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I have never seen Sabarmati Express: Godhra ‘mastermind’

Godhra (Gujarat): The man who spent eight years in jail on charges of masterminding the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra and killing 59 people has now been declared innocent and walks free. But Saeed Umarji is a bitter man and says he is a social worker who had never even seen this particular train.

Maulana Hussain Ibrahim Umarji, popularly known as Saeed Umarji, said that the only reason authorities had punished him was because he spoke on behalf of innocent fellow Muslims. “I have never seen the Sabarmati Express because it passes through Godhra only at night,” the 65-year-old Umarji told IANS in an exclusive interview.

Umarji said he was a social worker who was at the forefront of relief efforts when a devastating earthquake ravaged Latur in Maharashtra in 1993 and Kutch in Gujarat in 2001. He also ran several relief camps after the Gujarat riots of 2002. A total of 3,500 people took shelter in these camps. He also took care of people who got arrested in the Godhra case. Umarji runs educational institutions in the town of Godhra, about 115 km from Gujarat’s main city Ahmedabad.

A mob targeted the Sabarmati Express’s Coach S6 on Feb 27, 2002, near the Godhra station burning to death 59 people, mostly Hindu activists who were returning home from Ayodhya. The incident, later dubbed a conspiracy, triggered one of the worst communal riots in Gujarat leaving over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead. Thousands were injured, and tens of thousands uprooted from their homes. Umarji was one of the many arrested for the train burning. After eight years in jail, a judge last month acquitted Umarji and many others of the charges.

A graduate from Darul Uloom, Deoband, Umarji is a bitter man today. “Jail is a graveyard of living people,” Umarji said. “I lost eight years of my precious life. No one can return it now. I and my family were mentally tortured. Our ladies normally never stepped out of home. But after my arrest, for several days my wife couldn’t stay at home. My sons lived in fear,” Umarji said, referring to fears of reprisals from Hindu radicals. While he was in prison, and with no sign when – if at all – he would be released, four of his sons and two daughters got married.

The social worker says he was implicated in a false case because he tried to blame the state government of Narendra Modi for the 2002 violence. “My biggest sin was that that I gave a memorandum to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayeei and explained in detail the role of the state machinery during the riots. That was when he visited Godhra. I mentioned the problems we (Muslims) faced after the Godhra incident, but they (authorities) wanted us to keep quiet and not to complain.”

Later, he was asked to meet Vajpayee at Gandhinagar. “I refused. I didn’t want to meet him because it was of no use.” Umarji recalled how police treated him in captivity. One question he was repeatedly asked was why he gave a statement against the Gujarat Police on the human rights situation.

Even as he laments over his fate, Umarji is sympathetic to those who died in the Sabarmati Express. “I condemn that incident and I express my sympathy to them and their families.”

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 April 2011 on page no. 21

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