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Revisiting Sabarmati Express Fire That Engulfed Gujarat in 2002

But, nobody knows who lit the match.

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Explainers
13 min read
Revisiting  Sabarmati Express Fire That Engulfed Gujarat in 2002
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Snapshot

On 27 February 2002, the Sabaramati Express was running about three-and-half-hours late. Finally, at 7:42 am it rolled out of the Godhra station, and barely a kilometre into its final leg to Ahmedabad, someone pulled the emergency chain, bringing the train to a halt.

What happened here remains conflicted.

But, what we know is that coach number S-6 was set on fire, killing 59 passengers, including 27 women and 10 children. Most of them were kar sevaks returning from the inauguration of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s 100-day ‘Purnahuti Maha Yagna’ in Ayodhya. The event, part of the right-wing group’s agenda to build a Ram temple on the disputed Babri masjid site, had been widely covered in print and television media. Any harm to ‘Ram’s army’ was bound to invite a backlash.

In the communal violence that followed, the government claimed, rather conservatively, that 1,044 people had died, 223 went missing, and 2,500 were injured.

As for who struck the match that lit the fire of hate across Gujarat, remains a mystery. Sixteen years since the attack, The Quint tries to piece together the facts.

Revisiting Sabarmati Express Fire That Engulfed Gujarat in 2002

  1. 1. What Happened

    On 27 February 2002, the Sabarmati Express pulled into the Godhra Railway Station. It was carrying around 1,700 pilgrims and kar sevaks to its final destination – Ahmedabad. The kar sevaks were returning from Ayodhya, where the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had organised a yagna as part of its agenda to build a Ram temple on the disputed site where the Babri Masjid once stood. As per an India Today report, a minor scuffle broke out at the Godhra station between kar sevaks and tea vendors, most of whom were Muslim. It was usual for the kar sevaks to get off at every station, raise slogans of ‘Jai Sri Ram’ and celebrate.

    In a paper titled ‘Communal Riots in Gujarat: The State at Risk?’, Christoph Jaffrelot writes about what exactly led to the altercation at the Godhra station.

    Those who were originally from Gujarat and were returning home aboard the Sabarmati Express had gathered together in a few coaches. They chanted Hindu nationalist songs and slogans right through the journey, all the while harassing Muslim passengers. One family was even made to get off the train for refusing to utter the kar sevaks’ war cry: “Jai Shri Ram!” (Glory to Lord Ram!) More abuse occurred at the stop in Godhra: a Muslim shopkeeper was also ordered to shout “Jai Shri Ram!” He refused, and was assaulted until the kar sevaks turned on a Muslim woman with her two daughters. One of them was forced to board the train before it started going again.

    After a five minute halt, the train began leaving the station and had gone no more than a kilometre, when the emergency brakes were pulled.

    “...the train came to a halt in the middle of a Muslim neighborhood inhabited by Ghanchis, a community from which many of the Godhra street vendors hail. Anywhere from 500 to 2,000 of them, depending on the sources, surrounded the coaches occupied by the karsevaks and attacked it with stones and torches,” writes the political-social scientist. 

    The kar sevaks, in a vulnerable spot, instructed everyone to shut the doors and windows.

    The train resumed its journey but was again brought to a halt after covering barely half a kilometre more due to a mechanical snag. A mob, said to be more than a thousand strong, then rushed towards the train and again began to pelt it with stones. It targeted three coaches which carried kar sevaks and set fire to coach S-6, killing 59 passengers.
    Report in India Today on 22 July 2002

    By 8:25 am, the police arrived at the scene and opened fire, which dispersed the crowd.

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  2. 2. Who Lit the Fire?

    Sixteen years since the incident, there is no conclusive answer to the question.

    A survivor of the attack, Debashis Bhattacharya, a passenger on Coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express, recalling the mood among the kar sevaks he was travelling with, told The Times of India:

    Like every other station, the Ram Sevaks had got down on the platform on Wednesday morning, shouting ‘Jai Sri Ram’ slogans, even breaking into an impromptu dance.

    However, the mood changed at Godhra, where kar sevaks rushed into the compartment asking fellow passengers to pull the shutters down at the station.

