Glowing embers

Published : Oct 24, 2008 00:00 IST

The Nanavati-Mehta Commission report on the Sabarmati Express fire at Godhra leaves several questions unanswered.

in New Delhi

THE pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in February-May 2002 was purportedly in response to the tragedy at Godhra railway station on February 27, 2002, in which 59 Hindus were charred to death when the Sabarmati Express train they were travelling in caught fire. Establishing the origin of this fire was important in terms of rail safety, and it was more so in terms of communal harmony as some fanatical Muslims of Godhra were alleged to have conspired to set the train on fire.

The State government appointed a commission of inquiry under the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952, on March 6, 2002, to inquire into the facts, circumstances and course of events that led to the setting on fire of some coaches of the Sabarmati Express; of the incidents of violence in the State in the aftermath of the train fire; and the adequacy of the administrative measures taken to prevent and deal with the disturbances in Godhra and elsewhere.

The commission was also entrusted with the responsibility to ascertain whether the train tragedy was pre-planned and whether information was available with the agencies that could have been used to prevent the incident. The terms of reference also required it to inquire into the role and conduct of Chief Minister Narendra Modi, his Council of Ministers and government officials on February 27, 2002, and during the post-Godhra violence.

Initially, Justice K.G. Shah, retired Judge of the Gujarat High Court, headed the Commission, with Justice G.T. Nanavati, former Judge of the Supreme Court, as member. Following the death of Shah on March 22 this year, the government appointed Justice Akshay H. Mehta, also a retired Judge of the Gujarat High Court, as member.

The commission submitted Part I of its report on the Godhra tragedy to the government on September 18. Part II, dealing with the post-Godhra carnage, is likely to be submitted towards the end of this year.

Some of the issues dealt with in the report of the Nanavati-Mehta Commission are similar to those inquired into earlier by the High Level Committee that was set up by the Central government on September 5, 2004, when the United Progressive Alliance came to power. That committee, headed by former Supreme Court Judge U.C. Banerjee, took the assistance of two railway experts in electrical and mechanical engineering and an expert in fire services.

The Banerjee Committees interim report was tabled in Parliament in January 2005. It submitted the final report on March 3, 2006, but the Gujarat High Court restrained the Central government from tabling it in Parliament or acting on the recommendations of the interim report because the court held the view that it might prejudice the findings of the State-appointed commission. The Supreme Court rejected the Central governments appeal against the High Court judgment.

In its interim report, the Banerjee Committee sought to ascertain, among other things, the precise cause of the fire in coach S-6 of Sabarmati Express.

A comparison of the two reports reveals that the Nanavati-Mehta Commission simply sought to corroborate the accounts of the tragedy that were carried in prominent newspapers by speaking to those witnesses whose version they had carried. While doing so, the commission uncritically accepted the statements of the witnesses, without weighing them with standards of scientific proof and understanding.

The Banerjee Committee, too, examined the witnesses who happened to be passengers on the train but subjected their claims to strict scientific scrutiny.

Both reports admitted that the train was overcrowded and that Ramsevaks of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, returning from Ayodhya, were responsible for this. Both reports also confirmed stone-throwing at the train by a mob standing outside, and that passengers suffered injuries.

The Nanavati-Mehta Commission recorded the testimony of several passengers that they had seen people in the mob throwing stones and burning rags into the coach through windows that had been broken. They also claimed to have seen people throwing some liquid that led to the smoke and fire in the coach. At the same time, the commission recorded the testimony of a few witnesses who, even while confirming stone-throwing by the mob outside, denied having seen anyone throwing burning rags from outside or setting the coach on fire.

In paragraph 145, the commission records that it examined some of the passengers to test the veracity of what they had stated before the police, and most of them were Ramsevaks. In paragraph 160, the commission admits that the railway personnel whom it examined as witnesses were independent witnesses. They were the guard Satyanarayan Varma, travelling ticket examiner (TTE) Sajjanlal Raniwal, assistant station master (ASM) Rajendraprasad Meena, and drivers Mukesh Pachori and Rajendrarao. All of them stated that the mob outside the train was hostile and pelted the train with stones but did not say they actually saw it setting the coach on fire.

In paragraph 170, the commission suggests that considering the situation prevailing then, it was highly unlikely that the passengers had any discussion amongst themselves and had decided to give a false version about the attack on the train. The reference here is to the information they gave to Deputy Superintendent of Police Raju Bhargav at about 8.30 a.m. on that day that a mob had attacked the train and many passengers had been injured and killed. The commission also recorded that ASM Meena had inferred that coach S-6 was set on fire by the mob.

In paragraph 185, the commission records the testimony of District Collector Jayanti Ravi as stating that while she was near A Cabin she had not seen Muslim mobs; nor had she heard any announcement from a loudspeaker or shouts such as Islam is in danger or cut the Hindus. She reached the Godhra station immediately after the incident and remained there until 12.40 p.m. when the train left Godhra.

