Still a burning question

Print edition : February 11, 2005

Justice U.C. Banerjee inspecting the burnt coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra in September 2004. -

The Justice Banerjee Committee's rejection of the Gujarat Police's conspiracy theory in the February 2002 Sabarmati Express burning case raises a political storm.

ON February 27, 2002, Ishaq Mohammed Mamdu (30) was at his home in Godhra, Gujarat, when he heard about the fire that burned a coach of the Sabarmati Express when it stopped at the Godhra railway station early that morning. Ishaq, who is visually impaired, stayed indoors when the curfew orders were passed. Otherwise, he would have, as usual, helped his brother Shabbir in his scrap business. Two months after the fire and the riots that followed, the police barged into Ishaq's house and arrested him under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) for his role in the conspiracy to burn the train. Ishaq continues to be in jail as his bail applications have been rejected. His mother died of shock and tension.

Not only Ishaq but the entire Muslim community was blamed for the Godhra tragedy. The Sangh Parivar used the incident to launch a pogrom against Muslims in the State, during which more than 1,000 people were killed and 150,000 were rendered homeless. Almost three years after the Godhra blaze, the Justice U.C. Banerjee high-level committee, appointed by the Union Cabinet to look into the cause of the fire, has found no proof of the "terrorist conspiracy" that Ishaq and several others were supposedly part of. The train caught fire accidentally, it concluded.

The Banerjee report is the first government response that contradicts the findings of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the Gujarat Police. What does this mean for the 104 persons accused of being terrorists? For now nothing more than a moral vindication. The committee, which was formed by the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre, has no legal powers. It has merely submitted its interim report to the Railway Ministry. It was Railway Minister Lalu Prasad who initiated the inquiry into the incident.

Soon after Justice Banerjee released his report, the SIT called a press conference to reiterate its conspiracy theory. "We have evidence that a core group of around 15 to 20 people were involved in the conspiracy," said Rakesh Asthana, who heads the SIT. He maintains that the plan to torch the train was masterminded during meetings at the Aman Guest House, owned by Razak Kurkur, who allegedly heads a local criminal gang involved in railway crimes. The police say that 140 litres of petrol were also stored in the guesthouse. According to the SIT investigation, the actual operation was conducted by six people, who cut open the vestibule and entered the coach, opened the doors of the compartment and poured 120 litres of petrol (each person supposedly carried a 20-litre jerry can) before jumping out. Then, burning rags were thrown into the compartments through the windows. The SIT's main evidence is a court confession by Zabir Bin Yameen Behra, one of those who allegedly entered coach S-6. Behra first gave details of how the plan was hatched. Later, he went back on the testimony, saying the police forced him to depose before the court.

The Banerjee committee has rejected the SIT's conspiracy theory. It rules out the possibility of any inflammable liquid being responsible for the fire, as there was first a smell of burning and then a smoke and flames, which would not be the case if inflammable fluid were used. "The inflammable liquid theory gets negated by the statement of some of the passengers who suffered injuries on the upper portion of the body and not the lower body and who crawled towards the door on elbows and could get out without much injury," says the Banerjee report. "The committee has found it unbelievable that kar sevaks (to the extent of 90 per cent of the total occupants) armed with trishuls would allow themselves to be burned by miscreant activity like a person entering S-6 coach from outside and setting it on fire."

The committee also dismissed the "miscreant theory". It ruled out the possibility that the fire could have ignited after a fight erupted between the kar sevaks and hawkers at the Godhra station, or that the hawkers gathered a mob that threw stones and burning rags at the kar sevaks inside coach S-6. "The committee has noted the forensic laboratory's experiment and verified its conclusion that it was impossible to set fire to the train from outside," Banerjee concluded. Eliminating the "petrol theory", the "miscreant theory" and the possibility of an electrical fire, the committee said that the burning was an "accidental fire". But it gave no reason why it could have been an "accidental fire".

Moreover, it seems to have ignored the fact that a fight did flare up at the station platform, that it continued when the train stopped twice a few minutes after it pulled out of the station and that a huge mob that had gathered hurled stones and burning rags at the coach. The committee believes that a fire happened "accidentally" when the fracas occurred at the same location.

Its report also highlights the failings of the railway administration. It has criticised the entire hierarchy of the Western Railway for pre-judging the case by describing the fire as "miscreant activity" without even conducting a preliminary inquiry. Even later, no statutory inquiry into the fire was carried out. Neither the Railway Minister nor any members of the Board visited the site of the accident or the injured passengers. Moreover, the railway administration did not try to preserve the evidence: The S-7 coach, despite some damage to it, was allowed to travel onward to Ahmedabad, although it was a crucial piece of evidence.

Lalu Prasad is accused of using the committee's report in his electoral battle against the BJP and the Sangh Parivar in Bihar. These saffron groups had labelled the Godhra tragedy a conspiracy by Islamic terrorists and used it to build up pre-election Hindutva fervour and carry out revenge killings across Gujarat in 2002. On the day of the incident, the VHP had made a public statement demanding "Blood for Blood".

A question that remains unanswered is: Even if the Godhra fire was a terrorist conspiracy and not an accident, does it justify the state-sponsored violence that followed?

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