    “I realised, there must’ve been some trouble on the platform. The people looked tense. The train came to a screeching halt about a kilometre from the station and then began the deafening sound of stones banging on the steel body of the coach. It went on without a stop. Soon, people began breaking open the windows and stones were flying. I could hear people say – ‘maar dalo sabko’. Soon, I could smell something burning and smoke was crawling up to me.  I saw a broken window, its bars had been twisted apart. The attack had actually opened up a way for me.”

    As many as 253 witnesses like Debashis were examined by the trial court set up inside the Sabarmati Central Jail in June 2009. But not a single witness corroborated the prosecution’s claim that arsonists had broken into the coach and splashed petrol from 20-litre cans. Not a single survivor claimed to have seen someone or physically ascertained the presence of any petrol on the overcrowded coach. The trial court would later acknowledge this discrepancy.

    “Admittedly, at the time of the incident, all doors and windows of the entire train were closed because of the tense atmosphere and the passengers were not in a position to see or identify the assailants and that too, unknown assailants,” the trail court had observed.

    Expand
  3. 3. Was the Fire Premeditated or an Accident?

    Was the fire that killed 59 people – 27 women and 10 children included – the result of a pre-planned conspiracy or an accident?

    Initial evidence and investigations pointed to the possibility of the fire being the result of an accident brought on by the sheer number of agitators who were pelting stones, and by some accounts, molotov cocktails (bottles containing kerosene/petrol, set on fire) thrown at the train.

    On 27 February 2002, through the day, Godhra District Collector told several media organisations that “the incident was not pre-meditated, it was an accident.”

    Even a month after the incident, there was no evidence to suggest that the fire had been caused as part of a conspiracy to extract revenge for the religious activities around the establishment of a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

    On 29 March 2002, Inspector General of Police, Railways, PP Agja told The Times of India, “The case is still being investigated and if there is some deep conspiracy, we are yet to find it.” According to him, the situation was such that it lent itself to an accidental fire.

    “A group of unruly kar sevaks had boarded the train at Lucknow without reservations and had put to discomfort the 66 genuine passengers of the coach. Some of the ticket paying passengers had to sleep on the floor; so overcrowded the compartment had become that the ticket collector who came aboard the train at Ratlam (two stations before Godhra) was not allowed to enter the coach.”

    He further noted that at at all times, there were some 250 hawkers on the station. “Some of them carry stoves with kerosene in them,” he told TOI in the interview.

    “All of them live in a slum named Signal Falia, located next to the station. All of them are Ghanchi Muslims and are uneducated, without any jobs, and poor.”
    Expand
  4. 4. How did the Sabarmati Train Fire Become a Conspiracy?

    On the evening of the attack on the Sabarmati Express and the subsequent fire, the Gujarat government released a statement following a “spot assessment of the situation.” Quoting first-time chief minister Narendra Modi, it called the attack a “pre-planned inhuman collective violent act of terrorism.”

    When asked about the Muslims who’d been massacred in the two days following the Sabarmati Express fire, Modi said,“Hum chahte hain ki na kriya ho aur na pratikriya (We want the action and the chain reaction to stop),” thus clearly suggesting that the Godhra train fire was a deliberate, pre-meditated act.

    On 3 March 2002, provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) were invoked, and a week later, on 9 March, Section 120 (b) of the Indian Penal Code was applied to introduce the conspiracy angle.

    The Prosecution’s Case

    According to the Gujarat Police, the conspiracy was hatched at the behest of Maulvi Umarji, a respected cleric, in Godhra at the Aman guesthouse – specifically in room number 8 of the guesthouse owned by Abdul Razzak Mohammed Kurkur. In this meeting, the police alleged the plan was made to purchase seven cans with 20 litres of petrol from a petrol pump owned by one Kalubhai.

    The police alleged that Kurkur, on his two-wheeler, accompanied the tempo on to which the petrol cans were loaded. Also, he then instructed three of his men to board the Sabarmati Express and pull the chain, and then transferred the petrol cans onto the train.

    Apart from Maulvi Umarji, there were at least seven other prominent persons named as the accused. Chief political opponent of the BJP in the area and president of the Godhra Municipal Corporation at the time of his arrest, Mohammad Hussain Kalota, was accused of inciting the violent mob which had assembled outside the train. Four other corporators of the municipal council – Bilal Haji, Farooq Mohammad Bhana, Salim Shaikh, and Abdul Rahman Dhantiya – were also named along with two advocates, Rol Amin Hussain Hathila and Habib Karim Shaikh.

