22 August 2004

Let's not forget Godhra

Let's Not Forget Godhra

By Siddharth Varadarajan

22 August, 2004
The Hindu

When the Gujarat police arrested former tea vendor Usman Abdul Gani "Coffeewala" earlier this month, the Special Investigating Team probing the incident in which 58 persons were killed outside the Godhra station two years ago, described him, rather predictably, as a "key accused" in the case.

For the record, Coffeewala is now the 18th "key accused" in the case, allegedly a crucial part of the improbably large "inner circle" that hatched a "jihadi conspiracy" to kill activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad a few days before the Sabarmati Express pulled into Godhra on the morning of February 27, 2002.

Among the others to have merited the "key accused" status are Haji Bilal, Shoaib Yusuf Kalandar, Muhammad Hussain Kalota, Salim Jarda, Salim Panwala, Suleiman, Farooq Bhana, Nanhe Mian from Rampur, Mohammad Hanif Bhatuk, Razzaq Kurkur, Abdul Sattar Qalandar, Zabir bin Yamin Behra and Maulana Hussein Umerji. A total of 121 men, all Muslims, have been charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for their role in the Godhra incident. Of these, 94 are already in custody.

For the Sangh Parivar, Godhra is where it all began — the spark that lit the fire which ended up taking the lives of as many as 2,000 Muslims.

Investigation incomplete

But for all the emotional and political capital the Bharatiya Janata Party has invested in the Godhra incident, the Narendra Modi Government's investigation into the circumstances leading to the death by fire and asphyxiation of 58 passengers — many of whom were VHP members or supporters — has not got very far.

Two years on, the police cannot offer a credible account of how coach S-6 caught fire. They are clueless about what flammable substance caused the death and destruction that morning. And their description of the events simply does not square with the evidence that is accumulating before the Nanavati Commission of Inquiry.

Indeed the deliberate politicisation of the incident has led to the sacrificing of conventional investigative techniques.

Questions and leads raised by forensic evidence (that the flammable liquid could not have been thrown in from outside, for instance) and eyewitness testimonies are being ignored.

Is this just in case the investigation ends up deviating too much from the official script?

Which is of a "conspiracy" that was "pre-planned" to such an extent that three days before the Sabarmati Express left Faizabad, Maulana Umerji was able to divine that the ticketless kar sevaks would be boarding S-6 and no other coach.

Consider some of these contradictions:

After Coffeewala's arrest on August 4, police Sub-Inspector R.G. Patel said "he is a very important catch for us as he was a member of the group of people which assaulted the S-6 coach when it was being torched. These people had attacked the coach with lathis, spears and stones, thereby not allowing people to come out of the bogie."

But Raju Bishankumar Bhargava, who was Superintendent of Police in Godhra at the time, told the Nanavati Commission, inter alia: "I did not see any person from the Muslim community preventing the passengers in S-6 and S-7 from coming out of the coaches ... No passenger complained that he or she was stopped from coming out of those coaches."

The police say several of the "key accused" entered coach S-6 "forcibly" by breaking open the "back entrance" to S-6 and pouring petrol on the floor of the coach. But Maheshbhai, a VHP member from Dhanodia Vas in Mehsana district, told the Nanavati Commission: "While I had jumped out (of S-6) and fallen on the ground, I was not beaten by anybody ... Before jumping out of the coach I did not see any fluid on the floor of the coach near the place where I was sitting. While I was inside the coach, I did not see any flames." Savitaben of Manipur village, Mehsana, testified: "I did not see any person coming inside the coach from outside and pouring any fluid ... "

Another S-6 passenger, Babubhai Patel of Gamanpura, Mehsana district, testified: "I did not see any person in Muslim dress or with beard inside the coach. Nor did I see any such Muslim rushing inside the coach."

"I came out through the window of the third cubicle," said Dwarkabhai, also of Gamanpura. "The smoke was coming from the rear end of the coach. Till I came out of the coach, I did not see any flames. As long as I was inside the coach, I did not notice any fluid being poured inside the coach. I did not see any person sprinkling any fluid or putting fire on the coach setting the coach afire ... "

Based on eyewitness testimony, what is indisputable is that a mob consisting of residents from the nearby Muslim locality of Signal Falia, as well as individuals who might have run after the train from the station, stoned S-6. Several passengers also testified that burning rags were flung at the coach.

That this assault took place in the context of a running battle with some VHP members is also suggested by the testimony of Mohan Jagdish Yadav, an RPF constable on duty. He told the Commission about passengers and "outsiders" throwing stones at one another while the Sabarmati Express was on the platform.

Some questions

If the eyewitness testimony is correct and no one from the mob boarded the train to pour petrol or any other flammable liquid, how did the fire start? Could the burning rags have ignited the fire, a possibility that the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) report discounts? And what accounts for the thick, black, acrid smoke which many S-6 passengers remember more than the fire? Is there a design flaw in the construction of Indian railcars that makes them fire prone? Was some flammable material already present in the coach, like gas or kerosene, which caught fire inadvertently? Was there an agent provocateur on board bent on causing maximum damage?

Instead of asking these questions, the SIT is insisting on going ahead with its conspiracy theory. Even if a POTA court convicts many of those accused — on the basis of confessions by approvers such as Zabir bin Yamin Behra — of taking part in the attack on S-6, if not being part of the "jihadi conspiracy," the overall evidence is so contradictory that these convictions are likely to get vacated on appeal.

As time elapses, it will become more and more difficult to launch a thorough, objective and scientific investigation into the Godhra incident. A dedicated commission of inquiry, a CBI investigation and a criminal trial outside Gujarat are some of the options that need to be considered seriously.

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