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Published in the 1-15 Mar 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Godhra Fire — an accident?

Investigations by the Jan Sangharsh Manch suggest that the tragic Godhra train fire in 2002, which sparked off terrible riots in Gujarat might have been caused by flammable rubberised vestibules rather than deliberate mischief, says Sanjay Kapoor

Godhra trainIt has been two years now since the Godhra train incident and its violent aftermath blew up the secular pretensions of our country. On February 27, 2002, 58 men, women and children traveling in the S6 coach of the Sabarmati Express were singed to death in a mysterious fire. The minority community living alongside the railway track, allegedly trained and bankrolled by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), was blamed for this ghoulish incident. A vicious backlash against the minorities, largely sponsored by the state government, made the Muslims refugees in their own country. The nightmare of Gujarat still haunts the secular psyche of this country, but we still have no definite proof about how the incident took place. 

The Justice Nanavati Commission that is looking into the Godhra tragedy has not been able to complete its report on the incident. However, painstaking investigation by a group of public-spirited individuals working under the rubric of Jan Sangharsh Manch, Ahmedabad, suggests that the Godhra fire could be an accident caused by highly inflammable rubberised vestibules. Hardnews received corroboration for this theory from the sudden rash of train fires in Delhi and other parts of the country in the last couple of years. Authorities are clueless about why these fires are taking place. A close inspection of the pictures of the burnt coaches of Godhra and the other fires show that there is amazing similarity in the destruction. Eyewitness accounts of these tragic fires are also not very dissimilar. In all of them there are suggestions that the fire may have started from near the vestibule after which it engulfed the entire train. 

All of these fires have been accompanied by thick smoke smelling of burning rubber. The inquiry conducted by the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) was into the fire that took place on May 15, 2003 in the Frontier Mail. A coach on that train mysteriously caught fire near Ludhiana station and snuffed out 38 lives. Eyewitnesses claim that they saw some sparks on the roof of the train. Others saw the fire leap close to where the toilet is located (near the rubberised vestibule). In all these cases, within 15-20 minutes the entire coach was burnt to ashes. In the Frontier Mail, the guard and the driver had the presence of mind to unhinge the other coaches. After a detailed inquiry, the CRS claimed that he did not know why it happened. In the last three months in Delhi alone there have been nine train fires. More than Rs 10 crore have been lost in these fires. Incidentally, all of them were on long distance trains that had been parked for cleaning up at the washing lines. And all of them had a rubberised vestibule. Eyewitness accounts in these cases did not really add to the authorities’ understanding of why the fires happened. 

As has been displayed by scores of train-roko agitations and even simulated exercises conducted for the benefit of the Justice Nanawati Commission, burning a coach is not easy. Agitators have thrown bucketsful of kerosene on trains, but all that their incendiary efforts managed to achieve was to get some paint off the coaches. In a forensic exercise, experts were able to establish that it was impossible to throw inflammable liquid from outside and burn the train. The forensic experts also discounted the possibility of kerosene-dipped rags being able to start fires. So how did these trains catch fire? 
( - reproduced with permission) 

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