The Godhra Verdict: The Conspiracy Theory
By Ashish Khetan
27 February, 2011
If there was a “conspiracy” in Godhra, it was not by the Muslims. Ashish Khetan picks apart Judge Patel’s verdict and shows how a devious lie was constructed
The horrific burning of 59 Hindus in coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra on 27 February 2002 and the deadly Muslim pogrom that followed is one of the worst ruptures in recent Indian history. It is imperative, therefore, to understand the flawed nature of the verdict on the Godhra carnage that was handed out by Judge PR Patel on 22 February 2011.
This verdict has far-reaching implications. Over the past few days, the media has been reporting how the verdict upholds the idea that the carnage at Godhra was a premeditated conspiracy. But the facts are much more complicated. And darker. There was indeed a conspiracy: but of an entirely different kind. This is the story of how it played out.
On February 22, Judge PR Patel walked into a packed courtroom inside Sabarmati Jail in Ahmedabad. After nine years in jail, 63 people — two-thirds of the accused — had been acquitted, 31 had been deemed guilty.
Set aside for a moment the pathos of those wasted years in jail. Consider this instead. Of the acquitted, there are two men who were most crucial from the prosecution’s point of view: Maulvi Umarji and Mohammad Hussain Kalota. Both Umarji and Kalota had been charged as the masterminds of the carnage. Umarji was one of the most respected Muslim clerics in Godhra. Kalota was the chief political opponent of the BJP in the communally sensitive town and was president of the Godhra Municipal Council at the time of his arrest.
According to the prosecution, Umarji had instructed his co-accused to burn coach S-6 and it was at his behest that the entire conspiracy was hatched. Kalota, who did not figure in the core group of conspirators, was accused by the police of inciting the violent mob once it was assembled.
On the day of carnage, the Gujarat government had issued a press release calling the Godhra incident an act of “terror”.
Two days later, Modi had made an offensively sweeping statement. Instead of condemning those who had been part of the terrible arson, he generically accused the Muslims of Godhra of possessing “criminal tendencies”. In an interview to Zee TV, asked about the Muslims who had been massacred in the aftermath of the Godhra train burning, he added ‘Kriya pratikriya ki chain chal rahi hai. Hum chahte hain ki na kriya ho aur na pratikriya (This is a chain of action and reaction. We want both the action and reaction to stop)’ — justifying the post-Godhra pogrom as a sequel to the train carnage.
Modi had thus pronounced his verdict on the nature of the Godhra incident even before the investigation had begun. Accordingly, on 3 March 2002, the stringent anti-terror law POTAwas invoked and the Godhra case morphed into an act of terrorism. But since mob fury could not pass muster as terrorism without introducing the element of conspiracy, six days after POTA was invoked, on 9 March, the police invoked section 120(b) of the Indian Penal Code, which pertains to criminal conspiracy.
In the course of the next few weeks, in addition to Kalota and Umarji, six other respectable members of the Muslim community in Godhra were charged with terrorism. Four were corporators of the municipal council — Bilal Haji, Farooq Mohammad Bhana, Salim Shaikh and Abdul Rahman Dhantiya. Two were advocates — Rol Amin Hussain Hathila and Habib Karim Shaikh.
To establish the culpability of Muslims cutting across social and economic strata, the police also booked 134 Muslims of varying descriptions. Of these, only 94 were tried (17 went absconding, 13 were released for lack of evidence, 5 died during trial, 5 were juveniles and not tried). The trial was eventually conducted in a regular court, after a central review committee revoked the application of POTA from the case.
Of the eight influential political figures, the court has convicted just two — Bilal Haji and Abdul Rahman Dhantiya. At the time of writing, it’s not known what exactly the court has found them guilty of. The court will deliver its full judgment on February 25.
In truth, Maulvi Umarji and Kalota’s acquittal, combined with the large number of other acquittals, has knocked the bottom out of the prosecution’s argument that the conspiracy was hatched by the political and religious leaders of the Muslim community in Godhra.
In a significant and shaming move, the judge has also discarded the testimonies of nine BJP men, who had falsely accused 41 innocent Muslims, as being extremely unreliable. Among the 41 accused by them were Kalota, four Muslim corporators — Haji, Bhana, Shaikh and Dhantiya — and two advocates — Hathila and Karim Shaikh.
It’s important to recall that, in its 2007 sting investigation (The Truth about Gujarat 2002), TEHELKA had exposed that these nine BJP men who were cited as eyewitnesses were, in fact, not even present at the scene of crime. They had been asked to give false testimonies by the police to further the Modi government’s communal and political agenda, and they had gone along to “serve the cause of Hindutva”.
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE LIES OF GODHRA
The prosecution’s conspiracy theory against Godhra Muslims rested primarily on five sets of witnesses
1. Nine BJPmen who claimed to be eyewitnesses to the carnage
These men accused 41 Muslims who spent nine years in jail. A TEHELKA sting caught two of these BJP men admitting on camera they were actually at home that day and the police fabricated their statements. They went along to “serve the cause of Hindutva”. The judge has now discarded all nine testimonies
2. Ajay Baria, a Hindu vendor, forced into the plot; saw it all
Judge Patel has relied hugely on Baria’s account. But why would Muslim conspirators pick a Hindu man at the last minute to help load the petrol and burn the train? TEHELKA tried to track him but failed. His mother said he had been coerced into becoming a police witness and lived under constant police surveillance.
3. Two petrol pump attendants who claim they sold 140 litres of fuel to some Muslims on 26 Feb
Ranjitsinh and Pratapsinh Patel had first told the police that they had not sold any loose petrol that crucial night. In a shocking turnaround, six months later, they changed their version. However, TEHELKA caught Ranjitsinh admitting on camera that he and Pratap had been bribed Rs. 50,000 by police officer Noel Parmar to do that. He also tutored them to identify particular Muslims in court as being the buyers
4. Jabir Bahera, a petty criminal, who first named Maulvi Umarji as a mastermind
Bahera claimed it was Umarji who picked coach S-6 as the target, but also said Umarji was not at any conspiracy meetings. He later retracted everything
5. Sikandar Siddique, another petty criminal, said he had pulled the chain the second time
Siddique is an obvious unreliable witness. Besides Umarji, he had said Maulvi Punjabi had incited the mob. But Punjabi was not even in the country that day
Two of these — Murli Mulchandani and Kakul Pathak — were caught on camera telling the TEHELKA reporter that both of them were actually sleeping at home when the incident occurred. Shockingly, they said not only them but the other seven BJP ‘eyewitnesses’ had also not been present at Godhra station (see boxes on pages 36 and 40). Pathak also confessed that though all nine were from the BJP, the police had passed them off as VHP members to justify their presence at the railway station. (The call for the Ayodhya karseva had been given by the VHP). TEHELKA had also laid out in great detail the pre-existing political and business rivalries that had guided the testimonies of these nine BJP men.
