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India@75

2002: Godhra riots

Print edition : Aug 25, 2022 T+T-

2002: Godhra riots

Mob goes on the rampage in Ahmedabad on February 28, 2002, a day after at least 58 people were killed in a fire in the Sabarmati Express near the outer signal of the Godhra station. 

Mob goes on the rampage in Ahmedabad on February 28, 2002, a day after at least 58 people were killed in a fire in the Sabarmati Express near the outer signal of the Godhra station.  | Photo Credit: AP

It is considered India’s worst riot since Partition.

At 7.42 a.m. on February 27, 2002, the Sabarmati Express pulled into the station at Godhra. Among the passengers were karsevaks returning from Ayodhya. Apparently, a fight broke out between them and some Muslim tea sellers on the Godhra platform. As the train pulled away, someone pulled the emergency brake cord when it was passing through what was primarily a Muslim neighbourhood.

Apparently, a Muslim mob attacked the train at this point. Two carriages were burnt, killing 58 passengers, who it was claimed were mainly karsevaks but later reports did not bear this out.

The incident resulted in State-wide riots in Gujarat that lasted seven days, leaving over a 1,000 dead and more than a lakh in refugee homes. The victims were primarily Muslims and the attackers Hindus. It is considered India’s worst riot since Partition.

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At the time, the BJP was faring poorly in Gujarat electoral politics. In 2001, it had lost the gram panchayat elections as well as three Assembly byelections. In October 2001, the old BJP war horse, Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, had been summarily replaced with Narendra Modi.

Godhra happened four months later. Chief Minister Modi has been criticised for maintaining a studied silence through the one week of violence and bloodletting. Soon afterwards, Modi asked that the Assembly election scheduled for April 2003 be brought forward to June 2002. The Election Commission partially obliged and scheduled the elections for December 2002.

It was the BJP’s second term in Gujarat and it still had to prove itself. Modi had three things going for him—a reasonably strong support base, an Opposition that had not gathered itself after losing the 1995 elections, and the inflamed post-Godhra sentiments raging in the State.

The BJP won. But the anti-Muslim fires were kept burning with at least 20 purported encounter killings. Modi stayed Chief Minister of the State until 2014 and his ability to win elections made him the poster boy of the BJP. The “Gujarat Model” of development also became a byword in popular discourse. After that, Delhi was the obvious destination.

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Several people came forward to give testimony about the government’s alleged involvement. These included Sanjiv Bhatt, Teesta Setalvad, and R.B. Sreekumar. All three are currently under arrest on charges of fabricating evidence after a Supreme Court verdict in June 2022 specifically named them.