    The police also booked 134 others, of which only 94 were tried. Seventeen went absconding, 13 were released for lack of evidence, five died during trial, and five were juveniles and not tried. After the revocation of the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act in 2004, the trial was conducted in a regular court set up inside the Sabarmati Central Jail in Ahmedabad.

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  5. 5. What Did Forensics Prove?

    The Forensic Science Laboratory examined the crime scene and concluded that the fire could not have been started by anyone outside. The report stated that –

    1. It was virtually impossible for someone to throw inflammable liquid into the train through the coach windows, as they were at a height of about seven feet.

    2. There was a three-feet mound running parallel to the track at a distance of 14 feet, and if the conspirators were standing on this mound and splashing fuel at the compartment, only 10 to 15 percent of the fuel would have crept in. Most would have fallen outside and there would have been signs of fire and burn damage on and near the track. This was not so.

    3. Someone standing in the passage of coach S-6 near seat number 72 used a container with a wide opening and poured 60 litres of inflammable liquid, and then the fire started.

    The Gujarat FSL report indicated that while petrol soaked handkerchiefs were thrown at the train, it would’ve been impossible for it to be enough to cause the fire that engulfed coach S-6. The burn marks were only up to the flooring of the coach and the exterior was not as scorched, as the heat was generated from the inside. In short, the report suggested that the fire was lit by someone inside the coach. 

    But, the question is, if the kar sevaks had shut the doors and windows to protect themselves from the stone pelting, how could the perpetrators have gained access to the coach to spill 60 litres of inflammable liquid to set coach S-6 on fire?

    The report was selectively picked by the Congress and the BJP to suit their political and ideological view. The Congress saw the report as proof that the Sabarmati Express fire was a conspiracy orchestrated by the Hindutva brigade to stir trouble, while the BJP claimed the FSL report confirmed that the attack on the kar sevaks was the handiwork of Muslim fundamentalists.

    Expand
  6. 6. The Two Contradicting Reports

    Nanavati-Mehta Commission Report (Part 1)
    On 6 March 2002, the then Gujarat CM, Narendra Modi, appointed a commission of inquiry into the Godhra train burning incident and the subsequent riots that took place – both in Godhra and the rest of Gujarat. In September 2008, the Nanavati- Mehta Commission submitted its report on the Godhra train burning incident (part 1). Most of its findings were in sync with what the Gujarat police had alleged.

    It concluded –

    1 . There was a conspiracy to burn coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express train to cause harm to kar sevaks traveling in the coach.
    2. That this was part of a larger conspiracy to create terror and destabilise the administration.
    3. There was no evidence regarding involvement of any definite religious or political organisation in the conspiracy.
    5. There was no evidence to show that either the chief minister or any other minister(s) had played any role in the Godhra incident or that there was any lapse on their part in providing protection, relief and rehabilitation to the victims of communal riots or in the matter of not complying with the recommendations and directions of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

    UC Banerjee Committee Report
    On 4 September 2004, about three months after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government came to power, Railway Minister Lalu Prasad appointed Justice Umesh Chandra Banerjee to investigate the Godhra train burning. In January 2005, the former Supreme Court judge submitted his interim report, the findings of which were in stark contrast to what the Nanavati-Mehta Commission had concluded.

    It said –

    1. The fire was accidental and not caused by the deliberate use of any inflammable material. With the elimination of the petrol theory, the miscreant activity theory, as well as the ruling out of electric fire, the fire in S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express can at this stage be described as an ‘accidental’ fire.

    “How could there have been a conspiracy when there was no information about the return of the kar sevaks?” the report asked.

    2. There has been a preponderance of evidence that the fire originated in the coach itself and not due to any external cause. The report completely ruled out the possibility of an inflammable liquid having been used as there was a smell of burning, followed by dense smoke and flames.

    3. Muslims not only permitted the district administration to use their community well, but also provided a pump set to draw water to douse the flames.

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  7. 7. A Conspiracy with No Conspirator

    Nine years after 59 people perished in a fire on board the Sabarmati Express, on 1 March 2011, the SIT court set up inside the Central Jail in Ahmedabad held 31 guilty of conspiracy and murder. Eleven convicts were awarded the death sentence and 20 were sentenced to life imprisonment; 63 people were acquitted, of whom 43 were released on bail after nine years in jail.