These nine witnesses were a critical link in the prosecution’s theory. Forty-one Muslims had stayed behind bars for the last nine years as previous judges had denied bail based on these testimonies. By calling them unreliable now, Judge Patel has validated both TEHELKA’s findings and the assertions of the Muslim accused that the Gujarat police had manufactured evidence and tutored witnesses.
But more importantly, the discrediting of these nine BJP men is proof that there was a deliberate conspiracy by the Modi dispensation to implicate innocent Muslims.
Not only were they asked to put up false testimonies, the police then deliberately failed to produce their call data — something that could have easily nailed their exact location at the time of the incident. Kakul Pathak, in fact, had told this reporter that the police had drafted his testimony in advance. All he did was give his consent and sign.
Stop for a moment and let the full implication of all this sink in. Now combine it with Judge Patel’s own findings.
There were other crucial pieces in the prosecution’s case that the judge has discarded. For one, the police had claimed that 15 of the accused were arrested from the scene of crime immediately after the incident and made to squat near Cabin A, guarded by armed police personnel. According to them, a Muslim mob which included Kalota and a few other local Muslim leaders had then descended upon Cabin A and attacked the police personnel to free their arrested co-conspirators. The judge set this assertion aside as baseless.
He also told the public prosecutor that he did not believe the police claim that another 15 accused had been arrested during the course of the day on 27 February 2002. Instead, the judge said the evidence before the court established that they had been arrested during combing operations by the police on the night of 27-28 February. These conclusions by the judge, coupled with TEHELKA’s exhaustive 2007 sting, raise disturbing questions India can ill-ignore.
WHAT WAS the motive behind these nine false testimonies by BJP members? Were there instructions from the top? Why did the police write out pre-fabricated testimonies? Why were they passed off as eyewitnesses?
The Modi establishment is not the only official entity that has answers to give. The large number of acquittals by Judge Patel, including that of Umarji and Kalota, and the discredited BJP witnesses also cast a shadow on the credibility of the Supreme Court-constituted Special Investigation Team (SIT).
The SIT had been set up by the apex court on 26 March 2008. Nine major riot cases, including the Godhra train carnage, was handed over to it for re-investigation. Though the court picked retired CBI director RK Raghavan, a Tamil Nadu cadre officer, as chairman, the three crucial members of the probe team — IGs Ashish Bhatia, Geeta Johri and Shivanand Jha — were all from the Gujarat police. It was these three officers who were entrusted with the direct supervision of the investigations. The entire supporting team of policemen was also picked from the Gujarat police. But the most shocking appointment to the SITwas Noel Parmar, a deputy SP with the Gujarat police.
Parmar was the chief investigating officer of the Godhra carnage. It was he who had constructed the premeditated conspiracy theory which was supposedly under independent review by the SIT. When the SIT was formed, Parmar was serving his fourth post-retirement extension given by the Gujarat police. How could a probe officer be inducted into the SIT to review his own investigation, petitioners protested. Under pressure, the SIT reluctantly dropped him from the probe team. But, in another malicious move, it inducted Parmar’s aide Ramesh Patel instead. The logic? Patel was familiar with the case so his presence would help the investigators.
The idea behind the SIT was to have an independent review of the Gujarat police investigation by neutral officers. That purpose was defeated when the probe in effect was handed back to the Gujarat police, under the cloak of the SIT.
Raghavan visited Gujarat only for three days in a month. For all practical purposes, the investigation was carried out by the Gujarat police. In less than 10 months, IGP Jha claimed he had concluded his scrutiny of the Godhra carnage investigation carried out by the Gujarat state police. He claimed to have re-examined all the crucial police witnesses. But dismayingly, when Murli Mulchandani and Kakul Pathak were examined by the SIT, they were not quizzed about their damning confessions made before this TEHELKA reporter. Even the basic question of whether they were caught on camera by TEHELKA was not put before them.
Even more dismayingly, though this reporter’s statement was recorded by the SIT, his testimony — about Pathak and Mulchandani admitting on camera that they had fudged their statements — and the supporting sting footage were not produced before the court. When you consider the fact that both testimony and evidence produced by this same reporter has been cited as an important piece of evidence by the SIT in three other riot cases — Naroda Gaon, Naroda Patiya and Gulberg Society — the inconsistency becomes even more glaring. Why did the SIT not want to nail Pathak and Mulchandani? Why did Jha accept the sanctity of the Gujarat police investigation in toto?
In a report submitted to the Supreme Court on 11 February 2009, Raghavan said the SIT had “thoroughly reviewed” the Gujarat police investigation and found it to be “on correct lines”. He said IGP Shivanand Jha had re-examined all the key police witnesses. Satisfied, Raghavan said, the SIT had accepted the Gujarat police investigation and therefore not filed any additional chargesheet.
But now, with Judge Patel completely discarding the testimonies of the nine BJP members, the SIT’s claim that it thoroughly re-examined all important police witnesses stands exposed. Also the 63 acquittals stand testimony to the prejudiced and malicious nature of the investigation first done by the Gujarat CID and later validated by the SIT. Clearly, the SIT investigation has failed to stand scrutiny at the lowest level of the judiciary. The question is, was this mere incompetence or ill-intent?
AFTER THE initial years of outrage against the Godhra carnage and the bloody riots that followed, both the national media and opposition political parties have become less and less vigilant about unearthing the facts of what really happened or seeking accountability for it.
TEHELKA is often asked why it pursues the Gujarat story so aggressively. In the face of the stark and overwhelming evidence of foul play by the State, it is difficult to do otherwise.
