Razak Mohammad Kurkur, Ramjani Binyamin Behra, Hasan Ahmed Charkha alias Lalu, Jabir Binyamin Behra, Mehboob Khalid Chanda, Salim alias Salman Yusuf Sattar Zarda, Siraj Mohammad Abdul Meda alias Bala, Irfan Abdul Majid Ganchi Kalandar alias Irfan Bhopo, Irfan Mohammad Hanifabdul Gani Pataliya and Mehbub Ahmed Yusuf Hasan alias Latiko. All of them had either reportedly participated in the meeting or played a role in the torching of the coach.

The 850-page judgment, of which only the operative part is available at present, includes scientific evidence, statements of approximately 253 witnesses, and over 1,500 pieces of circumstantial, oral and documentary evidence. According to the judge, the conspiracy ruling naturally took all of this into consideration.

The trial, which was conducted inside the Sabarmati Central Jail, began in June 2009. Informed sources say 134 accused persons were cross-examined. Of them, 14 were released owing to lack of evidence and five because they were juvenile. Five died during the nine years of the trial, and 16 are absconding.

According to the judgment, five of the accused Ayub Patalia, Irfan Kalandar, Mehboob Popa, Shaukat Patalia and Siddique Vohra broke open the vestibule between coaches S6 and S7 and entered S6, in which kar sevaks belonging to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were travelling, poured a sizable quantity of petrol, and set the coach aflame. The group had bought the petrol from a petrol station the previous night and were prepared for the attack. Clearly, a certain amount of planning was there behind the incident, which leads up to the conspiracy conclusion, says the judgment.

The accused have been convicted under Sections 147, 148 (rioting with deadly weapons), 323, 324, 325, 326 (causing hurt) and 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on religious grounds) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), various sections of the Indian Railways Act, the Prevention of Damages to Public Property Act and the Bombay Police Act.

Reactions

One of the defence lawyers, I.M. Munshi, told mediapersons that it was unfortunate that the court made the judgment on the basis of the statements of a few witnesses. The court apparently relied on the statements of Ajay Baria, a tea vendor at the Godhra station platform, and Sikandar Mohammad, another witness. The two had reportedly heard the commotion and also seen the accused pouring petrol into the coach and setting it on fire. The testimonies of the petrol pump employees were also taken seriously. Munshi says the statements of the latter set of witnesses were recorded a year after the incident, and were, in all likelihood, extracted by the police. Earlier they had denied any involvement as they feared they would be arrested for breaking the law for selling petrol illegally.

The only confessional statement came from Jabir Behra, who claimed he had participated in the guest house meeting and in the attack. He later retracted his statement. Therefore, the defence argues that his statements lack credibility. Teesta Setalvad, who has been at the forefront of the fight for justice in Gujarat, says: Though a fully reasoned response to the outcome awaits the full text of the Godhra mass arson verdict, the fact that charges of conspiracy have been upheld even as the main conspirators are acquitted suggests that many aspects of official and unofficial, forensic and oral testimonies have been ignored.

The State of Gujarat, first through its police and then the SIT, heavily influenced the investigation and prosecution from day one when the Chief Minister, without awaiting a probe, declared that the burning alive of 59 persons was the result of a cross-border terror plot. As shocking has been the SIT's special prosecutor arguing for the death penalty for all 31 convicted, which suggests a vindictiveness in the prosecution. Worst of all is the fact that 63 persons were acquitted after having spent nine years in jail without bail when the post-Godhra massacre accused roam free in their areas. Why has the judge not granted them effective compensation for loss of personal liberty, and ordered an inquiry and prosecution of all officials responsible for their wrongful and malicious confinement?

History of the probe

The Godhra investigation has seen several ups and downs, particularly on whether the incident was pre-planned or spontaneous.

Initial investigations in 2003 led the SIT to conclude that it was a planned conspiracy rather than a spontaneous reaction. It was Jabir Behra and his confessional statement that played a key role in this conclusion. Behra is said to have given details to the police of how the plan was hatched, the meeting at the guest house, the purchase of petrol, and how he entered the coach. Jabir later retracted his testimony, saying the police forced him to depose before the court. He also allegedly said Maulana Umarji knew that the train was carrying kar sevaks and had orchestrated the attack that night. The Maulana was arrested.

These findings were questioned by a Central Review Committee on the Prevention of Terrorism Act as well as by the lawyers of the accused, who believed the actions of the Muslim mob were in all likelihood spontaneous. In 2005, a panel set up by the Indian Railways and led by Justice U.C. Banerjee stated that the fire was an accident and not a deliberate act. The Gujarat High Court ruled that the Banerjee Commission was illegal and unconstitutional.

Nanavati-Shah Commission

Earlier, in 2002, a commission headed by Justices G.T. Nanavati and K.G. Shah looked into the Godhra and post-Godhra incidents and concluded that the incident was not an accident but the coach was indeed set on fire by a mob. However, they said, the events that led up to the burning had to be closely examined before conclusions were drawn.

Media as well as investigation reports say that the Sabarmati Express had pulled into Godhra station at 7-43 a.m. on February 27, 2002. There was an altercation between the kar sevaks travelling on the train and some Muslim vendors on the platform. A rumour spread that a Muslim girl had been abducted by the kar sevaks. After the train pulled out of the station and had run a kilometre, one of the passengers was apparently told about the kidnapping and he pulled the chain to stop the train. This was when an armed mob came charging and allegedly set the coach on fire eventually burning the coach and killing 59 people.

Defence lawyers say there are dozens of inconsistencies in the structure of events, which caused problems in the investigation. For instance, none of the witnesses talks about the mob. They believe the SIT's conclusions were based more on conjecture than on proof.

Over the years, there have been heartrending stories of the plight of families whose kin have been in jail for allegedly participating in the Godhra massacre. Many are reportedly innocent but were picked up because the police needed to show they were doing their job. It can only be hoped that none of them will be sent to the gallows.