    Notably, Maulvi Umarji and Mohammad Hussain Kalota were acquitted, raising the question: on what grounds was the court still calling the fire the result of a conspiracy when it had acquitted the two main alleged ‘conspirators’?

    The court, however, accepted the prosecution’s version that the conspiracy was hatched at the Aman guesthouse belonging to Razak Kurkur, and the fuel used to burn the train was stored a day earlier. Kurkur and another prime accused, Haji Billa, were found guilty. The five men, who allegedly got into the train to spill the fuel, were also identified as Ayub Pataliya, Irfan Kalandar, Mehboob Popa, Shaukat Pataliya and Siddiqui Vora.

    Addressing the media after the proceedings concluded, Special Public Prosecutor JM Panchal told the media that the court had accepted that the motive of the conspiracy was to set the train on fire.

    “The vestibule was cut and the coach was set on fire. There can be no debate on the judicial verdict. The verdict is based on forensic lab report, oral evidence and eyewitness accounts.”

    The Appeals
    On 9 October 2017, the Gujarat High Court commuted the death sentence of 11 convicts to rigorous life imprisonment. The life sentence of 20 others was upheld. While ordering the state and the Railways to pay compensation of Rs 10 lakh to the kin of those killed in the Godhra incident, the High Court observed that “the state has failed to maintain law and order, so has the Railways.”

    The High Court relied on the testimonies of injured witnesses, passengers, railway employees, Railway Protection Force personnel, two policemen from Godhra, the Gujarat Railway Police, experts from forensic laboratories, and also confessional statements.

    The court rejected the appeals filed by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) against the acquittal of 63 people, and also its appeal seeking enhancement of sentences.

    Recent Arrests

    On 16 July 2015, the Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) arrested Farooq Mohammad Bhana near the Kalol-Khadiki check post in Panchmahal district. The 50-year-old has been named a key conspirator in the Godhra train carnage. In 2002, Bhana was an independent councillor in the Godhra municipality representing Polan Bazar ward.

    "We suspect that Bhana could have visited Pakistan while being on the run. He was staying in Mumbai for the last seven years. We are probing whether he had procured a fake passport,” The Times of India quoted JK Bhatt, Inspector General of Police, ATS, as saying.

    On 25 July 2015, the Godhra crime branch claimed to have nabbed the prime accused in the Godhra case, Hussain Suleman Mohammad from Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh. As per a report in The Times of India, 35-year-old Hussain had been working as an auto-driver in Jhabua.

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  8. 8. The Aftermath

    For three days after the Sabarmati train fire, inter-religious violence was reported across Gujarat. Following the initial spurt of violence, there were outbreaks across the state for nearly a year.

    Among the major cases that went to trial were –

    1. Naroda Patiya Massacre
    On 28 February 2002, just a day after the Sabarmati train burning, a mob of around 5,000 people killed 97 people in Naroda, even as a bandh had been called for by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in the state. In the riot that lasted over 10 hours, the mob looted, stabbed, gang-raped and burnt people individually and in groups. It was the “largest single case of mass murder” during the 2002 riots.

    In 2012, a special court convicted 32 people and acquitted 29 others. Notable among those convicted was Maya Kodnani, former Gujarat Women and Child Development Minister who was sentenced to 28 years in prison, and Bajrang Dal’s Babu Bajrangi.

    2. Gulberg Society Massacre
    On the morning of 28 February 2002, a mob surrounded Gulberg Society in Chamanpura, Ahmedabad, that housed upper middle-class Muslim families. By noon, the mob breached the boundary wall, and, over the course of the next six hours, burned houses, raped, looted and killed at least 69 people. Many people had taken refuge in former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri’s house while he repeatedly tried to contact the police for help.

    His wife, Zakia Jafri, contested the SIT report which gave a clean chit to Narendra Modi, but the Supreme Court ruled against setting up another investigation into the Gujarat riots.

    3. Best Bakery
    A small outlet in the Hanuman Tekri area of Vadodara, Best Bakery was burned down by a mob, even as 14 people, including the family that owned it, took refuge inside. In February 2006, the trial court convicted nine of the 21 accused and sentenced them to life imprisonment, and acquitted eight others.

