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Death train: the mystery simmers

The torching of the Sabarmati Express on February 27 was itself a reaction to massive provocation from kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya, says Teesta Setalvad, after a personal journey of discovery to Godhra, April 27

On February 27, late by over four hours, the Ahmedabad-bound Sabarmati Express pulled into Godhra station. After a 25-minute halt, against the scheduled five-minute stoppage, the train pulled out of the platform. Even before it could gather speed, the pulling of the alarm chain brought the train to a halt near the Muslim-inhabited Signal Falia locality, less than a kilometre from the station. Twenty minutes later, compartment S-6 was on fire, as a result of which 58 passengers, including 26 women and 12 children were either choked or burnt to death.

Nothing, absolutely nothing can justify the killing of innocent people, whatever the provocation. But for Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, and many leading lights of the Sangh Parivar, this heinous crime became the justification for the "natural reaction" against Muslims across the state.

Even 50 days later, it is evident that only a full-fledged inquiry will be able to finally settle the issue of who was the culprit and what was the motive behind the torching of a few compartments of the Sabarmati Express. That such an inquiry must be conducted and the guilty punished is without question. Meanwhile, taken together, the comments of Ahmedabad's former commissioner of police, M M Singh ("Godhra has a history of communal riots. It was known that kar sevaks were coming by that route. This fact necessitated preventive deployment. That was, apparently, not done") and those of Major General (retired) Eustace De'Souza, who on more than one occasion has been involved in dousing the fire in communally-sensitive Godhra "I see a fiendish plan and demand immediate attention”.

In a report published on February 25, the Jan Morcha, a Hindi daily published from Faizabad, detailed instances of provocative behaviour by kar sevaks, who allegedly beat and threatened Muslim passengers, insisting that they chant 'Jai Sri Ram'. They even unveiled Muslim women.

The Jan Morcha report published two days before the incident at Godhra, reports the conduct of kar sevaks from Gujarat headed for Ayodhya. But, by several accounts, the conduct of kar sevaks returning to Ahmedabad by the ill-fated Sabarmati Express on February 27 was no better.

The Hindu reported on February 28: "Eyewitnesses said that about 1,200 'Ram sevaks' were travelling in the train. The local people in the Muslim-dominated Godhra town had been 'irritated' by the 'abusive language' used by the 'Ram sevaks' while they were going to Ayodhya by the same train a few days ago. They had reportedly raised slogans as the train approached Godhra on the return journey this morning."

A report in The Times of India on February 28 stated: "Officials said a mob, enraged by the provocative slogan shouting by the VHP activists, attacked the train just after it left Godhra railway station at 6.30 am…Officials said it was possible that some passengers from Godhra travelling by the train had been harassed along the way by the VHP activists returning from Ayodhya and they had incited the mob to attack the passengers after getting off the train… However, other accounts say that the mob was waiting to pounce on the train because they knew the VHP and Bajrang Dal activists were returning from Ayodhya."

And, on March 7, Akbarbaig Sirajudding Shah, a Muslim passenger who was returning to Ahmedabad with his family, in an interview with the Gujarati daily, Gujarat Today, recounted the misbehaviour of the kar sevaks throughout the journey.

As stated earlier, no provocation whatsoever can justify a heinous crime like burning people to death. But the misconduct of kar sevaks is nonetheless important to record for two reasons: one, given such persistent hooliganism, where was the intelligence machinery of the law enforcement authorities? Why was no preventive measure taken by the police? Two, if the attack on kar sevaks was pre-planned, as Chief Minister Modi and Union Home Minister L K Advani have maintained, was the outrageous conduct of kar sevaks a part of the pre-planning?

The former Ahmedabad CP, MM Singh's has observed: "Burning nearly 60 passengers alive at a district headquarters railway station is unprecedented. Godhra has a history of communal riots. It was known that kar sevaks were coming by that route. This fact necessitated preventive deployment. That was, apparently, not done. With modern means of communication it should be unlikely that the multifarious safety and security installations at Godhra itself were not informed on the first sign of trouble. Even one determined man in khaki firing a few effective shots could have checked the worst, as witnessed in Parliament.

