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Published in the 1-15 Mar 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

The Mystery of the Burning Coach

Who set Coach S-6 on fire? And how?

By Syed Shahabuddin

Justice UC Banerjee’s Interim Report has totally demolished the theory, first propagated by the Sangh Parivar and then by the Modi Government and subsequently adopted by the State Special Prosecutor in the POTA Case that Muslim terrorists instigated and supported by the ISI had set fire to ill-fated coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express on 27 February, 2002. The State Government having pre-determined the cause of the fire, the SIT set up by the Government of Gujarat had inexorably concocted one falsehood after another, built up a complete scenario based on the uncorroborated statement of a history-sheeter criminal while in police custody and detained nearly 200 Muslims of Godhra, including some well-known and respected citizens, charged them under POTA and prosecuted them before a Special Court. The prosecution is going on. Justice Banerjee with his legal acumen and common sense has brought out the illogicality and even absurdity of the case concocted and built up, by the Gujarat Police, with the support of the Railway Ministry which was then headed by Shri Nitish Kumar of the Samata Party, now merged with JD(U).

Yet three years later, the public does not even know the exact number of the occupants of the ill-fated coach, the names of the unfortunate who lost their lives or of the fortunate who saved themselves by crawling to the exits and jumping out of the coach while dense clouds of fatal smoke were spreading through the coach. Though it was and has been widely and repeatedly propagated that all the 58 who lost their lives were the Karsevaks returning from the ‘pilgrimage’ to Ayodhya, it is obvious from the news reports that all of them were not Karsevaks. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad which had given the call to the Karsevaks to reach Ayodhya and also a subsequent call for state-wide protest Bandh in their name has not yet published a list of those Karsevaks (and their family members, as some of them apparently travelled with their family members) who were burnt to death or of those who were injured.

Coach S-6 like the rest of the train was overcrowded with Karsevaks most of whom were travelling, perhaps without tickets and certainly without reservation. These Karsevaks, armed with Trishuls and acting as an organized group had intruded into practically all coaches and forced out the genuine passengers who took shelter in other coaches or shared their berths with the intruders. In coach S-6, the total number of occupants could not have exceeded double its normal capacity of 72, say, 150. This more or less matches with the total number of persons who are reported to have saved themselves plus those who were brought out dead or injured. But the actual break up between the dead, the injured and the unscathed and of each category between the passengers and Karsevaks is not yet known. Obviously the fire, whatever the origin, did not burn the Karsevaks selectively but everyone and everything in its way.

Another fact is of great importance. Why was only one coach set on fire? If a hostile group at Godhra had planned to retaliate against the marauding Karsevaks, why pick up S-6? Why target only S-6 for stoning? The train was chock-a-full with the Karsevaks.

But, in the face of a human tragedy of immense proportion, these categorizations are not important. What is important is the cause of the fire. And this question has remained unanswered. Justice Banerjee is convinced that there was no conspiracy by the Godhra Muslims and that the fire was an accident. Perhaps a cooking stove which caught fire, perhaps a burning cigarette butt or a lighted match-stick which was carelessly thrown caused the fire. But such theorization is simply not credible because in an overcrowded coach, there was no space for cooking and a smoking cigarette butt or match stick does not have a life long enough to set the inflammable material in the berths on fire.

The Banerjee Report has established that no one entered the coach from outside, with or without the canisters containing petroleum, through the doors or the connecting vestibule. No flaming torches could have been thrown into the coach from outside. Yet the terrible fire which took 58 lives and damaged the coach, could not have been accidental. It was a deliberate crime, planned and executed with knowledge and skill. So with due respect one disagrees with Justice Banerjee on the finding that there was no conspiracy. There was a conspiracy. The question is who were the conspirators?

We know how the Godhra fire was exploited politically to set the state on fire. The Sangh Parivar had taken the Karsevaks to Ayodhya to celebrate the expected victory of the BJP in UP Assembly election, in their own way, with a bit of Muslim-bashing. The expected victory turned into resounding defeat, consigning the BJP to the fourth position. The dejected Karsevaks were returning. That they were in a bad mood is supported by the reports of their behaviour in Lucknow and other stations. The political scenario at the other end was a consistently negative run of bye-elections in Gujarat. The Sangh Parivar faced a compulsion to ensure the victory of the BJP in the coming Assembly election. This compulsion became stronger, perhaps overwhelming, after the UP debacle. As usual, communal violence had always been on the agenda. The then head of the VHP in Gujarat is on record that the VHP had mapped Muslim houses and flats, shops and establishments in Ahmedabad and may be in other places. We also know that without any reason and against the advice of the local administration, the Chief Minister had all dead bodies transported to Ahmedabad. We also have the record of how the killers, the rapists and the arsonists were given a free run of the state and how the police was asked not to interfere with the expression of their indignant ‘reaction’. So we have a political motive, the evidence of advance planning, and the execution of the first state-managed genocide in independent India, which was designed politically to benefit the BJP and which indeed enabled it to return to power in the State.

The problem for the beneficiary lay in how to manufacture a raison d’guerre, a justification, an excuse, a provocation, an event, an action to which, using Modi’s language, the genocide could be projected as a ‘reaction’. Strategic planning for victory in Gujarat demanded a dramatic event before the election which would silence even the most secular-minded citizens or immobilize his sense of outrage, the normal impulse in the average citizen to exclaim ‘yes, they deserved it’!

Theoretically we are faced with two alternatives. The train fire was an ‘accident’ which proved to be a god-send for the VHP-BJP to trigger their plan into operation and set into motion their hordes to set Gujarat on fire. Or, that some one deliberately and ruthlessly ignited the fire – in diabolical contempt for human life, including some Karsevaks.

But even the devil needs a highly inflammable material, something which could be conveniently carried into a coach and readily ignited. Justice Banerjee, found no such material but coming on the scene, after the lapse of 2 years, how could he have discovered even its traces?

Does such a material exist? What is the critical volume? What is the ignition time? Is it long enough for the ‘killer’ to get off the coach or pass into another, out of harm’s way? That such a material exists is known. It is alleged that such a material was used to devastate Naroda Patia area of Ahmedabad. Observes have noticed a striking similarity in the pattern of fire and destruction in the two locales. Perhaps the same or similar chemical was used in the wake of the Bhuj earthquake to demolish structures.

Even if the chemical origin of fire is established, the all important question remains unresolved whose hand lit the fire and who were all behind him? The answer to these questions and the reason for the selection of S-6 for staging the ‘event’ are inter-connected. This depends on the actual number of Karsevaks among the occupants and among the 58 killed. If it is established that their proportion was low, it looks like a deliberate choice and the needle of suspicion points in one direction. If high, it points in another.

Whether an agent of the ISI or of the VHP or of any other set of conspirators, the person who did the job, at the behest of his masters, was a ruthless, cold-blooded killer, a devil in human form.

Some day, the mystery of the Burning Coach shall be revealed, like that of the Reichstag Fire which brought Hitler to power in Germany in the 30’s! «

 

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