Verdict on Godhra: farcical conspiracy

By A.J. Philip

There are some incidents in life which we never forget. I was tuning into my transistor radio at a “technology-free” tourist resort in Assam, when I heard the news about the burning alive of several Hindu “kar sevaks” (volunteers) returning from Ayodhya by the Sabarmati Express. I rushed to my colleague, a well-known writer and specialist in Northeast affairs, who was staying in another room, to convey the news. Soon, we left for Guwahati. On the way, I tried in vain to get more details about the killings from the BBC and the All India Radio (AIR). That was the first time we heard about a railway station called Godhra. At that time I did not remember that I had passed through the small Gujarat town every time I went to Mumbai from Delhi by train.

Godhra is a non-descript wayside railway station. On the Delhi-Mumbai route, it is the first station in Gujarat after the train leaves Madhya Pradesh. The burning of the S-6 coach of the train resulted in an anti-Muslim pogrom that took the lives of nearly 1200 people. It polarised the people on religious lines and helped the BJP, which had been losing a string of by-elections, to return to power. The benefit of religious polarisation continues to help Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who was the first to claim that Godhra was the result of a “conspiracy” and, therefore, a premeditated attack.

Some questions that came to my mind at that time were: How did the “conspirators” know that the “kar sevaks” were in the S-6 coach? Usually the list of passengers is pasted on the train compartment only a few minutes before the train departs from the originating station. Even if they got the passengers’ list in distant Godhra at a time when the Internet was not all that common, how did they know in advance that they were “kar sevaks”?

“Kar sevaks” had been travelling on this route ever since BJP leader L. K. Advani started his Ayodhya movement after the party got a drubbing in the 1984 elections in which even former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was defeated and the party’s representation in the Lok Sabha was reduced to just two members. Why did the “conspirators” choose that day to strike? What was the message they wanted to convey by this dastardly act?

In the investigation of any crime, one question to which the police seek an answer is: Who is the beneficiary of the crime? Did the “conspirators” get any benefit from the killing of 59 “kar sevaks” on February 27, 2002? Assume that they did it for the general good of the Muslim community, what benefit did the latter receive? Unfortunately, the answer to all these questions is in the negative.

Now, let’s revert to the principal question: Who benefited from the Godhra attack? Is not the answer obvious from Modi’s attempt to cash in on the communal polarisation in the wake of Godhra and the subsequent killing and looting spree that continued uninterruptedly for weeks together? It was not “development” that brought the BJP back to power in the elections in the same year but the blood of innocent Muslims. It is often argued by the likes of Narendra Modi that the communal riots were the spontaneous reaction of Hindus to the killing of Hindus at Godhra. We have not yet forgotten then Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee’s famous rhetorical question, “kisne aag jalaayee?” (Who lit the fire?). As I mentioned already, Godhra is the closest station to Madhya Pradesh. The reaction to the killing should have been severer in Madhya Pradesh than in Ahmedabad, hundreds of miles away from Godhra. But why were not a single Muslim attacked in MP, whereas 1200 of them were killed and several thousands uprooted from their ancestral villages and forced to move into relief camps and “ghettos”?

In the popular discourse on Godhra, why was an incident that happened at the Godhra station and which was reported by the media, not given due attention? The reference here is to the attempt made by some “kar sevaks” (may their soul rest in peace!) to physically drag a Muslim girl into their compartment after a wordy duel. She managed to escape. The news of a “girl from our locality” being forcibly taken away reached the Muslims living in the station area, who attacked the “kar sevaks”. This theory, too, raises some questions: Who pulled the chain and stopped the train? Was the girl questioned about what the “kar sevaks” did to her? Surely, the “kar sevaks” had no spiritual motives with regard to the girl. The police could have easily found answers to all these questions had it been given a free hand and it went about its job in a thoroughly professional manner. Instead, the attempt had been to prove that a meeting had taken place, where it was decided to attack the train (S-6 coach), and buy 120 litres of petrol for the purpose? Why did they buy petrol, when they could have procured much cheaper kerosene? Remember all this was done after the train had left Ayodhya on its onward journey to Ahmedabad!