For instance, the terrible miscarriages of justice just in this case alone don’t end with the nine BJP men and their perjuries. In a surprise move, despite all his own astute conclusions which contravenes the position, Judge Patel still upheld the police theory that the Godhra carnage was the result of a premeditated conspiracy.
The question is why? And how can he justify this?
Have a look at the malevolent case put up by the prosecution. The entire conspiracy theory spun by the prosecution was based on two primary claims: One, that on the night of 26 February 2002, two secret meetings were held at Aman Guest House near Godhra railway station. It was decided there that petrol should be bought and used the next morning to set coach S-6 of the passing Sabarmati train on fire.
According to the police, five Muslim vendors were present at the first meeting. At the second meeting, which happened after the buying of the petrol, two vendors and two Muslim corporators — Bilal Haji and Farooq Bhana — were present.
According to the police again, though Maulvi Umarji himself was not present at any of these meetings, it was he who had chosen coach S-6 as a target and it was at his behest that the meetings were held and 140 litres of petrol were bought from a nearby petrol pump called Kalabhai Petrol Pump. The police claimed that two attendants from Kalabhai Petrol Pump had told them that the accused had indeed bought 140 litres of petrol.
The police also claim that the next morning, taking advantage of an altercation between karsevaks on the train and Muslim vendors on the platform, the conspirators mobilised a violent Muslim mob and used the petrol bought the previous night to set the train on fire. According to the police, though Kalota was not part of the original conspiracy, he incited the rioters to burn the train once the mob had built up.
Bizarrely, the police also claim that the Muslim conspirators forced a Hindu tea vendor to help them burn the train. On 9 July 2002, five months after the actual incident, the police produced this new witness: Ajay Kanu Baria. Baria was unemployed at the time. He claimed that on the morning of 27 February 2002, just after the arrival of the Sabarmati Express, nine Muslim hawkers whom he knew since they all sold wares at Godhra station, forcibly took him to the house of Razzak Kurkur, the owner of Aman Guest House. Once there, the nine went inside Kurkur’s house and brought out carboys filled with ‘kerosene’ (he doesn’t specify the number of carboys and he specifically uses the word kerosene). One of the hawkers, he said, then forced him to load a carboy onto a rickshaw while the other hawkers loaded the rest.
This beggars belief. Why would alleged Muslim fundamentalists, gripped by hatred towards karsevaks, induct a Hindu tea vendor into their ‘plot’ at the last minute? Surely they would know that he would be the first to turn hostile? With an entire Muslim-dominated town to draw from, why would they risk involving a Hindu? If there were already nine hawkers to load the carboys, why did they need Baria to load just one?
Baria said the rickshaw was parrot-coloured but he could not see its registration number. Once the carboys were loaded, the hawkers forced him to go along. They drove up to Cabin A, where the train was standing. According to him, a few hawkers first tried to set coach S-2 on fire. When they failed, they cut the vestibule between coaches S-6 and S-7. Having done that, six hawkers went inside S-6 and poured ‘kerosene’ along the coach floor. Three others sprinkled kerosene through the windows into the coach. A vendor then threw a burning cloth inside.
Interestingly the police do not say that Baria was present in either of the conspiracy meetings or that his name was suggested by any of the conspirators as one who could provide help the next day. Yet, the introduction of Ajay Baria — ‘the Hindu tea vendor who saw everything’ — is integral to the prosecution’s case. In fact, apart from the nine lying BJP men, the police’s conspiracy theory, upheld by Judge Patel, primarily rests on five people: Baria, the two petrol pump attendants mentioned above, and two petty Muslim criminals, Jabir Yamin Bahera and Sikandar Siddique.
In its 2007 undercover investigation, TEHELKA had conclusively established that like the nine BJP men, the testimonies of these five ‘key’ police witnesses were completely bogus. But more on that later. First look at the inherently uneasy pieces in the story about these five men that everyone seems to be missing.
With Baria’s entry, the police propounded a new theory through a second chargesheet filed on 20 September 2002. These were some of its key propositions. And anomalies.
FIRST, THIS chargesheet claimed that the Muslim conspirators had cut open the rubber vestibule covering between coaches S-6 and S-7, then forcibly entered coach S-6 by sliding open the locked vestibule door. This theory about the cut vestibule and forced entry was first made in Ajay Baria’s statement to the police on 4 July 2002. By this time the forensic team had already examined the coach at least thrice on 1 May 2002; 3 May 2002 and 2 July 2002 and not found anything amiss with the vestibule. However, once Baria’s statement had been recorded before a magistrate on 9 July 2002, the police requisitioned the forensic team (FSL) again on 11 July 2002.
Strangely, on 11 July 2002, while re-examining the coach for the fourth time, the FSL concluded that the vestibule door had indeed been forcibly opened and, as a result, had got completely jammed into the toilet wall. ‘We have taken pictures of the sliding door (vestibule door) which shows it has got completely jammed in the north side toilet. That’s the reason we have not been able to take it out and examine it in the lab,’ the FSL reported.
It is important to note that all the windows and doors of coach S-6 were extricated by the FSL and taken for forensic examination in the lab. But when Judge Patel carried out a spot inspection on 30 May 2010, he found the vestibule door was not jammed as the FSL had claimed but instead stood in its original position. This clearly shows that either there was some post-facto tampering of evidence or the forensic team report was doctored.
Baria’s Section 164 CRPC statement itself suffers from many improbabilities. On his first appearance before the police on 4 July, Baria had given incomplete names of 17 accused with no addresses. A day later, on 5 July, when the police recorded his statement again, he miraculously gave full names with complete descriptions and addresses. But on 9 July, before the magistrate, Baria again forgot all the details he had so elaborately given only four days earlier. Clearly, the fumbling Baria was testifying under the influence of the police.
But this was not the only use Baria was put to. According to him, a Muslim man called Sikander Siddique was part of the group that burnt the train.
The story of Sikandar is even stranger than what has gone before and smacks of blatant engineering by the police. Once Sikandar was tracked down, he was made to give a statement before the magistrate. He duly endorsed the police case. In an interesting detail, the police claimed Sikandar had come from Surat to depose, but Sikandar told the judge he had been in Godhra the previous day. Clearly, either Sikandar or the police were lying. But that is a small detail compared to what happened afterwards. Once his statement had been secured, in an obvious quid pro quo arrangement, the police made Baria exonerate Sikandar through a test identification parade — an exercise unknown in law because it’s only the accused who are put through identification parades, not witnesses. At this parade, Baria claimed Sikandar was not the Sikandar he had first named and so the latter was let off.
