Godhra Verdict: Unanswered Questions!

With due respect to Ahmedabad special court’s verdict in 2002 Godhra train fire case, several questions remain unanswered. Last month, the court convicted 31 people of criminal conspiracy in burning the train and acquitted 63. This also suggests that the Ahmedabad court has ruled out the possibility of the fire being an accident. The burning of S-6 coach in Sabarmati Express near Godhra left 59 people dead, most of whom were Hindu kar sevaks returning from a pilgrimage to Ayodhya. Immediately after the incident, numerous Muslims residing in Godhra were arrested on charges of having torched the train. The manner in which the burning incident was projected and Muslims instantly blamed led to the Gujarat-carnage. The saffron-brigade and their associates abused the country’s judicial system by targeting Muslims in Gujarat, abusing and killing them as well as burning their properties. To this day, justice has eluded the majority of the Muslims who suffered during the Gujarat carnage.

It is indeed ironical that more than 94 persons were kept behind bars for more than nine years for death of 59 kar sevaks. Equally ironical is the fact that lack of evidence against 63 of these Muslims has led to their acquittal this month. This in itself is a pointer to arrests having been made immediately after the Godhra incident without giving substantial attention to whether the Muslims being arrested were actually responsible for burning the coach or not. This point is supported by certain reports of a blind person having been arrested for the train fire and of police having paid minimal attention to his and others denying their role in fire. There are also reports of evidence having been fabricated to ensure several arrests. In other words, it is as yet too early to presume this Godhra verdict as the final one. While those still behind bars remain hopeful of fair trial in the coming days, the saffron brigade reportedly plans to challenge the acquittal of 63 people. This is one side of the story.

Ironically, to a date, little attention has been paid to certain communal incidents which took place prior to burning of the train. A Hindi paper (Jan Morcha of Faizabad), dated 25 February, 2002, carried an exclusive report on the communal behaviour displayed by around 2,000 kar sevaks going to Ayodhya. The report states that kar sevaks, brandishing hooked rods, attacked dozens of Muslim men, women and children. At certain places, they used their rods to tear the burqas worn by Muslim women. They also pulled at the beard of an elderly Muslim and beat others. Though a few persons informed local police of the kar sevak’s barbaric behaviour, it had little impact. By the time the police arrived, the train with kar sevaks had left the station.

Coverage of these atrocities was primarily confined to regional papers. It is a matter of speculation that had pre-Godhra incidents received substantial coverage, the Godhra case and perhaps even Gujarat-carnage may have been checked. True, history cannot be changed. What remains a dark chapter in India’s secular history shall remain stamped as such. While there is no doubt about Gujarat carnage being one such black chapter, the same cannot be said about the Godhra incident.

Equally significant is the fact, as indicated by then regional reports, that communally aggressive behavior was displayed by kar sevaks prior to the Godhra incident. Sadly, this hard fact has still not been given substantial importance by media as a whole. Of course, the kar sevaks’ barbaric behavior, as reported, does not justify the burning of the train, whether it was an accident or a conspiracy. Similarly, even if a few Muslims are finally held as actually responsible for torching the train, those responsible for the subsequent Gujarat carnage cannot be excused.

Please note the difference. The pre-Godhra incidents in which Muslims were communally abused by kar sevaks were practically ignored by national media as well as politicians. The Godhra incident received substantial coverage and the Gujarat carnage dominated the media-world for more than a month. Where Gujarat carnage is concerned, there is no denying that media-coverage put “secularism” of all concerned parties, including different units of media, at stake. Not surprisingly, the secular Indians and secular allies of NDA were forced to question and criticize the Gujarat carnage and the bias displayed by the official machinery during that phase. Against this backdrop, the importance being given by Indian media to Godhra verdict cannot be ignored. In addition to reports of Muslims having been wrongly held, evidence being deliberately manufactured regarding their involvement in burning the train, questions are also being raised on whether those acquitted would receive any compensation or not. Shouldn’t holding a person behind bars for years for no fault of his, but more so because of the discriminatory approach displayed against him by representatives of state machinery simply because of his religious identity be viewed as a crime? It should be. If concerned authorities cannot compensate those wrongly held for the Godhra incident, some attention should be paid to punishing those who kept innocent people behind bars.