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'There Was No Waiting Mob'

By Darshan Desai

03 July, 2004

It has been two-and-a-half years since that ill-fated day when a torched train at Godhra sparked off a communal wildfire that consumed much of Gujarat and scorched the conscience of an entire nation. The burning of the two coaches of the Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002, in which 58 people including kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya were killed, has been repeatedly described by the Gujarat government as a premeditated effort by local Muslims who worked in connivance with other members of the minority community in Godhra. The state railway police chargesheet, filed after the incident, went along much the same track.

Eyewitnesses saw no waiting mob; people gathered only later in groups of 10 or 15. But the depositions before the G.T. Nanavati Commission probing the Godhra incident (as sourced by Outlook) reveal that things were not
as black and white as they have been made out to be, they are overlaid by confusing shades of grey.

The statements by railway authorities, police officials, eyewitnesses, and kar sevaks who were aboard the train sharply contradict the latest police chargesheet filed in the case in 2003. As per the police version, the train was torched by a Muslim mob from the Signal Falia colony outside Godhra station. The depositions before the commission paint a different picture and contradict the police account.

Here is how.

The police chargesheet claims eight jerrycans of petrol were poured on the floor of the S-6 compartment by as many as seven people. It says the petrol was stocked in the Muslim-dominated Signal Falia area, a little outside the Godhra station, and used to torch the train.

However, depositions before the commission say there was no fire on the floor, nobody saw anyone entering the coach or pouring petrol. Significantly, burn injuries suffered by surviving passengers were all above the waist. This could not have happened if the fire was on the floor of the compartment.

For instance, Raju Bishankumar Bhargava, the then SP of Godhra, says in his deposition, "I reached the burning coach at about 8.30 am. I saw people with black (charred) faces and with some burn injuries on the head coming out of the coach. I saw ten to twelve passengers coming out of the coach. The injuries which I had noticed on the passengers were on the upper part of their bodies. I did not notice any injury below their waists. I did not see any flames rising in that area of the coach which I could see from the door. I saw only smoke there. I did not notice any flames on the floor of the area between the two doors. I also did not smell any inflammable fuel like petrol, kerosene or diesel. I did not see any person from the Muslim community preventing the passengers in S-6 and S-7 from coming out of their coaches."

Passengers on the Sabarmati Express confirm this in their respective depositions. Says kar sevak Mahesh Chaudhary, who was returning from Ayodhya, "Before jumping out of the coach, I did not see any fluid on the floor of the coach. I did not see any flames while I was inside the train. I saw only smoke." Savitaben Sadhu, Babubhai Patel and Dwarkabhai Patel, also passengers on the train, depose likewise.

Savitaben did not recall seeing "any person coming inside the coach from outside and pouring any fluid". Similarly, Babubhai remembers neither seeing any person in a Muslim dress or with beard inside the coach nor any such Muslim rushing inside the coach. Dwarkabhai too "did not see any flames" when he was inside the coach. "I (also) did not notice any fluid being poured inside (when I was in the coach)," he has told the commission in his testimony. "I had not seen any person sprinkling any fluid or putting fire to the coach."

The police present the Godhra incident as a pre-planned conspiracy, as part of which a mob waited in and around the station to attack the train.

Depositions by railway officials say there was no such mob; people gathered only later in small groups of 10 or 15.

For instance, assistant station master Rajendraprasad Misrilal Meena, who was on duty at Godhra and was an eyewitness, says, "I could see from the cabin that the train had stopped (when the chain was pulled). At that time, no crowd was seen between the cabin and the train. When it (train) reached near cabin A, some five to six minutes later, there was still no crowd. But soon a crowd started collecting. Even so, they did not come together, they came in tens and fifteens; women and children were among them too."

The police 'investigation' also says that people from outside pelted stones at the S-6 compartment, while several others hopped on to the train, ruptured the rubber vestibule and burnt the coach.

However, railway officials who were eyewitnesses have made depositions to the contrary, saying the stone-pelting was from both sides, from the train and from outside, and this was probably the result of the altercation between kar sevaks and the hawkers at the station.

Mohan Jagdish Yadav, Railway Protection Force constable on duty and yet another eyewitness, records, "The passengers shouting and throwing stones were going towards the wall (which separates Signal Falia from the station area). The people who were throwing stones from Signal Falia were doing so from behind the wall and some of them were trying to jump over the wall. The passengers who were throwing stones were shouting Jai Shri Ram."

The police had earlier said a mob splashed petrol from jerrycans into the compartment, hurled burning rags and set the S-6 bogie on fire. There was no mention of the fire being ignited by someone inside.

However, a report by the government's own Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL), which recreated the scene using water in different types of containers and throwing it from outside into the coach, concluded it was impossible to burn a coach like that from the outside.

In its Spot Investigation Report No. 2 submitted to the commission, the FSL notes, "It was found that the height of the window of the coach was around seven feet from the ground at that place. Under the circumstances, it was not possible to throw any inflammable fluid inside from outside the coach with either a bucket or a jerrycan. This is because while doing this it was found that most of the fluid was getting spilled outside. Thus if inflammable liquid is thrown from the outside, then a major part of it would fall around the track outside and catch fire and cause damage to the outer part of the bottom side of the coach. But after examination of the coach and track, no effect was found of the fire on the bottom side below the window of the coach. By taking into consideration this fact...a conclusion can be drawn that no inflammable fluid had been thrown inside from outside the coach."

What did happen then? Going by the evidence, senior railway officials suggest that it was probably the rubber vestibule between the two coaches that caught fire and caused the smoke. Since the doors and windows were shut, this may have led to a sharp depletion in oxygen levels. What caused this fire is still a mystery. What is clear is that in all likelihood Muslim mobs outside Godhra station did not rush to the Sabarmati Express and torch it as the police chargesheet would have us believe.

As senior Gujarat high court lawyer Mukul Sinha, who has been representing human rights organisations before the commission, puts it, "We are saying this on the basis of all the available evidence with all the agencies as well as our own investigation that the Godhra incident where 58 innocent people lost their lives was not premeditated.It may well have been an accidental fire and we say this with responsibility and after carefully and objectively examining the evidence and depositions in hand."

That is where things stand as of now.Perhaps more facts will surface when the cross-examination of police and railway officials before the commission begins on June 29. The first officer to be examined will be the deputy SP of Godhra, K.C. Bawa. A quasi-official inquiry is also likely to be initiated by the Union railway ministry. This probe will trace the Sabarmati Express's journey from Faizabad onwards and reconstruct the events as they might have happened.