"Godhra railway station has RPF (Railway Protection Force). Godhra has a railway police station, too. A district headquarters with police HQ, armed police, control room, town police station with eight chowkies, all equipped with telephones and a taluka police station, it is the HQ of SRP Bn, too, and has a municipal fire brigade. These are the points one has to ponder instead of a routine probe, whose report gathers dust." (Letter to the editor, The Times of India, March 1, 2002)

Godhra is a small town with a roughly equal population of Muslims and Hindus and a long and bloody history of communal tension and violence. The Muslims living at the Signal Falia area near the railway station, who allegedly attacked the Sabarmati Express with tragic consequences, are "Ghanchis", a largely uneducated and poor community, reportedly conservative and prone to react quickly. Records and accounts also say that they have been quick to assemble and participate in earlier rounds of communal violence. Godhra has had tensions (that were incidentally quickly controlled by a quick deployment of the army in 1948, in 1953-55, and again in 1985). This time, this did not happen.

Local accounts say that stories of the behaviour of kar sevaks (believed to be as many as 1,200 or so on board) had preceded the train's arrival. Dahod, an-hour-and-a-half before Godhra, had seen the eruption of tension and the news had already travelled. As the train pulled in and stopped at Godhra railway station, locals who live just outside the station recounted that they heard abusive shouts and sounds of stonethrowing from the station. Vendors near the station recounted that tea stall owners at the station (who, incidentally, hail from the same Ghanchi Muslim community) had an altercation with the kar sevaks who refused to pay. One elderly vendor on the platform was threatened by the kar sevaks and asked to shout slogans; they pulled his beard and assaulted him when he refused.

At this point, according to some locals who spoke to this writer on March 22, a local Muslim woman, Jaitunbibi was waiting for the train to Vadodara, scheduled to arrive at around 8 am, with her two young daughters, Sophiya and Shahidi. On observing the altercations, they tried to flee the station. Suddenly, a kar sevak obstructed their departure, grabbed Sophiya and tried to drag her inside the compartment. He did not succeed in doing so. 

(By the time this writer reached Godhra, on March 22, e-mails were in circulation, claiming that she been dragged inside and the attempt to rescue her was the trigger that culminated in the torching of bogey S-6. Later, this family left for Vadodara. When this reporter spoke to Sophiya's kin in Godhra, where she had come with her family for Id, they confirmed that Sophiya did not get dragged into the train.) The train was stationed at the Godhra railway station for 20-23 minutes before it began to move away.

By now, tempers were running high and stonepelting had begun from both sides. As the train began to pull out, the emergency chain was pulled in one of the three general compartments in the front of the 16-bogey train, (bogeys S5 and S6 were 11th and 12th respectively in this chain). The trains halted briefly. In a few minutes, the train reached Signal Falia, about a kilometre away from the station. Here, it was stopped again when the emergency chain was pulled. Who pulled the chain? In which compartment was the chain pulled?

Reports of misbehaviour, repeated provocation, the rumour of the abduction of a young Muslim girl, allegedly incited a 2,000-strong mob of Ghanchi Muslims from Signal Falia to attack the train with stones and firebombs. The kar sevaks also resorted to stonethrowing. The main target of the Ghanchi mob appears to have been coach S6, which was badly burnt. It was in this coach that 58 passengers, including 26 women and 12 children were killed. In comparison, the adjoining coach, S5, was not badly damaged, with only a few windows broken.

That day, there were only3 SRP men on duty; of the 111 GRP (Government Railway Police) officers stationed at Godhra, only two or three were on duty; although the fire brigade station is only five minutes away from the railway station, it took a while for the fire brigade to reach the torched coach. Two GRP jawans reached the spot within minutes; it is a matter of serious conjecture why they did not fire shots to disperse the mob. The arrival of firefighters was delayed allegedly by Bilal, a local leader, according to one version; a second version says that he was helping the victims. 

Was the attack pre-planned? A senior police official in charge of investigation of the Godhra incident, while requesting anonymity, gave the gist of his findings as follows: 

Chaiwallas in the train come from the same community (Ghanchis). On the Dahod-Godhra sector, there was an altercation between the kar sevaks and the chaiwallahs on the train. They reached Godhra. 

Tea vendors at Godhra station collected, as again there was an exchange of words about payments. The vendors from the station got on the train and at Signal Falia they were the ones who pulled the chain. Other Muslims collected from the basti. Many local Muslims got into the train. 

