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The hate train
By Peter Popham

Three weeks ago, a Muslim mob set fire to a train in western India, killing 58. More than 700 others died in the orgy of reprisals and counter-reprisals that followed. But the full, shocking truth about what really happened that day is only just emerging

If you want to see what happened in the town of Godhra on 27 February, it's not difficult. Jump down from the platform of Godhra Junction station and clamber across half a dozen tracks and take a look. The maroon sleeping car, No S/6, has been shunted into the sidings now, away from the view of the railway's regular customers. And it will not be back in service any day soon.

The great heat of the fire inside has eaten away wide swirls of paint around the windows and scorched the steel sheeting brown. Inside, everything has been vaporised: flooring, ceiling, upholstery. Only the bones of the car remain, the charred framework of seats and beds. Here and there are reminders that human beings suffered in here: a few melted flip-flops, blackened brass drinking mugs, a burst sack of rice. The remains of the 58 who died were removed long ago.

The inferno at Godhra took place three weeks ago, but its horror shows no signs of abating. The work of Muslims, it triggered an instant and overwhelming backlash by Gujarat's Hindus. The people who died on the train were Hindus on their way back home to Gujarat from the contested temple at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, where they had been working as "karsevaks" (religious volunteers), helping to make preparations for the long-planned building of a huge temple dedicated to the god Ram, on the former site of (until its demolition by Hindus 10 years ago) a large 16th-century mosque.

The struggle over the Ayodhya site is the most emotive communal dispute in the subcontinent, and in the days that followed the burning of the train compartment, that emotion boiled over in Gujarat. The state's Hindu majority exploded with a murderous yet systematic ferocity such as India has never experienced before. Fifty-eight deaths by fire in Godhra provoked more than 700 Muslim deaths throughout the state. And even now, when relative calm has returned, the wounds remain. Life in Gujarat will never be the same again. Hindu and Muslim in Gujarat will never look at each other in the same way, never share the same living spaces, or rub shoulders at work or school or in the shops without remembering these appalling days.

So the exact nature of what happened at Godhra has become a matter of intense interest. Theories abound: it was the work of Pakistan's military intelligence, the ISI, India's all-purpose bogeyman; it was the doing of mujahedin terrorists; it was a pre-planned conspiracy by the local Muslim community, hence the arrest of practically all the prominent Muslims in the town. The problem is that none of these theories mesh with the evidence.

Official investigations are under way, but the massacre has become a political football and it is hard to imagine any conclusions untainted by political calculation. Fortunately, conscientious local journalists have been hard at work. The evidence they have amassed, together with new witness accounts obtained by The Independent, paints a clear and persuasive picture of an avoidable tragedy.

What happened in car S/6 was the hideous finale. The story began nearly 36 hours earlier.

On the evening of Monday 25 February, at 5.30pm, several hundred karsevaks in the temple town of Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh, tramped to the nearby station of Faizabad and boarded the Sabarmati Express. They were Gujaratis, and they were going home. Gujarat, in western India, has been the most fruitful breeding ground in the whole country for Hindu nationalists. And the karsevaks are Hindu nationalists in the raw: young men with modest educations and poor prospects inflamed, thanks to clever propaganda, with a zeal to right India's historic wrongs and repair the Hindus' wounded pride. The organisations that find, inspire and recruit these suggestible young men are the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal – pseudo-religious paramilitary groups committed to building the Ram temple, creating true Hindu rule in India and putting India's 150 million Muslims in their place.

The karsevaks from Gujarat were in Ayodhya because India's great D-Day is fast approaching. The event, they claim, that will ring in the era of true Hindu self-assertion is the building of a mighty temple on the supposed site of the birth of the Hindu god Ram at Ayodhya. Until 6 December 1992, the site was occupied by a mosque, the Babri Masjid, which they believe was erected on the rubble of the original Ram temple. On that day, several thousand karsevaks tore the mosque to pieces. Now the great consummation is at hand. For years, stonemasons in Rajasthan and Ayodhya have been carving pillars for the majestic new temple. Their work is almost complete. As soon as it becomes politically feasible, karsevaks will begin hauling the carved pillars to the contested site, and the construction of the temple will begin.

The Hindu groups would be much happier, they insist, if the process went ahead peacefully. "The construction of a grand Rama temple," they write in a new pamphlet, "offers a unique opportunity to the Muslims for commencing an era of enormous love and understanding between the Hindus and Muslims of this country." All the Muslims have to do is give the new temple their blessing.

But as this appears highly unlikely, the karsevaks have been gathering in Ayodhya to help bring this event about in the same way they brought about the downfall of the Babri Masjid; by force.

