Not Forget Godhra
22 August, 2004
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.