They procured diesel from the garages near the tracks. That diesel was thrown, using cloth balls dipped in diesel. Stones were also pelted. 

Criminologically speaking, in the assessment of this officer, the fire was not intended. It "caught more than they expected. There was no pre-planning."

Interestingly, the following report published by The Times of India on March 29 quotes Inspector-General of Police P P Agja as stating that there is no evidence at all that the attack was pre-planned:

"The case is still being investigated and if there was some deep conspiracy, then we are yet to find it," said Inspector-General of Police (Railways) P P Agja. Agja, who for the better part of the last one month, has been camping at Godhra, spoke with The Times of India standing in front of the railway police station on the platform where trouble began.

"According to the sequence of events as found by the police, all was not well in coach S-6 of the Ahmedabad-bound Sabarmati Express on that day. A group of unruly Ram sevaks had boarded the train at Lucknow without reservations (and) had put to discomfort the 66 genuine passengers of the coach. Some of the ticket-paying passengers had to sleep on the floor, so overcrowded had the compartment become that the ticket collector who came aboard the train at Ratlam (two stations before Godhra) was not allowed to enter the coach.

"At Godhra station, the hawkers on the platform started stoning the train after an unsavoury incident, especially targeting coach S-6, because some occupants of the coach had given offence. At any point of time, there are some 250 hawkers on the station. Some of them carry stoves with kerosene in them. All of them live in the slum called Signal Falia next to the station," said Agja. 

He added: "This means it is not surprising that a crowd could collect at the station so fast. The people who live cheek by jowl in the slums next in the station include a fair share of criminals indulging in railway crimes like looting, pick-pocketing and stealing of goods of passengers and also railway property. All of them are Ghanchi Muslims and they are uneducated, without any jobs and poor." 

From 8.30 am, when the Godhra attack on the Sabarmati Express took place, until 7.30 pm that evening, repeated statements by the Godhra district collector, Jayanthi Ravi, relayed on Doordarshan and Akashwani (radio) stated that "the incident was not pre-planned, it was an accident". It was only after 7-7.30 pm, when Chief Minister Narendra Modi spoke and called it a "pre-planned, violent act of terrorism", that the official version changed. 

As we have seen above, investigating officials have yet to find any proof of the Godhra atrocity being pre-planned. Nonetheless, Modi, L K Advani and others continue to reiterate the distorted version of the motive behind the incident at Godhra. When and why the government's version changed needs serious investigation because it is widely believed that it is the "pre-planned, violent act of terrorism" theory, pronounced by politicians and given a huge splash by much of the Gujarati press, which provided the lethal charge to the "backlash".

Signal Falia, where the Godhra railway station is located, is home to auto-repair workers, rickshaw-pullers, autorickshaw drivers, smalltime wagon-breakers and criminal elements reportedly living in the slum. As such, the gathering of a large mob at a short notice and the availability of improvised petrol bombs and other weapons and implements do not by themselves support the theory of any deep-rooted conspiracy, with or without the support of foreign agencies.

(This reporter has been told about a confidential meeting between the top brass of the BJP Cabinet, the VHP, the RSS and the Bajrang Dal on the evening of February 27, allegedly to plan details of the carnage that was to follow. If true, this might offer some clue as to why the official version underwent a dramatic shift.).

News of the deaths enraged the kar sevaks, who then tried to attack a nearby mosque at Signal Falia. The police fired 30 tear gas shells and 14 rounds of live bullets to disperse them. The damaged coaches S5 and S6 were detached, and the train departed with the rest of the passengers at 12.40 pm. On the way to Ahmedabad, some kar sevaks reportedly stabbed two or three people at the Vadodara railway station, giving a clear warning of things to come. The inquest and post-mortem of all the recovered bodies was undertaken by 4.30 pm. Under instructions from the administration in Ahmedabad, all the bodies, excluding those of the five passengers from the Godhra region, were dispatched to the Civil Hospital at Sola, Ahmedabad.

By the evening of February 27, a well-hatched scheme to make maximum political capital out of Godhra had been launched. As part of this scheme, around 2.30 am, the bodies of the kar sevaks were brought to Ahmedabad. Around 500 people were waiting outside Sola Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad for the charred bodies to arrive from Godhra. By 3.35 am, a convoy of five trucks led by a pilot Gypsy entered the hospital compound. 

