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Truth About Godhra: Case For A
Fresh Commission Of Inquiry

By Siddharth Varadarajan

19 June, 2004
The 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 out.

Railway officials 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 hydrocarbons.

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.

Unfortunately, the 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 truth.

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.

Courtesy Harsh Kapoor/SACW