Now, to stitch their improbable vestibule theory even more tightly, the police tracked down an accused named Jabir Bin Yamin Bahera on 22 January 2003. Produced before the magistrate on 4 February 2003, he parroted the entire police theory — the forced entry, the throwing of petrol — and claimed he was one of the accused who had entered through the vestibule. But he made one glaring mistake. He told the court that he had exited from the northern side — the same door through which karsevaks were exiting. None of the 150 survivors had seen Bahera or for that matter anybody entering the coach and pouring petrol inside.
Bahera later retracted his entire statement before the POTA court on 24 August 2003.
This brings one to the two final star witnesses: Prabhatsinh Patel and Ranjitsinh Patel, two salesmen employed at Kalabhai Petrol Pump at the time of the Godhra incident. On 10 April 2002, just a month after the incident, the two told the police that they had been at work from 6 pm on 26 February to 9 am on 27 February 2002, and had not sold any loose petrol during that period. But after Bahera’s statement before the magistrate, on 23 February 2003, the police approached the two salesmen again. In a shocking turnaround, both now claimed they had sold 140 litres of petrol to six Muslims, including Bahera, who had come in a parrotcoloured tempo to the pump.
It’s the improbable testimonies of these five — Baria, Bahera, Sikandar, Prabhatsinh and Ranjitsinh Patel — that the judge has relied on while upholding the conspiracy theory.
The nine BJP men were lying; the other five were coerced. That makes all 14 star witnesses suspect. If the SIT had acted in good faith and produced this TEHELKA reporter’s testimony and sting footage, this is what the judge would have known.
In 2007, this reporter had managed to track down pump attendant Ranjitsinh Patel. Caught on camera, in an incriminating admission, he had told TEHELKA he was bribed Rs. 50,000 by chief investigating officer Noel Parmar to change his testimony. He claimed his colleague Prabhatsinh Patel was bribed the same amount. This is why, in a sudden turnaround, they had both claimed to have sold petrol to the accused the night before the carnage. Ranjit also said the police had told him when the time came to identify the accused in court, they would tutor him secretly in advance so he could remember the faces of the accused and pin them in court.
This was a bombshell. Here was a star witness admitting he had been bribed by the police to lie. There should have been an uproar. Nothing happened.
EVEN TO a non-partisan eye, TEHELKA’s investigation should have added up to a clear indictment of the Modi establishment and its malevolent attempt to tar the Muslim community.
As if that were not enough, the proceedings of the court — available with TEHELKA — itself tells a big story. The defence had pointed many glaring inconsistencies in the testimonies recorded by the police. The prosecution and witnesses failed to provide convincing explanations for many of them.
The main questions raised by the defence were:
. There was no reason why the accused would specifically target coach S-6. There was no material to show Maulvi Umarji had any knowledge of who was travelling on this coach, or of having any enmity with them.
. The entire train was full of karsevaks drawn from VHP and Bajrang Dal. Why would Umarji and his co-conspirators target coach S-6 alone?
. There was nothing to show that on or before 26 February 2002, there was any friction between karsevaks and Godhra Muslims grave enough to provoke premeditated carnage.
. Nothing to show that any Godhra resident was even aware that karsevaks were travelling back on this train.
. Nothing to show the altercation between tea vendors and karsevaks on February 27 or the alleged molestation of a Muslim girl were ever an element of the conspiracy.
Still, curiously the judge upheld the conspiracy theory. From all credible evidence, the horrific events at Godhra seem the result of a criminal but spontaneous mob upsurge. Whoever was in that mob definitely deserves harsh punishment. But to call it a premeditated conspiracy is to blight Godhra Muslims with a canard that is perhaps not deserved.
Given the persistent desire to turn away from the truth, therefore, it is necessary to revisit the events on 27 February 2002, the suspect police investigation that followed and the untenable case that emerged, in greater detail. This might help readers draw their own conclusions.
The Arrival: Sabarmati Express Enters Godhra Station
7:43 am. 27 February 2002. The Sabarmati Express, carrying karsevaks returning from Ayodhya, arrives at platform No. 1 The train is five hours late. Scheduled arrival was 2:55 am.
First Provocation: Karsevaks Clash with Muslim Vendors
During the trial, several eyewitnesses told the court that there was a fight between karsevaks and Muslim tea vendors on the platform. Veer Chedi Pal, a survivor of the coach S- 6 inferno, told the court: ‘A few karsevaks beat up a Muslim vendor who had entered the coach to sell tea. Then they threw him out of the compartment.’
Another survivor Govindsinh Ratnasinh Panda, 54, an army man travelling from Lucknow to Ahmedabad, told the court: ‘I had a reservation for berth 9 in coach S-6, but a Bajrang Dal activist asked me to shift to berth 3. There were about 250 people in the coach. Most passengers were sitting unreserved and were members of the Bajrang Dal. At every station, they would get down and shout Jai Shri Ram. On 27 February 2002, between 7:30 am and 7:45 am, when the train reached Godhra, the karsevaks got down and raised slogans. I got up. Ten or 12 people from my coach had alighted. I felt Bajrang Dal members had also alighted from other coaches and were shouting slogans. There was loud noise on the platform. After three or four minutes, a few passengers came running inside the coach, closed the door and said a quarrel had taken place on the platform and stones were being pelted. They told everybody to shut the windows and doors.’
Second Provocation: Karsevaks Try to Abduct a Muslim Girl from the Platform
There was more than a tea-stall wrangle on the platform. Some karsevaks had allegedly tried to abduct a Muslim girl. Sophia Bano Shaikh, around 18, accompanied by mother and sister, was visiting relatives in Godhra and had come to the station to board a train for her hometown Vadodara.
Sophia testified before the court that she and her family were standing on platform No. 1 when the Sabarmati pulled in. Some men with saffron strips on their head got off for tea and snacks. They were shouting Jai Shri Ram. Some of them were beating a Muslim man with a stick and shouting “Kill Musalmans”. Frightened, Sophia and her family started moving away when one of the men grabbed her from behind, clamped her mouth and tried dragging her away. Her mother shouted loudly for help; the man let go. Sophia says she and her family stood in the booking clerk’s office for a while then gave up the idea of going to Vadodara, took a rickshaw and went back to her aunt’s house. According to Sophia, the karsevaks also tried to abduct another burqa-clad woman on the platform. However, the police have failed to identify the woman or record her statement till date.