    The Bombay High Court later acquitted five of the nine persons who were previously convicted, but upheld the life imprisonment of four others.

    4. Bilkis Bano Case
    Nineteen-year-old Bilkis Bano was, along with her family, escaping a murderous mob on a truck when she was gang-raped. Bilkis was five months pregnant at the time. Fourteen members of her family were killed, including her two-year-old daughter and mother. Bilkis fought the case for 15 years, and in May 2017, the Bombay High Court upheld the life imprisonment sentence of the 11 accused.

    5. Avdhootnagar Case
    On 17 March 2002, a group of Muslim men went back to their homes under police protection to collect luggage for the relief camps in which their families were taking shelter in. While loading the trucks at night, a group of around 5,000 persons started attacking them. Most of them managed to escape, but two men on a motorcycle were chased and killed with swords.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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What Happened

On 27 February 2002, the Sabarmati Express pulled into the Godhra Railway Station. It was carrying around 1,700 pilgrims and kar sevaks to its final destination – Ahmedabad. The kar sevaks were returning from Ayodhya, where the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had organised a yagna as part of its agenda to build a Ram temple on the disputed site where the Babri Masjid once stood. As per an India Today report, a minor scuffle broke out at the Godhra station between kar sevaks and tea vendors, most of whom were Muslim. It was usual for the kar sevaks to get off at every station, raise slogans of ‘Jai Sri Ram’ and celebrate.

In a paper titled ‘Communal Riots in Gujarat: The State at Risk?’, Christoph Jaffrelot writes about what exactly led to the altercation at the Godhra station.

Those who were originally from Gujarat and were returning home aboard the Sabarmati Express had gathered together in a few coaches. They chanted Hindu nationalist songs and slogans right through the journey, all the while harassing Muslim passengers. One family was even made to get off the train for refusing to utter the kar sevaks’ war cry: “Jai Shri Ram!” (Glory to Lord Ram!) More abuse occurred at the stop in Godhra: a Muslim shopkeeper was also ordered to shout “Jai Shri Ram!” He refused, and was assaulted until the kar sevaks turned on a Muslim woman with her two daughters. One of them was forced to board the train before it started going again.

After a five minute halt, the train began leaving the station and had gone no more than a kilometre, when the emergency brakes were pulled.

“...the train came to a halt in the middle of a Muslim neighborhood inhabited by Ghanchis, a community from which many of the Godhra street vendors hail. Anywhere from 500 to 2,000 of them, depending on the sources, surrounded the coaches occupied by the karsevaks and attacked it with stones and torches,” writes the political-social scientist. 

The kar sevaks, in a vulnerable spot, instructed everyone to shut the doors and windows.

The train resumed its journey but was again brought to a halt after covering barely half a kilometre more due to a mechanical snag. A mob, said to be more than a thousand strong, then rushed towards the train and again began to pelt it with stones. It targeted three coaches which carried kar sevaks and set fire to coach S-6, killing 59 passengers.
Report in India Today on 22 July 2002

By 8:25 am, the police arrived at the scene and opened fire, which dispersed the crowd.

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Who Lit the Fire?

Sixteen years since the incident, there is no conclusive answer to the question.

A survivor of the attack, Debashis Bhattacharya, a passenger on Coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express, recalling the mood among the kar sevaks he was travelling with, told The Times of India:

Like every other station, the Ram Sevaks had got down on the platform on Wednesday morning, shouting ‘Jai Sri Ram’ slogans, even breaking into an impromptu dance.

However, the mood changed at Godhra, where kar sevaks rushed into the compartment asking fellow passengers to pull the shutters down at the station.

“I realised, there must’ve been some trouble on the platform. The people looked tense. The train came to a screeching halt about a kilometre from the station and then began the deafening sound of stones banging on the steel body of the coach. It went on without a stop. Soon, people began breaking open the windows and stones were flying. I could hear people say – ‘maar dalo sabko’. Soon, I could smell something burning and smoke was crawling up to me.  I saw a broken window, its bars had been twisted apart. The attack had actually opened up a way for me.”

As many as 253 witnesses like Debashis were examined by the trial court set up inside the Sabarmati Central Jail in June 2009. But not a single witness corroborated the prosecution’s claim that arsonists had broken into the coach and splashed petrol from 20-litre cans. Not a single survivor claimed to have seen someone or physically ascertained the presence of any petrol on the overcrowded coach. The trial court would later acknowledge this discrepancy.