The G. T. Nanavati-Akshay Mehta judicial enquiry commission, appointed by the Modi government, was the first to uphold Modi’s theory of “conspiracy”. But former Supreme Court judge U. C. Banerjee, who was appointed by then Railway Minister Lalu Prasad, to inquire into the burning of the train disproved the “conspiracy theory,” found that the fire was “purely accidental”. But their findings had only academic value, for they did not impact the fortunes of the accused. But that is not the case with the trial court’s verdict.

In the eyes of the law, everybody is equal. But in the eyes of the Gujarat Government, the “conspirators” of Godhra, all of whom were Muslims, were more criminal than even those ministers who supervised the “inaction” of the police when innocent Muslims were being killed. The conspirators who paraded the bodies of the “kar sevaks” to whip up passions were not touched, let alone booked under the then Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota).

Pota was invoked against the accused in the Godhra case so that they could not easily get bail. For nine long years the case dragged on till on February 22, Special Court judge P. R. Patel pronounced his verdict. He convicted 31 persons and acquitted 63 others. Needless to say, the intention of a judicial verdict is not to please all. The job of a judge is to punish the guilty. He does not have any supernatural abilities and relies solely on the evidence produced before him by the prosecution. Nobody considers a judge infallible. In fact, the right to appeal is given so that faulty judgements can be challenged right up to the Supreme Court. A Supreme Court judgement is considered the ultimate, not because Supreme Court judges are superior human beings but because there is no court higher than the Supreme Court.

What is most significant about Patel’s verdict is not so much the number of people who were found “guilty” or were acquitted as the upholding of the “conspiracy theory”. Who was the “principal conspirator”, according to the prosecution? It was one Maulana Umarji. He was the one who planned it. So, logically, he should get the maximum punishment. But what did the court do against him? Umarji has been “acquitted” because the court did not find any evidence against him. When the “principal conspirator” is innocent, how on earth can the “conspiracy theory” stand?

Godhra Municipality chief Mohammed Abdul Rahim Kalota was another “major player” in the macabre drama. When his name was included in the chargesheet, everyone wondered how a leader of his eminence could even think of burning alive train passengers, even if they had gone to Ayodhya to build a “magnificent” temple in place of the centuries-old Babri Masjid, which was demolished by frenzied “kar sevaks” 10 years earlier? Was he found guilty? No, the court found him innocent and Kalota was, therefore, acquitted.

Is it, therefore, any surprise that a large majority of the accused have been acquitted? Now, the question is how were the 31 found “guilty”? The court relied on the statements of five witnesses, though all of them had subsequently retracted their statements. Some of their statements were recorded after one year of the incident. (Manas Dasgupta’s report, The Hindu, February 23, 2011).

The judgement raises some fundamental questions. One of the acquitted has described his new-found “freedom” as a “return to heaven from hell”. Just imagine the experience the 69 acquitted underwent during the last nine years. How difficult it would have been for their wives to keep their hearths burning when their only bread-winners were behind bars for no other reason than that they were Muslims. They have lost nine precious years of their lives. Why were they denied bail?
In a country where bail is routinely granted even to those accused of cold-blooded murder, what justification was there to deny bail to the Godhra accused? How will the state compensate the loss - physical and mental - they suffered? Will any action be taken against those who slapped terrorism charges against them, only to make their life miserable? Will the state help them to re-establish their lives? I have little doubt that if the judgement receives a close, dispassionate look by the High Court, it would be set aside. However, the BJP is happy that its theory of conspiracy has been upheld by the trial court. One of the VHP leaders Pravin Togadia wants to “ensure that all the accused -- including those acquitted -- get capital punishment”. Unfortunately for him, wishes are not horses and punishment is meted out according to the dictates of the Penal Code, not the VHP.

The judgement raises a whole lot of questions. For argument’s sake, let’s agree that a conspiracy resulted in Godhra. In that case, what about the conspiracy to exploit Godhra for political gains? Take the case of Togadia. Why is the state unable to take action against him despite the sinister role he played in the anti- Christian pogrom in Kandhamal? He was the one who went around the district in Orissa inciting the common people to attack Christians for the assassination of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati. Why are such “real conspirators” not hauled up when “innocents” are accused of a conspiracy that never existed? But to expect them to be brought to justice is not to understand factors that see the attack on the train at Godhra differently from the countless incidents of crime against Muslims in which 1200 of them perished and property worth billions or rupees were destroyed. (Indian Currents)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 April 2011 on page no. 8

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