Gujarat Pogrom












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Who lit the fire?

Mohan Guruswamy

With the outing of the report of the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL), Ahmedabad, the question of who lit the fire in coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra on February 27 has now assumed critical importance. This incident was the immediate cause of the firestorms that engulfed Gujarat and that frenzy now is the bedrock of the supposed BJP resurgence and its aggressive espousal of a virulent Hindutva. The report of MS Dahiya, Assistant Director of the FSL, which is now part of the charge sheet completely debunks the theories about the coach being set afire by an angry mob, which had mysteriously collected outside the Godhra railway station. The report emphatically concludes that the coach was set afire by someone "standing in the passage of the compartment near seat number 72, using a container with a wide opening about 60 liters of inflammable liquid has been poured and then a fire has been started in the bogie."

The FSL has also conclusively demonstrated by experiments that it was virtually impossible to throw inflammable liquids into the train through the open windows that are at a height of seven feet. The report also shows that there was a three feet high mound running parallel to the track at a distance of 14 feet and if the fire bombers were standing on this mound and sloshing the fuel at the compartment only about 10-15% of the fuel would have got inside. Since the rest of the fuel would then have fallen outside there would have been burn damage on and near the track. This was not so. File photographs of the burning coach very clearly show the flames raging from within and without even the external paintwork being touched. The pictures also show rescuers trying to hose down the flames standing right alongside the burning coach. Very obviously the coach was set afire from within and whosoever claims that it was set afire by the collected mob is lying through their teeth. And that might very well include the Deputy Prime Minister of India.

The train was chock-a-block full of kar sevaks and whosoever was carrying "a container with a wide opening holding about 60 liters of inflammable liquid" should have been able to mingle freely with the inflamed kar sevaks. If this whosoever it was, was carrying such a container with a wide opening quite openly he, she or they would have been known to the other passengers to be able to do so without arousing apprehensions. Remember the country was in a state of heightened military alert after the December 13 attack on the Parliament and it would just not be possible for a stranger to walk into a crowded coach of true believers with a large container with liquid sloshing about. The train was almost a Rambhakt special and each compartment was concentrated with people from a particular area or belonging to a particular group within the Sangh Parivar, all of who would have been known to each other. It is therefore extremely implausible that a perfect stranger or strangers would have been able to splash the petrol and set it alight and then escape. The killer/killers would have had to been in the adjoining compartment or be able to alight quickly from the burning compartment without arousing suspicion. Consequently the theory that it was an ISI cell that carried out the carnage becomes extremely difficult to sustain.

The exact identification of the inflammable liquid, including the brand of the petrol, would be very easily obtained by spectroscopic examination, that is, if the police had collected samples of the charred material. If the quality of preliminary investigations was through even the exact type and material of the burned container, if it was left behind, could have been obtained, providing a vital step towards identifying the murderers. But that would be possibly asking too much of the Indian Police Service? However in such a high profile case, one would have thought that the highest standards of professionalism would have been strived for, especially when there were two Sardars in the picture. Then in all probability this is exactly what the persons behind the outrage would not have wanted?

It would now seem that the harassment and intimidation of the mostly Muslim hawkers at Godhra railway station was deliberate and aimed at provoking an agitated response. If this was so, the torching of coach S-6 could have been intended to provoke a furious backlash. This seems like a classic agent provocateur operation that went out of hand.

The use of an agent provocateur to create a crisis is not at all uncommon. We see much of it all around. Sometime it is a pig's head that is thrown in a mosque, another time it is a cow's head that is thrown into a temple. Cadre based political parties for who the end justifies all means are especially adept at this. Joseph Stalin, who was a small time thug working on the fringe of the underground Communist movement in pre-revolutionary Russia, caught the eye of his mentors by his ability to precipitate crises to mobilize the masses. I recall watching the live telecast on a local channel of a demonstration in Hyderabad against the increase in power tariffs and was struck by the extremely deliberate provocations of a very small group that changed a peaceful gathering into a furious mob causing the police to open fire at it. The demolition of the Babri Masjid was very clearly perpetrated by just a handful of persons who came prepared to do the job. The gathered crowd just joined with Sadhvi Rithambara exhorting from the dais "ek aur dhakha." The record shows that while Uma Bharati and Murli Manohar Joshi were hugging each other in ecstatic joy, LK Advani looked on helplessly.

Its not only cadre based political parties that do this. Countries with active intelligence services routinely do this. Intelligence agencies like the American CIA, British SIS, French SDECE, Israeli Mossad, Russian FSB, Chinese GRI, Pakistani ISI and even the Indian RAW carry out such operations quite routinely. Even now Pakistan insists that the January 30, 1971 hijacking of "Ganga", an Indian Airlines Fokker Friendship aircraft, to Lahore by Hashim and Ashraf Qureshi was an Indian intelligence operation meant to precipitate the termination of over flights to Dhaka making the link between the two Pakistani halves even more tenuous. The two Qureshi's were sentenced by a Pakistani court to 19 years but were exonerated by the Pakistan Supreme Court in 1984.

In 1991 a unit of the Peoples War Group attacked the Kakatiya Fast Passenger train at Charlapalli near Hyderabad killing 47 passengers in the blaze set off by them. It took only a small quantity of incendiary material to set off the blaze. One of the attackers was apprehended. Later the PWG issued a statement that the death of 47 passengers was inadvertent and expressed regret for it.

In another incident at 4.30 am on March 8, 1993 in AP's Guntur district two dalit youths Satuluri Chalapathi Rao (24) and Gantela Vijayvardhana Rao (22) inspired by the plot a popular Telugu movie held up an APRTC express bus from Hyderabad to Chilkaluripet under the threat of torching it. They wanted money to start a business. Things didn't happen as they did in the movie. The passengers panicked and in the ensuing melee the can of petrol dropped in the bus, which in turn had a leaky fuel tank and resulted in an explosive fire. 22 passengers including two children were killed. In both cases while there was intent to commit a crime, what resulted was not intended. In the case of the two youths the intention was not even to set fire to the bus, but it happened and 22 sleeping passengers were burnt to death. The Supreme Court sentenced them to death in 1995, but the President considering all the circumstances commuted their sentence to life imprisonment and they are now incarcerated in Rajamundry jail.

But it is difficult to imagine that a container with a wide mouth carrying at least 60 liters of petrol was meant to cause just an innocuous incident on the Sabarmati Express. Clearly there are many questions to be answered, particularly in light of the subsequent events for which even the National Human Rights Commission, headed by as widely respected jurist as the former Chief Justice of India, Justice AN Verma, found the Gujarat government complicit. The chota Sardar in Gujarat is plowing on remorselessly with his campaign of igniting communal passions, and the bada Sardar in New Delhi just sits there wringing his hands. As he did when the Babri Masjid was demolished. As he did when Hindus were killed in Doda. As he did when Sikhs were killed in Anantnag. As he did when Christians were killed in the Dangs. As he did when the Red Fort was attacked. As he did when Parliament was attacked on December 13. Shakespeare's wrote about Lady Macbeth: "It is an accustom'd action with her, to seem thus washing her hands."

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July 5, 2002