“Admittedly, at the time of the incident, all doors and windows of the entire train were closed because of the tense atmosphere and the passengers were not in a position to see or identify the assailants and that too, unknown assailants,” the trail court had observed.

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Was the Fire Premeditated or an Accident?

Was the fire that killed 59 people – 27 women and 10 children included – the result of a pre-planned conspiracy or an accident?

Initial evidence and investigations pointed to the possibility of the fire being the result of an accident brought on by the sheer number of agitators who were pelting stones, and by some accounts, molotov cocktails (bottles containing kerosene/petrol, set on fire) thrown at the train.

On 27 February 2002, through the day, Godhra District Collector told several media organisations that “the incident was not pre-meditated, it was an accident.”

Even a month after the incident, there was no evidence to suggest that the fire had been caused as part of a conspiracy to extract revenge for the religious activities around the establishment of a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

On 29 March 2002, Inspector General of Police, Railways, PP Agja told The Times of India, “The case is still being investigated and if there is some deep conspiracy, we are yet to find it.” According to him, the situation was such that it lent itself to an accidental fire.

“A group of unruly kar sevaks had boarded the train at Lucknow without reservations and had put to discomfort the 66 genuine passengers of the coach. Some of the ticket paying passengers had to sleep on the floor; so overcrowded the compartment had become that the ticket collector who came aboard the train at Ratlam (two stations before Godhra) was not allowed to enter the coach.”

He further noted that at at all times, there were some 250 hawkers on the station. “Some of them carry stoves with kerosene in them,” he told TOI in the interview.

“All of them live in a slum named Signal Falia, located next to the station. All of them are Ghanchi Muslims and are uneducated, without any jobs, and poor.”
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How did the Sabarmati Train Fire Become a Conspiracy?

On the evening of the attack on the Sabarmati Express and the subsequent fire, the Gujarat government released a statement following a “spot assessment of the situation.” Quoting first-time chief minister Narendra Modi, it called the attack a “pre-planned inhuman collective violent act of terrorism.”

When asked about the Muslims who’d been massacred in the two days following the Sabarmati Express fire, Modi said,“Hum chahte hain ki na kriya ho aur na pratikriya (We want the action and the chain reaction to stop),” thus clearly suggesting that the Godhra train fire was a deliberate, pre-meditated act.

On 3 March 2002, provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) were invoked, and a week later, on 9 March, Section 120 (b) of the Indian Penal Code was applied to introduce the conspiracy angle.

The Prosecution’s Case

According to the Gujarat Police, the conspiracy was hatched at the behest of Maulvi Umarji, a respected cleric, in Godhra at the Aman guesthouse – specifically in room number 8 of the guesthouse owned by Abdul Razzak Mohammed Kurkur. In this meeting, the police alleged the plan was made to purchase seven cans with 20 litres of petrol from a petrol pump owned by one Kalubhai.

The police alleged that Kurkur, on his two-wheeler, accompanied the tempo on to which the petrol cans were loaded. Also, he then instructed three of his men to board the Sabarmati Express and pull the chain, and then transferred the petrol cans onto the train.

Apart from Maulvi Umarji, there were at least seven other prominent persons named as the accused. Chief political opponent of the BJP in the area and president of the Godhra Municipal Corporation at the time of his arrest, Mohammad Hussain Kalota, was accused of inciting the violent mob which had assembled outside the train. Four other corporators of the municipal council – Bilal Haji, Farooq Mohammad Bhana, Salim Shaikh, and Abdul Rahman Dhantiya – were also named along with two advocates, Rol Amin Hussain Hathila and Habib Karim Shaikh.

The police also booked 134 others, of which only 94 were tried. Seventeen went absconding, 13 were released for lack of evidence, five died during trial, and five were juveniles and not tried. After the revocation of the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act in 2004, the trial was conducted in a regular court set up inside the Sabarmati Central Jail in Ahmedabad.

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What Did Forensics Prove?

The Forensic Science Laboratory examined the crime scene and concluded that the fire could not have been started by anyone outside. The report stated that –

1. It was virtually impossible for someone to throw inflammable liquid into the train through the coach windows, as they were at a height of about seven feet.