Though the police recorded Sophia and her family’s statement on 28 March 2002 — a month after the Godhra incident — they neither mentioned the episode in the official narration of events nor included Sophia’s statement in the first chargesheet filed on 22 May 2002. These statements were only made part of the first supplementary chargesheet filed six months later.
It was this aborted abduction of Sophia that aggravated the situation. A rumour went through the station that karsevaks had abducted many Muslim girls. A mob gathered. Though Sophia had taken refuge in the booking clerk’s office, the rumour spread that the karsevaks had successfully abducted her and other girls in coach S-6. During the trial, Purshotbhai Govardhanbhai Patel, a coach S-6 karsevak, told the court that the mob had been shouting slogans for the women to be released from the coach.
The First Halt: Chain Is Pulled; Sabarmati Stops
After the altercation, both Muslims and karsevaks started pelting stones at each other on the platform. Many passengers have corroborated this in their testimonies during the trial. The railway police personnel, some tea vendors and a railway officer stationed at the parcel office on that day also testified to this. After a scheduled stop of five minutes, the Sabarmati Express started its onward journey at 7.47 am.
According to the train driver Rajendrarao Raghunathrao Jadhav, he got the signal to leave at about 7:45 am. “The train had just started moving,” Jadhav told the court, “when the chain was pulled at about 7:47 am. The train stopped. My assistant driver and guard found that the chain had been pulled from four coaches. We informed the station master.”
Plausibly, eyewitness accounts suggest it was the karsevaks who pulled the chain as some of their colleagues had got left behind. But the police say two Muslim vendors — Illyas Mullah and Anwar Kalandar — had pulled the chain from outside. Interestingly, the police do not claim that they were part of the Aman Guesthouse meetings or part of the conspiracy in any way. Then why would they pull the chain? The prosecution failed to answer this basic question. Importantly, both vendors retracted their statements before the trial began.
On the contrary, train guard Satyanarayan Verma told the court that many passengers were left behind at the station. When the train started pulling out, he saw many passengers running to catch it.
In this chaos, the chain-pulling was set right and the train began to move again. The time was now 7:55 am.
The Fateful Halt: Chain is Pulled Again, Sabarmati Halts Near Cabin A
At 8 am, after the train had moved a short distance, it again came to a halt near Cabin A. The time is recorded by Assistant Station Master (ASM) Rajindersingh Meena, manning the cabin.
It’s this second halting that is the most contentious fact in the chain of events leading to the carnage. The police claim the two Muslim vendors had pulled the chain with an intention to burn the train. But the evidence that emerged during the trial suggested this second halt was caused by the bursting of hose pipes, not chain-pulling.
Assistant train driver Mukesh Pachauri told the court that the heavy stone-pelting and ensuing carnage didn’t allow him to investigate the reason for the drop in vacuum pressure which had resulted in the second halt. But driver Jadhav told the court that he was informed by the lobby assistant in the Carriage Department at the Godhra Station that two hose pipes had burst and were replaced by him before the train finally left for Ahmedabad.
Ground Zero: The Fury of the Mob Intensifies
Before the assistant driver could find out why the train had halted a second time, the mob combusted. It had chased the train to Cabin A. Driver Jadhav says he saw a 1,000-strong mob pelting stones but he couldn’t see much more because he was separated from Cabin A by 8-10 coaches.
The heavy stone-pelting had begun to break the window panes. Survivors told the court that at this stage the passengers had downed all the iron shutters and locked the doors to save themselves.
The police had not yet reached. The two officials closest to Ground Zero were ASMMeena and his colleague AK Sharma, both manning Cabin A.
Meena told the court that about 10 coaches had already passed beyond Cabin A when the driver blew the chainpulling whistle. He got down from his cabin to set the chain right. That’s when he saw a mob of about 200-500 people running towards the train from the back. They were pelting stones.
When TEHELKA’s stung Meena in 2007, he had said that when he came down and asked the mob why they were chasing the train, a few of them had replied that one of their people had been abducted by the karsevaks on the train. Meena also said he heard some of them suggesting the coach be set on fire to drive people out of it so they could find the missing person. But he saw no sharp weapons or inflammable material with the mob.
Tinderbox: The Packed S-6 Coach was a Death Trap
By all accounts, coach S-6 was bursting at its seams. It was carrying over 200 passengers, at least three times its normal capacity. Its doors and windows were shut. Further, to stop the mob from forcing its way into the compartment, the passengers had blocked the doors with their luggage.
Outside, unable to dissuade the mob, the frightened Meena ran back to his cabin. His colleague Sharma had already informed their seniors about the situation.
Inside coach S-6, no one could quite make out what was happening as all the windows and doors were shut. This was more or less the case in every coach. During the trial, testimonies of passengers in other coaches established that the mob had pelted stones on the coaches S-2, S-5, S-4 and S-7 as well. Burning rags were also thrown at coaches S-4 and S-2. A witness testified that a burning rag had landed in coach S-4 which the passengers promptly threw out.
Smoke And Fire: Eyewitness Accounts By S-6 Passengers
Meena told the court that he first spotted smoke rising from coach S-6 at about 8:30 am. Passengers inside S-6 also first saw the smoke, then the fire. Many survivors told the court that after they spotted smoke in S-6, they opened the door on the northern side and started vacating the coach.
Manufacturing Truth: The Nine BJP Men
As mentioned earlier, the police claimed it had arrested 15 people from the spot and another 15 during the course of the day and the following night. Within a fortnight, over 40 people were arrested. (The court has now discredited this theory about spot arrests).
Apart from police and the fire brigade, the first independent witnesses to come forward and identify people from the mob were the nine BJP men whom both the judge and TEHELKA’s investigation has discredited. Between them they identified 41 Godhra Muslims. All nine claimed they had gone to the station to serve refreshments to the karsevaks. They claimed they saw everything — the assembling of the mob, the sharp-edged weapons and inflammable material they were carrying, and the actual starting of the fire. In nine identical statements they said, ‘Five to six people who had plastic containers of liquid in their hands had sprinkled the liquid from the said containers upon one compartment and set it ablaze. We all stayed under the cover of Cabin A.’