These were the sort of people who joined the train that Monday evening: young men, heads wrapped in saffron headbands, happy and elated after their stint at the holy site. Think football supporters on the move in one of the old supporters' specials. Many were also drunk or stoned, or equipped to get that way: flexible, tolerant Hinduism has no hard and fast rules about such things. And they were coming back to Gujarat, the only state in the Indian union that is still "dry". All the more reason to have a bottle or two tucked away.

The train shuffled through the night, crossing Uttar Pradesh and emerging into the broad, empty vistas of central India. The train was late: after a day and a half, it was running four and a half hours behind schedule. That's why it arrived in Godhra not at 2.55am, as scheduled, but at 7.15am. By this time, the karsevaks were much the worse for wear.

Trouble had started at Dahod station, nearly one hour and 75km up the tracks. The train had reached Dahod around 6am, and a number of karsevaks got out of compartment S/6 to have tea and snacks at a stall on the platform. Already they were drunk and unruly. An argument broke out between the Hindus and the Muslim man running the tea stall – according to one account, they refused to pay unless he chanted "Jai Shri Ram", the chant of Lord Ram's devotees. He refused to oblige, and they started to smash up his stall, before climbing back into the carriage. The stallholder filed a complaint with the railway police.

At Godhra, a similar scene ensued. The karsevaks, now noisily drunk, poured on to the platform, ordered more tea and snacks, consumed them, and then made difficulties. Exactly what transpired between the bearded Muslim stallholder and the travellers varies from one account to another. But all witness accounts seen by The Independent agree that there was a row. "They argued with the old man on purpose," one witness said, on condition of anonymity. "They pulled his beard and beat him up... They kept repeating the slogan 'mandir ki nirmaan karo, Babar ki aulad ko bahar karo'." ("Build the temple and throw out the Muslims...")

Suddenly the row took a dangerous new turn: the karsevaks grabbed hold of a Muslim woman. Her identity, and how she became involved, remain ambiguous, but four different witnesses mention this event. One says it was the 16-year-old daughter of the abused tea-seller. She "came forward and tried to save her father". Another mentions a woman washing clothes by the railway line being hauled away. A third describes how a Muslim girl wearing a burqa and taking a shortcut to school through the station platform was pounced on and dragged into the carriage. All agree that a Muslim woman was hauled into the carriage by the karsevaks, who slammed the door and would not let her go. Refusing to be quoted by name, a local policeman confirms the story.

And suddenly, what had been just an ugly little fracas, a drunken pantomime of power and subjugation, became something far more explosive.

The karsevaks were too drunk for their own good, or they would have chosen a different station at which to pull such a stunt. Because now the social geography of Godhra came into play.

Godhra is unusual in Gujarat because its population is pretty well exactly half Hindu and half Muslim. Three hours east of Ahmadabad, a market for the dusty farms round about, Godhra has many temples and mosques, but it has no other amenities except for a Catholic school and a Sikh restaurant. Time was, as in most of the subcontinent, when the Hindu and Muslim traders lived crammed in upon each other in the old town. But, in 1981, Godhra was racked by the worst civil riots in its history. Curfew was clamped on the place for an entire year. When it was finally lifted, the Muslims fled the old town, building themselves crude cement villas on wasteland behind the bazaar. Since then, the two communities have lived as separately as possible.

Godhra station, to the regret of the Hindus, is located in an area that is now entirely Muslim. And a huddle of Muslim-owned businesses sprang up in shacks alongside the tracks, many of them motor-repair yards. This little slum, known as Signal Fadia, has all the material a riot could require: stacks of bricks, petrol, and paraffin and calor gas cylinders. But it also had the necessary human material: a community impoverished and bitter and surviving on the margins of criminality.

The woman seized by the karsevaks was dragged into compartment S/6, and word of what had happened began to spread. "The girl began screaming for help," said Ahmed, a wood dealer who was waiting for a train going the other way. "Muslims who were travelling on the train got off. People began pouring on to the platform to try to rescue her. I ran home – I could see trouble was brewing..."

The train moved off, and the gathering crowd began pelting the carriage with bricks. Inside the train, someone pulled the emergency cord; the train stopped, then moved off again; the cord was pulled again 1km out of the station, and this time the train stopped and stayed stopped. "People in the vicinity... started to gather near the train," says one witness. "The mob... requested that the karsevaks return the girl. But instead of returning the girl, they started closing their windows. This infuriated the mob..."

The brawl had become a battle, with the karsevaks piling in with their swords and sticks, and a crowd now said to be 1,000-strong streaming in from the slum, bringing petrol, gas, rags – anything that would burn. Their gas cylinders broke the bars on the windows and exploded inside; the petrol bombs flew through and set the upholstery and the people trapped inside on fire. By the time the police arrived in strength one hour later, there was nothing to be saved.

Local members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad quickly sought revenge, burning down the slum by the tracks and a mosque in the town. But that was only the beginning. 

The above is the full text of a report which appeared in the 
The Independent, London’s issue of 22 March 2002.

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