2. There was a three-feet mound running parallel to the track at a distance of 14 feet, and if the conspirators were standing on this mound and splashing fuel at the compartment, only 10 to 15 percent of the fuel would have crept in. Most would have fallen outside and there would have been signs of fire and burn damage on and near the track. This was not so.

3. Someone standing in the passage of coach S-6 near seat number 72 used a container with a wide opening and poured 60 litres of inflammable liquid, and then the fire started.

The Gujarat FSL report indicated that while petrol soaked handkerchiefs were thrown at the train, it would’ve been impossible for it to be enough to cause the fire that engulfed coach S-6. The burn marks were only up to the flooring of the coach and the exterior was not as scorched, as the heat was generated from the inside. In short, the report suggested that the fire was lit by someone inside the coach. 

But, the question is, if the kar sevaks had shut the doors and windows to protect themselves from the stone pelting, how could the perpetrators have gained access to the coach to spill 60 litres of inflammable liquid to set coach S-6 on fire?

The report was selectively picked by the Congress and the BJP to suit their political and ideological view. The Congress saw the report as proof that the Sabarmati Express fire was a conspiracy orchestrated by the Hindutva brigade to stir trouble, while the BJP claimed the FSL report confirmed that the attack on the kar sevaks was the handiwork of Muslim fundamentalists.

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The Two Contradicting Reports

Nanavati-Mehta Commission Report (Part 1)
On 6 March 2002, the then Gujarat CM, Narendra Modi, appointed a commission of inquiry into the Godhra train burning incident and the subsequent riots that took place – both in Godhra and the rest of Gujarat. In September 2008, the Nanavati- Mehta Commission submitted its report on the Godhra train burning incident (part 1). Most of its findings were in sync with what the Gujarat police had alleged.

It concluded –

1 . There was a conspiracy to burn coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express train to cause harm to kar sevaks traveling in the coach.
2. That this was part of a larger conspiracy to create terror and destabilise the administration.
3. There was no evidence regarding involvement of any definite religious or political organisation in the conspiracy.
5. There was no evidence to show that either the chief minister or any other minister(s) had played any role in the Godhra incident or that there was any lapse on their part in providing protection, relief and rehabilitation to the victims of communal riots or in the matter of not complying with the recommendations and directions of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

UC Banerjee Committee Report
On 4 September 2004, about three months after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government came to power, Railway Minister Lalu Prasad appointed Justice Umesh Chandra Banerjee to investigate the Godhra train burning. In January 2005, the former Supreme Court judge submitted his interim report, the findings of which were in stark contrast to what the Nanavati-Mehta Commission had concluded.

It said –

1. The fire was accidental and not caused by the deliberate use of any inflammable material. With the elimination of the petrol theory, the miscreant activity theory, as well as the ruling out of electric fire, the fire in S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express can at this stage be described as an ‘accidental’ fire.

“How could there have been a conspiracy when there was no information about the return of the kar sevaks?” the report asked.

2. There has been a preponderance of evidence that the fire originated in the coach itself and not due to any external cause. The report completely ruled out the possibility of an inflammable liquid having been used as there was a smell of burning, followed by dense smoke and flames.

3. Muslims not only permitted the district administration to use their community well, but also provided a pump set to draw water to douse the flames.

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A Conspiracy with No Conspirator

Nine years after 59 people perished in a fire on board the Sabarmati Express, on 1 March 2011, the SIT court set up inside the Central Jail in Ahmedabad held 31 guilty of conspiracy and murder. Eleven convicts were awarded the death sentence and 20 were sentenced to life imprisonment; 63 people were acquitted, of whom 43 were released on bail after nine years in jail.

Notably, Maulvi Umarji and Mohammad Hussain Kalota were acquitted, raising the question: on what grounds was the court still calling the fire the result of a conspiracy when it had acquitted the two main alleged ‘conspirators’?

The court, however, accepted the prosecution’s version that the conspiracy was hatched at the Aman guesthouse belonging to Razak Kurkur, and the fuel used to burn the train was stored a day earlier. Kurkur and another prime accused, Haji Billa, were found guilty. The five men, who allegedly got into the train to spill the fuel, were also identified as Ayub Pataliya, Irfan Kalandar, Mehboob Popa, Shaukat Pataliya and Siddiqui Vora.

