The Central Review Committee's ruling rejecting the charges of conspiracy under the POTA against the accused in the Godhra case corroborates the interim findings of the U.C. Banerjee Committee.
ON May 16, Justice S.C. Jain, the Chairman of the Central Review Committee on the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), gave a ruling that is unlikely to please the hawks in the Sangh Parivar. His decision in State vs Mohammad Ansari Kutbuddin Ansari & Others relating to the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra on February 27, 2002, corroborates the interim findings of the U.C. Banerjee committee, released on the eve of the Bihar Assembly elections three months ago. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) then dismissed the interim report as a gimmick resorted to by Railway Minister and former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad to woo minority votes in Bihar and questioned the timing of its release.
The Banerjee Committee was set up after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government came to power last year. The Committee found that the Godhra incident was an accident and it could not have been the result of a conspiracy.
The BJP, which has been justifying the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 as a reaction to the Godhra conspiracy, probably felt that the findings, if sustained by facts, would turn pubic opinion against the party, which is seen as responsible for the pogrom. The Narenda Modi-led BJP government was in power in Gujarat during the pogrom.
The Central Review Committee on POTA was set up in accordance with the provisions of POTA, enacted by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, which intended it as a safeguard against the arbitrary use of the Act against innocent persons. Therefore, its decision is seen to carry greater objectivity and legitimacy than the findings of commissions of Inquiry set up by governments.
Following the Godhra incident, the Gujarat government filed its first charge-sheet in the trial court on May 22, 2002. On further investigation and after the arrest of some accused persons, supplementary charge-sheets were filed. In these charge-sheets, 90 persons were named as accused. While in the first charge-sheet they were charged with offences under the Indian Penal Code, the Indian Railways Act, the Prevention of Damage of Public Properties Act and the Bombay Police Act, in the supplementary charge-sheets the prosecution invoked POTA and mentioned that a conspiracy was hatched on the night before the Godhra incident.
The prosecution theory ran as follows: On learning about the return of kar sevaks from Ayodhya by train, a core group of conspirators purchased petrol in 20-litre-carboys from a petrol pump (which is named) at about 9 p.m. on February 26, 2002, and kept the tempo carrying the petrol behind a guest house. Later, these carboys were shifted to the home of one of the accused. Late in the night, these conspirators met their co-accused and claimed that they had already met Maulavi Hussain Hazi Ibrahim Umerji, a local businessman and social worker, who ordered that coach S-6 of Sabarmati Express coming from Ayodhya be set on fire.
The prosecution further claimed that the following morning, when the train arrived at Godhra at 7-43 a.m., kar sevaks raised slogans while alighting from the train to have tea and breakfast, and had altercations with tea hawkers. One of them tried to tease a Muslim girl who, along with her mother and sister, ran to the booking office situated nearby. Taking advantage of it, one of the accused, Salim Panwala, raised the alarm with a view to stop the train for more time and gathered Muslim hawkers. As another accused ran towards the end of the platform and shouted, more people from his community gathered at the station as well as near the parcel office.
Meanwhile, the train started, the prosecution went on. Panwala falsely shouted that kar sevaks were beating the people of his community and were abducting a Muslim girl inside the train. With a mala fide intention, he incited, misled and pressured three hawkers, got the emergency chain pulled by them, and got the train stopped on the platform.
According to the prosecution, Muslim mobs of Signal Falia and surrounding areas then formed an unlawful assembly and started pelting the stationary train with stones. The train again began moving. Panwala and others again incited three hawkers to board the running train and pull the emergency chain near "A" cabin. As the train stopped, they ran and picked up the carboys filled with petrol from the home of another accused, went inside S-6, poured the petrol from the carboys into the coach, and went out of the door. Some people made a hole near the lid on the upper side of the carboy from outside and poured petrol from the broken windows. One person lit rags, pushed them inside the coach by means of a stick and thereby set the coach on fire. Others chased passengers who escaped from the burning coach, and even intercepted and stopped the fire-fighters of the Godhra Municipality, the prosecution said.
THE committee noted that in the first charge-sheet, POTA was not invoked. From the averments made in it, it appeared to the committee that the root cause of the incident was an altercation that the kar sevaks had with a tea hawker who belonged to the Muslim community. The theory of conspiracy was added in the supplementary charge-sheet.
The committee pointed out that there were some accused who were members of the core group, which allegedly hatched the conspiracy, while the other accused were members of the mob that had collected spontaneously on hearing that persons from the Muslim community were beaten up and that a Muslim girl was being abducted. It held that on the basis of the prosecution's own version, it was quite clear that the crowd had assembled in the first instance in response to the panic cry and not as part of a conspiracy.
The committee further found that weapons such as rods and dharias had been recovered from the members of the mob but that no attempt had been made by them to use these weapons to kill passengers, which indicated that the mob was not part of the alleged conspiracy to set on fire coach S6 and kill passengers. "In the absence of any evidence and inference that the mob was privy to the alleged conspiracy and it acted to further its objective, it cannot be said that the mob members are liable to be proceeded against under the provisions of POTA," it held.
The committee then demolished the very theory of conspiracy among the core-accused on the basis of the prosecution's case itself as follows: "Had there been any conspiracy in existence, the passengers travelling in coach S6 would not have been allowed to disembark the compartment for taking tea and breakfast. The crowd along with inflammable material, which was to be used for burning coach S6, would have been present at the platform itself in front of coach S6, keeping in view the short duration of the halt of the train at Godhra railway station. The assembly of the crowd, which according to the prosecution itself were members of the conspiracy, was initially in front of coach S2 and not in front of S6, which was conspired to be burnt. Had there been any prior conspiracy to burn coach S6, the said coach would have been surrounded by the conspirators from all the sides but the prosecution version itself shows otherwise. The offside of the coach was left open and the passengers alighted from that side of the compartment."
The committee found that there was no evidence to suggest that the so-called conspiracy was allegedly hatched with an intent to threaten the unity, integrity, security or sovereignty of India or to strike terror in the people or any section of the people to qualify as a terrorist act, as defined under Sub-section 1(a) of Section 3 of POTA.
The committee thus directed the Public Prosecutor representing the State of Gujarat in the trial court that he should file the appropriate application before the court seeking withdrawal of POTA charges against the accused. The decision of the committee is binding on the Prosecutor as well as the trial court.
Following the POTA Review Committee's decision to exclude POTA, the Special Court in Godhra now has to continue the trial of the accused for the remaining offences.