Fascinatingly, the only variation in the nine statements is the names of the culprits. Each BJP man identified different people from the mob. Interestingly, if they were indeed eyewitnesses, none of them talked of the accused as cutting the vestibule covering or forcibly entering the coach. How could they? First, they were not at Cabin A. Secondly, the police only came up with that theory much later.
Simmering Rivalries: Godhra’s Political Context
The testimonies of these nine BJP men have a complex political backdrop. Godhra is divided into 12 wards, each with three corporator seats. In the December 1999 municipal council elections, the BJPwon 11 seats, independent Muslim candidates 16, the Congress five, and four seats were bagged by pro-BJP independents.
Murli Mulchandani, one of the nine BJP men, had been the president of the municipal council. In 1999, he had contested but lost. To form the House in the council, a party needs 19 seats. The BJP had formed the House, supported by five Congress and three Muslim corporators. Raju Darji, a BJP corporator (who claims to be a witness to the fire) was elected president. Deepak Soni, another BJP corporator (also one of the nine witnesses), was appointed president of the education board formed under the council.
But a year after the elections, 24 corporators — 16 Muslim, five Congress and three Hindu independents — joined ranks against the BJP and moved a no-confidence motion. The BJP lost the House. These 24 now elected Kalota as president of the municipal council. During a no-confidence motion debate, Muslim corporator Bilal Haji had beaten up BJP corporator Raju Darji, and a criminal complaint had been lodged against him. In 2002, after the Sabarmati Express carnage, Raju Darji, Deepak Soni and Murli Mulchandani, along with six other BJP members, claimed they saw Kalota, Bilal Haji and three other Muslim corporators ‘attack the train’.
Ludicrously, these nine BJP men claimed they could identify the 41 Muslims they had named — including sundry pickpockets and truck drivers — because they were all Godhra residents. However, when cross-examined, they admitted to their pre-existing enmity with Kalota and others.
Science And Fiction: The Forensic Report
As the police were still banking on the theory that petrol or kerosene was sprinkled on the train from outside, as the nine BJP men had claimed, a FSL report came on 17 May 2002. Importantly, it drew the following conclusions:
>> Many marks caused by stones were observed on the southern outer side of the burnt coach S-6. The windows on the southern side were primarily broken by high intensity stone-pelting, while the ones on the northern side were broken due to the heat of the fire.
>> There was no sign of corrosive fluid in the fire.
>> The coach windows were closed at the time of the fire.
>> At the place where the train stopped, the windows of coach S-6 were 7 ft above the ground. So, it was not possible to throw inflammable fluid into the coach from a bucket or carboy. If this had happened, a major part of the fluid would have fallen back around the track outside. This would’ve caught fire too and damaged the outer, bottom part of the coach. The coach and tracks showed no such signs.
In effect, the state’s own forensic report ruled out the claims made by the nine BJP members and several karsevaks that inflammable liquid had been thrown from outside.
In a curious twist, the forensic team then decided to carry out an experiment with a bucket of water. And what conclusion does the report draw from this experiment?
In a dazzling leap of un-deductive logic, the report claims, ‘On the basis of the above experimental demonstration, a conclusion can be drawn that 60 litres of inflammable liquid was poured towards the western side of the coach by using a widemouthed container and by standing on the passage between the northern door of the eastern side of coach S-6 and the compartment… The coach was set on fire immediately thereafter.’
First Chargesheet: A Loose Conspiracy Theory is Hatched
In the first chargesheet filed on 22 May 2002, the police briefly mentioned the scuffle between the karsevaks and the platform vendors. However, no reference was made to the abduction attempt on Sophia Bano.
Instead, the chargesheet set up a conspiracy theory. It said, ‘The train reached Cabin A at about 8:05 am. At that time, in order to fulfill their intentional and illegal conspiracy (our emphasis), the accused persons pulled the chain of coach S-6, changed the disc of the train and got the train stopped.’ The police then claim that the accused, with a mob, set coach S-6 on fire by using ‘petrol-like inflammable liquids’ (sic).
But this theory left basic questions unanswered. Who were the main conspirators? When was the conspiracy hatched? What was the motive? Since the train was scheduled to arrive at 2:55 am, was the conspiracy hatched days in advance or only after they came to know the train was late?
The police had no evidence to prove the accused had pulled the chain. Or where the inflammable liquid had come from. The only conspirators the police had named till then was the mob and the 54 Godhra Muslims already arrested
In this first chargesheet, the only ‘evidence’ were statements from police, fire personnel, the nine BJP men, some karsevaks and the forensic report. The trouble is all of this contradicted itself. Further, the police’s claim that a few railway policemen had witnessed the arson was highly suspect as no survivor had mentioned police presence at that time.
Given this dogged obfuscation of the truth, perhaps it is necessary to revisit the events of February 27, the subsequent police investigation and the untenable case it built.
Noel Parmar, a New Investigating Officer, Takes Over
On 27 May 2002 — five days after the first chargesheet — a new investigating officer was appointed: Noel Parmar, ACP, Vadodara city control room, took over from KC Bawa, Western Railways Deputy Superintendent of Police.
Parmar was far from neutral: he was highly communal. These are snatches of what he told TEHELKA’s hidden camera in 2007. ‘During Partition, many Muslims of Godhra migrated to Pakistan… In fact, there is an area called Godhra Colony in Karachi… Every family in Godhra has a relative in Karachi… They are fundamentalists… This area, Signal Falia, was completely Hindu but gradually Muslims took over… In 1989 also there were riots… Eight Hindus were burnt alive… They all eat cow meat since it comes cheap… No family has less than ten children…’
Little wonder then that far from doing a fair job, Parmar bribed the pump attendants to change their testimonies.
The Hindu Hand: Ajay Baria
The first chargesheet was a mesh of conflicting claims. To bring method to the madness, on 9 July 2002, five months after the incident, the police produced their new star witness: Ajay Kanu Baria, the Hindu tea vendor who saw it all.
Baria’s ludicrous claims have already been detailed above. But he was the convenient tool through which the police tried to pull all its loose threads together. Dauntingly, it is on his testimony that Judge Patel has most relied.
