About Godhra: Case For A
Fresh Commission Of Inquiry
19 June, 2004
Times Of India
In his essays on leadership, Thomas Carlyle
defined the true hero as one who, though morally imperfect and perhaps
even a villain by some other yardstick, has the ability to use a sudden
crisis to his immediate advantage. How would Carlyle have judged Narendra
Modi? Doubts about the Gujarat CM's moral qualities need not detain
us here but what is undeniable is his political skill in transcending
crises: For example, his ability to attract terrorists who are determined
to assassinate him precisely at a time of great personal political difficulty.
That his police force manages to eliminate the assassins in the nick
of time is also testimony to the singular leadership he provides.
Earlier too, we've seen such heroic qualities in this one-time RSS pracharak.
On February 27, 2002, a crisis of monumental proportions confronted
him when the Sabarmati Express was attacked at Godhra. Mr Modi, who
has perhaps never heard of Carlyle even though he has of Newton, used
the death of 59 train passengers all of them Hindu, most of them
VHP supporters to great advantage: By getting his administration
to turn a blind eye to the killing of hundreds of Muslims immediately
after, he managed to ward off criticism for his inability to protect
the Godhra passengers and consolidate the BJP's hold over Gujarat.
For the past two
years, every BJP leader from Atal Behari Vajpayee down to the
'intellectuals' who populate the lower rungs of the saffron food chain
has sought to deflect criticism of the Gujarat riots by invoking
Godhra. But what is surprising is the paucity of investigative resources
they chose to deploy to unravel a case, which by their own admission,
held the key to the blood-letting which followed subsequently.
Two years on, the
investigation into Godhra has led nowhere and the country still remains
clueless about how coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express caught fire. No
comprehensive investigation has been conducted into whether the incident
was deliberate or an accident, what flammable material caused the fire
and what implications the forensic evidence and witness statements have.
The Gujarat police
has arrested more than 100 Muslims under the Prevention of Terrorism
Act and charged them with involvement. But the police case is flimsy.
No evidence has emerged to suggest there was a pre-planned conspiracy
other than a questionable confession by one of the accused. With the
Forensic Science Laboratory concluding that the flammable liquid could
not have been thrown inside S-6 by a mob from the outside, the police
has not been able to answer the central question of how the fire broke
and passengers present at the scene have testified before the Nanavati
commission that they saw no Muslim enter S-6 during the fracas which
erupted at Godhra station, let alone pour more than 60 litres of petrol
as the police alleges. And then there is the second forensic report
which states that samples lifted from S-6 contained no traces of petroleum
Getting to the bottom
of Godhra is important not just in order to punish the perpetrators
but also to draw lessons about the fire safety of railway coaches in
general. Here, the problem is that the Railways, which should have launched
their own immediate investigation into the cause of the fire under Section
114 of the Railways Act, chose not to act. Nitish Kumar, who was rail
minister at the time, was more than happy to let the BJP play politics
with the tragedy.
Modi government, which appointed the Nanavati commission, deliberately
gave the inquiry restricted terms of reference: "To go into the
facts, circumstances and course of events of the incidents that led
to the setting on fire some of the coaches of the Sabarmati Express
train". The TOR more or less preclude an inquiry into whether the
fire was an accident and whether enhanced railway safety measures might
have prevented the fire from breaking out and spreading.
After a series of
incidents in which trains in shunting yards near Delhi myste-riously
caught fire, the Ahmedabad-based Jansangharsh Morcha has suggested that
the combustibility of the rubber vestibules connecting rail coaches
be investigated. Many of the S-6 passengers have spoken of being engulfed
by thick, acrid smoke of the kind generated by burning rubber. Only
professional forensics, devoid of a political agenda, can help get to
The Congress and
its allies have criticised the Modi government for failing to provide
justice to the victims of the anti-Muslim riots. But Mr Modi's lackadaisical
and politicised approach to Godhra is also coming in the way of justice
being done to the VHP supporters and other Hindu passengers who died
on board the Sabarmati Express.
Now that the UPA
government is in power, it should speed up the investigations into the
Godhra tragedy. For one, it should consider constituting a new inquiry
commission with a wider remit, invoking the Supreme Court's 1978 ruling
in Karnataka vs Union of India (the 'Devraj Urs case'). It should also
actively support the NHRC's demands, now pending before the Supreme
Court, that the CBI be tasked with investigating Godhra and that the
case be transferred out of Gujarat. Solving the case and delivering
justice to its victims should be a top priority for the Centre.