Addressing the media after the proceedings concluded, Special Public Prosecutor JM Panchal told the media that the court had accepted that the motive of the conspiracy was to set the train on fire.

“The vestibule was cut and the coach was set on fire. There can be no debate on the judicial verdict. The verdict is based on forensic lab report, oral evidence and eyewitness accounts.”

The Appeals
On 9 October 2017, the Gujarat High Court commuted the death sentence of 11 convicts to rigorous life imprisonment. The life sentence of 20 others was upheld. While ordering the state and the Railways to pay compensation of Rs 10 lakh to the kin of those killed in the Godhra incident, the High Court observed that “the state has failed to maintain law and order, so has the Railways.”

The High Court relied on the testimonies of injured witnesses, passengers, railway employees, Railway Protection Force personnel, two policemen from Godhra, the Gujarat Railway Police, experts from forensic laboratories, and also confessional statements.

The court rejected the appeals filed by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) against the acquittal of 63 people, and also its appeal seeking enhancement of sentences.

Recent Arrests

On 16 July 2015, the Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) arrested Farooq Mohammad Bhana near the Kalol-Khadiki check post in Panchmahal district. The 50-year-old has been named a key conspirator in the Godhra train carnage. In 2002, Bhana was an independent councillor in the Godhra municipality representing Polan Bazar ward.

"We suspect that Bhana could have visited Pakistan while being on the run. He was staying in Mumbai for the last seven years. We are probing whether he had procured a fake passport,” The Times of India quoted JK Bhatt, Inspector General of Police, ATS, as saying.

On 25 July 2015, the Godhra crime branch claimed to have nabbed the prime accused in the Godhra case, Hussain Suleman Mohammad from Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh. As per a report in The Times of India, 35-year-old Hussain had been working as an auto-driver in Jhabua.

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The Aftermath

For three days after the Sabarmati train fire, inter-religious violence was reported across Gujarat. Following the initial spurt of violence, there were outbreaks across the state for nearly a year.

Among the major cases that went to trial were –

1. Naroda Patiya Massacre
On 28 February 2002, just a day after the Sabarmati train burning, a mob of around 5,000 people killed 97 people in Naroda, even as a bandh had been called for by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in the state. In the riot that lasted over 10 hours, the mob looted, stabbed, gang-raped and burnt people individually and in groups. It was the “largest single case of mass murder” during the 2002 riots.

In 2012, a special court convicted 32 people and acquitted 29 others. Notable among those convicted was Maya Kodnani, former Gujarat Women and Child Development Minister who was sentenced to 28 years in prison, and Bajrang Dal’s Babu Bajrangi.

2. Gulberg Society Massacre
On the morning of 28 February 2002, a mob surrounded Gulberg Society in Chamanpura, Ahmedabad, that housed upper middle-class Muslim families. By noon, the mob breached the boundary wall, and, over the course of the next six hours, burned houses, raped, looted and killed at least 69 people. Many people had taken refuge in former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri’s house while he repeatedly tried to contact the police for help.

His wife, Zakia Jafri, contested the SIT report which gave a clean chit to Narendra Modi, but the Supreme Court ruled against setting up another investigation into the Gujarat riots.

3. Best Bakery
A small outlet in the Hanuman Tekri area of Vadodara, Best Bakery was burned down by a mob, even as 14 people, including the family that owned it, took refuge inside. In February 2006, the trial court convicted nine of the 21 accused and sentenced them to life imprisonment, and acquitted eight others.

The Bombay High Court later acquitted five of the nine persons who were previously convicted, but upheld the life imprisonment of four others.

4. Bilkis Bano Case
Nineteen-year-old Bilkis Bano was, along with her family, escaping a murderous mob on a truck when she was gang-raped. Bilkis was five months pregnant at the time. Fourteen members of her family were killed, including her two-year-old daughter and mother. Bilkis fought the case for 15 years, and in May 2017, the Bombay High Court upheld the life imprisonment sentence of the 11 accused.

5. Avdhootnagar Case
On 17 March 2002, a group of Muslim men went back to their homes under police protection to collect luggage for the relief camps in which their families were taking shelter in. While loading the trucks at night, a group of around 5,000 persons started attacking them. Most of them managed to escape, but two men on a motorcycle were chased and killed with swords.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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