During its investigation, TEHELKA tried to reach Baria, but failed. Kakul Pathak, one of the BJP men, told TEHELKA that Baria lived under close supervision of Parmar. Pathak said the last he had heard of him, Baria was selling tea near Parmar’s office in Vadodara. TEHELKA then decided to meet his mother who was a daily wage labourer in Godhra. Baria’s mother said her son had become a police witness out of fear. She said he was not an eyewitness, he was at home and fast asleep at the time of the incident. She also said Baria now lived under the constant vigil of the police. He could not visit her often and was always accompanied by two policemen.
The Chain-Pullers: Two Muslim Vendors Are Tortured and Tutored into Making a Statement
With Baria’s statement, several pieces fell into place for the police. They had found a witness to claim that ‘kerosene’ was brought to the spot, to explain how the accused gained entry, and how the ‘kerosene’ was poured into the coach and set on fire. But one hitch remained. The police still had to prove that it was the conspirators who had stopped the train near Cabin A. Surely they couldn’t have relied on Hindu karsevaks to stop the train exactly where they wanted so that Godhra Muslims could burn it.
To get around this, the police came up with two more witnesses — both Muslim — who now confessed it was they who had pulled the chain that brought the train to a halt near Cabin A. The statements of these witnesses — Illias Mullah Hussain and Anwar Sattar Kalandar, part-time hawkers and part-time truck drivers — were recorded on 9 July and 26 July 2002. Both said they were present at the station when the karsevaks beat up the tea vendors. After this fight, they said they were told by Salim Paanwala (a paan-seller at the station who has been absconding since the incident) and Razzak Kurkur that the karsevaks had abducted a Muslim girl from the platform and they had to stop the train. So, both along with another vendor called Hussain Suleman Gijju (who, according to the police, is still absconding) scaled different coaches, turned the discs and stopped the train. Both also named all the accused whom Baria had named in his statement. Both said they had seen the parrot-coloured rickshaw parked near the coach. However, they went a step ahead of Baria and provided the rickshaw’s registration number and its owner’s name. Both also claimed to have seen the nine vendors, who Baria alleged had set S-6 on fire, near the coach carrying carboys and later running toward Signal Falia. At this point, they said, they also heard the nine hawkers saying, ‘The train is properly set on fire from inside.’
After two weeks of confinement, the duo were produced in court and their statements recorded. Parmar then told them to leave Godhra and not keep contact with local Muslims. After about a year and a half, Hussain and Kalandar returned to Godhra and retracted their statements in affidavits filed before the Supreme Court.
In an interview with TEHELKA in 2007, the two narrated how they were illegally confined and tortured by Parmar and his team. “Every night, the cops would come and put a log of wood on my legs and then walk over it,” said Hussain. “I was given electric shocks on my genitals,” said Kalandar. They were made to memorise a statement handed to them by the police. “The cops would come and ask us how much we had memorised from the hand-written notes we were given,” both said.
The Plug in the Hole: Jabir Bin Yamin Bahera is Arrested. He Names Maulvi Umarji as the Mastermind
On 22 January 2003, the police arrested Jabir Bin Yamin Bahera, a hawker at Godhra railway station who had been absconding. Thirteen days after his arrest, the police produced him in court and had his confession recorded. This is what Bahera claimed.
On 26 February 2002, the eve of the Godhra incident, he was sitting at a tea stall when three hawkers, including Salim Paanwala, came up to him and said that Razzak Kurkur wanted to see him. When he reached Kurkur’s house, Kurkur instructed him to buy petrol. Along with a few other Muslim hawkers, Bahera then went to Kalabhai Pump and bought 140 litres of petrol in seven carboys, each holding 20 litres. This was stored at Kurkur’s house, located behind his shopcum- guesthouse at Signal Falia.
After that, at about 11:30 pm, Bahera says he was standing at Kurkur’s shop when two people — Bilal Haji and Farukh Bhana, both Godhra corporators — arrived. The corporators told him they had just met ‘Maulvi Sahab’ who had conveyed the message that the Sabarmati Express was coming and they were to burn coach S-6. After that, Salim Paanwala went to the station to enquire if the train was running late. When he came back with the information that the train was late by four hours, Bahera and the other hawkers went home and gathered again near Kurkur’s Aman Guesthouse at 6 am on 27 February 2002.
According to Bahera’s confession, after watching television for a while, he came out of the guesthouse at around 7:15 am, and saw a hawker named Mahboob Latika running from the direction of the station shouting, ‘Beating… beating.’ Bahera went near the Parcel Office and saw five other Muslim hawkers pelting stones at the train. After that, Baria, along with the nine Muslim hawkers, went to Kurkur’s house and loaded the petrol-filled carboys into a tempo. Kurkur then told them to take the tempo near Cabin A. Kurkur and Paanwala followed on an M-80 scooter, with Paanwala driving and Kurkur riding pillion, carrying a carboy. On reaching Cabin A, they first approached coach S-2. There, Bahera says, he saw a few hawkers armed with sticks, pipes and dhariyas trying to break down the train’s doors and windows. From coach S-2, they proceeded to S-6, where the hawkers had cut the vestibule with a pair of scissors. Bahera says he and a few other vendors then entered S-6 with five carboys and poured petrol along the floor of the coach. When the passengers started running helter-skelter, Bahera and a few others stole a gold ring from a passenger who had jumped out of the coach. He and his accomplices then ambushed an armyman and hit him with a rod. Later, one of them escorted the armyman to the road. Through all this, the mob had continued to pelt stones at the train. A stray stone came and hit Bahera on the forehead. He rushed to a clinic for first aid. The next day, he says, he came to know that after he had left the spot, a hawker named Hasan Lalu threw a burning mashaal inside the coach, which then caught fire.
According to Bahera, he visited Maulvi Hussain Umarji during the next few days. On his first visit, Umarji told him he was paying Rs. 1,500 to all those who had been arrested; he did not pay Bahera though. On his second visit, Umarji told him to escape. Having done so, Bahera says he sold the ring he had robbed a few months later to a jeweller in Anand for Rs. 2,000.
In August 2003, Bahera retracted his statement. But since he had also given the statement before a magistrate, the court has not factored in his retraction. The suspicious circumstances under which Bahera’s statement was recorded have already been detailed at the start.