Sloganeering started: "Kar sevak, amar raho!" and "Hindu ekta Zindabad", as small bundles carrying the victims' remains were offloaded on to waiting stretchers. The mood was morose but tears were few. Anger welled in the eyes of bereaved relatives as each bundle - the remains of the Godhra massacre victims - was placed on ice slabs. Vows for vengeance and shouts of "Jai Sri Ram" resounded through the hospital compound as martyrs' honour was accorded to the Godhra victims.

"For the nine from Amraiwadi who laid their lives for the country, there will be 90 more to replace. We had gone there for yagna only, yet the kafirs (Muslims) butchered the devotees. This time we will go and construct the Ram temple," said a waiting VHP man outside the hospital. The corpses of the unfortunate victims of the Godhra arson were used to launch a statewide pogrom of decimation that has not entirely stopped to date. Gujarat and the whole country were on a red alert due to the aggressive mobilisation by the VHP for rebuilding the Ayodhya movement. In Mumbai, the police made as many as 8,000 preventive arrests in the first week of March to keep the situation under strict control; in contrast, even after Godhra happened, the Gujarat police arrested only two persons in Ahmedabad. And both were Muslims. 

On February 27, after the Godhra tragedy, although the Rapid Action Force (RAF) was called in, no adequate powers were given to the forces. Although curfew was declared in Godhra, the RAF men were made to sit in the officers' mess, helpless, unable to do anything.

On the afternoon of February 28, while Godhra was entirely under curfew, 200-300 cabins (shops) that line the railway station selling their wares and belonging to Muslims were demolished using bulldozers belonging to the Godhra municipality, all under police protection. The economic loss of this destruction is Rs 3-4 crore. The Muslim owners of these shops see nothing but a "teach-them-a-lesson" notice behind this act. An investigation into the background of Godhra shows that when disturbance erupted in 1965, the then collector promptly arrested both Muslims and Hindus whose names appeared in FIRs; within a couple of days, the disturbance was curbed. Even after the October 1980 disturbances, the then collector, S K Verma, had immediately put the miscreants behind bars.

Although all accounts suggest that there was provocation enough by the kar sevaks, little can justify the crime that burned 58 persons alive. The guilty need to be brought to book and punished. The tragedy and crime simply need to be placed in the charged and venomous atmosphere that our country and out polity has been held victim to, where sane, rational impulses are being overwhelmed by rage, revenge and violence.

The immediate uproar that this ghastly attack led to, the subsequent police action, and political manipulation of the motives have caused many witnesses to simply dither from giving evidence. The day I visited Godhra, the area around the station and Signal Falia was eerily quiet. It was also the day the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) was visiting. Twice, the vehicle we were moving around in was attacked. Curfew was imposed and even as we were driving through the city, tense as it was, two persons were shot in police firing.

Among those arrested for the Godhra tragedy - first, under the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance; later, charges under this law were removed - are municipal councillors, Abdul Dhantiya and Salim Shaikh. Shaikh Abdul Hamid Gaffar, who was also arrested, is a brother of Salim Shaikh. Godhra Nagarpalika president Mohammad Hussain Kalota and another councillor, Haji Bilal, who have also been accused of violence, are absconding.

Some locals point out the local politics of the Godhra municipality which, in their opinion, has also contributed to the schisms. In April 2001, the BJP was ruling the municipality but failed in a no-confidence motion through which a Muslim was elected president. For the first time in its history, Muslims dominated the Godhra municipality. 

While one section of those interviewed clearly blames Bilal for attempting to disrupt the fire department workers, another version says that Bilal and Abdul Rehman were actually getting ready to go for a hearing (scheduled at Gandhinagar that day) on the disqualification case. Suddenly, they got a call from workers of the municipality informing them that the train had caught fire. At that state, according to the second version, Bilal rushed there and actually helped control the angry Muslims and assisted in putting out the fire. The persons who gave this information said that the deputy superintendent of police of Panchmahal district, Raju Bhargava, knows these facts about Bilal's conduct but remains quiet because of pressure from the government. (Communalism Combat). 
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