The commission, which has concluded that there was a second attack on the train by the mob between 11 a.m. and 11.45 a.m., as stated by witnesses, could not explain this inconsistency with the Collectors version. It said: She had not remained standing at one place and she was moving from one place to another. Therefore, she might not have seen the mob or heard the announcement. The burning of the coach happened between 8 a.m. and 8.30 a.m.

In paragraph 195, the commission states that it was proved from the evidence of the passengers and ASM Meena that through the open windows (those that were broken), burning rags and bottles filled with inflammable material were thrown inside the coach. They had fallen on the seats and other places and had caused fire and lot of smoke, it says.

However, none of the 14 witnesses the Banerjee Committee examined stated that the mob had set fire to the coaches. It pointed to the report dated May 17, 2002 of the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL), Gujarat, that it was not possible to throw any inflammable fluid into the coach from outside since while doing so most of the fluid would be thrown outside, considering that the window of the coach was around 7 feet (2.13 metres) from the ground.

The FSL had conducted a test with water and concluded that only about 10 to 15 per cent of the water went inside; the rest spilled outside. The Banerjee Committee said: In any event, if it spills outside, there would be a trail and trace of fire on the ground, and obviously, if that be the case, even the person throwing such petrol is likely to be affected.

The FSL concluded that there was no possibility of throwing any inflammable liquid through the door of the coach. On experimentation, it found that at least 60 litres of water was required to cover the coach and that by pouring the water using a wide-mouthed bucket, the water went only towards the west and no part of it came out of the door or go towards the latrine side. The FSL, therefore, concluded that 60 litres of inflammable liquid had indeed been poured towards the western side by using a wide-mouthed container by standing on the passage between the northern side door of the eastern side of the S-6 coach and the compartment of seat No.72 and the coach was set on fire immediately thereafter.

The FSL concluded that no inflammable fluid had been thrown inside from outside the coach. The Banerjee Committee agreed with this finding but found it improbable that any miscreant would enter the coach and pour 60 litres of petrol and have it ignited in the presence of 150 to 200 Ramsevaks.

The Banerjee Committee asked: Is it possible to pour in 60 litres of petrol or other inflammable substance onto the floor of the coach by an outsider when the train did not, in fact, stop and was definitely in motion a situation rather difficult to comprehend, more so, having regard to the overcrowding in coach S-6?

The Nanavati-Mehta Commission does not discuss this aspect at all. Instead, it inferred that there was a conspiracy, and that those who confessed to their crime in their testimonies to the police and the magistrate procured petrol, circulated false rumour, stopped the train and entered coach S-6 to harm the Ramsevaks.

The commission rejects the suggestion that the fire could have broken out as a result of short-circuit in the coach. On the basis of testimonies, the commission also rejects the suggestion that it was likely that a passenger was cooking food or preparing something on a stove and for some reason the stove got overturned and that led to the fire.

The Banerjee Committee, however, believed that this was a possibility, because the train was overcrowded, and 90 per cent of the occupants were Ramsevaks. It recorded a piece of evidence of cooking inside the coach by Ramsevaks on their way to Ayodhya. Its report cited other possible instances such as careless smoking and the throwing of cigarette butts without extinguishing them.

According to the Banerjee Committee, the fire could have been an accidental one which engulfed the coir, the foam and the latex used to make the berths and the luggage of the passengers, and was not a deliberate attempt.

Significantly, even as the Nanavati-Mehta Commission claims that the Part I report focussed on the Godhra tragedy, its clean chit to Modi, in the concluding paragraph, is sure to raise eyebrows about its purported objectivity. It states: There is absolutely no evidence to show that either the Chief Minister and/or any other Minister(s) in his Council of Ministers or Police Officers had played any role in the Godhra incident or that there was any lapse on their part in the matter of providing protection, relief and rehabilitation to the victims of communal riots or in the matter of not complying with the recommendations and directions given by the National Human Rights Commission.

It is intriguing that the commission, which will go into this issue in-depth in Part II of its report, found it too compelling to reveal its conclusion alone in Part I. In Paragraph 18, the commission says: We have now completed the scrutiny of the material in respect of the post-Godhra incidents. Even after consideration thereof, we do not find anything therein establishing any connection between them and burning of coach S-6 of Sabarmati Express train at Godhra, and therefore, we have thought it fit to submit our report in respect of the Godhra incident now, without waiting for completion of the report regarding the post-Godhra incidents.

This indeed turns upside down the popular perception that the post-Godhra carnage against Muslims was carried out by Hindu fundamentalists in response to the alleged role of Muslims in burning the Sabarmati Express at Godhra.

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