Stitched Up: Conspiracy and Conspirators
Armed with Bahera’s confession, the police now claimed to know the main conspirators (Maulvi Umarji, Bilal Haji, Farukh Bhana, Razzak Kurkur and Salim Paanwala); where the conspirators had gathered on the eve of the incident (at Kurkur’s shop); where the petrol had been bought from (Kalabhai Pump); and where it was stored (at Kurkur’s house, behind his shop). But most importantly, the police had now linked the conspiracy to Godhra’s most significant Muslim religious figure — Maulvi Umarji.
With Kalota and others Muslim corporators in jail, Godhra’s Muslim political leadership was already in the dock. With Umarji named a prime conspirator, the entire Muslim community of Godhra was indicted. The police were now in a position to claim that the Sabarmati Express incident was not an act of spontaneous rioting but a cold-blooded, premeditated act of communal violence, with respectable Muslims from Godhra at the centre of the conspiracy
Fresh Fuel: Fake Witnesses Produced to Prove the Source of the Petrol
The story of Prabhatsinh Patel and Ranjitsinh Patel – the two salesmen employed at Kalabhai Pump – has already been detailed. How they first claimed they had not sold any loose petrol on 26 February. How this changed to the assertion that they had sold 140 litres of petrol to six Muslims, including Kurkur and Paanwala, Bahera, Siraj Lala, Salim Zarda and Shaukat Babu. How they later told TEHELKA they had been paid and tutored by investigating officer Noel Parmar to say all this.
The Seesaw Trail: Confessions, Chargesheets and Retractions
Later, the police obtained confessions from six other accused under section 32 of POTA in which a police confession is considered admissible in a court — Shaukat Bhano, Salim Zarda, Irfan Patalia, Mehboob Latika, Shaukat Bibina and Shakir Babu (all Muslim hawkers). All six hawkers have since retracted their confessions. Also on 16 May 2005, the POTA review committee revoked POTA from the case. As a result, all six POTA confessions became infructuous.
The police also took a statement from Sikandar Mohammad Siddique, a Muslim boy living with his family along the tracks at the time of the Godhra incident. Siddique has since migrated to Surat.
Siddique’s statement mirrored the names of the accused and the sequence of events as stated in Bahera’s confession. He also claimed Maulvi Umarji had told him he was paying Rs. 1,500 to all those who had set the train on fire. However, Siddique also named one more religious leader not mentioned by anyone. According to him, Maulvi Yakub Punjabi had been shouting provocative slogans from the rooftop of a masjid when the train halted near Cabin A. In an embarrassing disclosure which showed the cavalier way in which names were being added to the accused list, it was later revealed that Punjabi was not in the country at the time of Godhra incident. His passport and visa both proved that. The suspicious circumstances under which Sikandar’s statement was recorded before the magistrate has been detailed in the first half of the story.
While examining Sikandar, in what could qualify as a cover-up, the SIT inexplicably corrected the inaccuracy about Maulvi Punjabi and recorded a fresh statement from Sikander omitting Punjabi’s name but keeping Umarji’s. The SIT failed to ask Sikandar the basic question: why did he falsely name Punjabi and on whose instructions? If he had falsely implicated Punjabi, what was the genuineness of his claims about Umarji? It was clear the Gujarat police wanted to implicate Muslim clerics for the carnage.
What happened to the Sabarmati Express on 27 February 2002 will always be a blot on the nation’s conscience. It deserves fair but harsh retribution. There can be no arguing that. What is being argued is whether this was a horrific upsurge of mob anger or a premeditated conspiracy. That there was a conspiracy afoot in Gujarat those years is undoubtable. But as this story shows, it was a conspiracy of a different kind. It was a conspiracy designed to rent the fabric of this country: a conspiracy by State machinery to blacken one community’s name. And declare them the enemy.
TRANSCRIPT 1: Kakul Pathak, BJP’s media cell convenor in Godhra district (Click here to read transcript)
A key ‘witness’, Pathak blames police officers Noel Parmar, Rakesh Asthana and JK Bhatt for the ‘statement’ he signed. The TEHELKA sting caught him at a roadside dhaba in Godhra on 17 July 2007. Excerpts:
TEHELKA: When did you reach the station?
KP: At 8, 8.15...
T: People had left by then?
KP: There was no one there.
T: The Muslim mob? It had left?
KP: There were dead bodies all over the compartment. How many, even we didn’t know.
T: So you have not taken anybody’s name on your own accord?
KP: I did not write the statement on my own.
T: Along with you, there were six or seven more witnesses?
T: Who were they?
KP: The total number was 13...
T: Who were they? Was there someone with the surname Advani?
KP: No, I don’t know if there was any Advani... No, there was no Advani...
T: Some Sindhi?
KP: There were three Sindhis: Murli Mulchandani, Jiwat Bhai and Sonu.
T: The other 10-12 (witnesses) also did not see anything?
KP: Nobody was there....
T: So will you speak out?
KP: I can’t destroy my image... or that of the party (BJP).
T: But innocent people were named...
KP: Yes, innocent persons were named.
TRANSCRIPT 2: Murli Mirchandani, vice-chairman, Godhra Municipal Council (Click here to read transcript)
A key police witness in the train burning case, Mirchandani was caught in the TEHELKA sting on 23 July 2007. Excerpted transcript:
TEHELKA: Who are these people who have changed their version?
MURLI MIRCHANDANI: Raju Darji, Dileep Dasadia… they all have changed their version… They took money... They are in league with them (Godhra Muslims)...
T: I think Kakul Pathak has also given an affidavit?
MM: Yes. He turned hostile....
T: Then nothing is going to happen in the case?
MM: Nothing is going to happen... All these Muslims will come out (of Jail). Just mark my words.
T: When I met Kakul… He told me he wrote to KPS Gill…
MM: What did he write?
T: He wrote that we was not present there
MM: He was also not there, I was also not there... Those who became witness, were they ever at the spot? … Was I present at the Railway Station? I was sleeping at home when this happened… Do you know whose names I gave (in my statement)?
T: No, I don’t know.
MM: Kalota and Bilal, who are now accused in the case. I am not changing my version.
T: Half of the people (Muslims) would have been out of jail, had you not given your statement.
MM: If the statement is there, it is there... What can I do about it? …If the statement has been made...
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