The Sabarmati Express on fire. Photo: Reuters

By Prem Shankar Jha

This week is the 20th anniversary of the single most fateful event in the history of Independent India. Had carriage S-6 of the Sabarmati Express not burnt down outside Godhra station in the early morning of February 27, 2002, killing 59 persons, the Gujarat riots would not have occurred, and Narendra Modi would not have been the prime minister of India today.

Had that tragic event not taken place, the Bharatiya Janata Party could easily have lost the assembly election that was originally scheduled for April 2003 but brought ahead to December 2002 at Modi’s urging to capitalise on the religious polarisation the violence had caused. The BJP had lost the gram panchayat elections in 2001 and three assembly by-elections the same year, and was badly rattled. This was what had led to the replacement of chief minister Keshubhai Patel, whose health had allegedly begun to fail, with Modi in October 2001. Modi faced the daunting task of shoring up the BJP’s support base in Gujarat. Politically, the fire on the Sabarmati Express came as an answer to the party’s prayers.

The train was carrying a large number of kar sevaks who had forcibly boarded the train at Ayodhya. When it arrived at Godhra, therefore, it was carrying 2,000 or more passengers against a capacity of 1,100. When coach S-6 caught fire, it was jam packed with some of these kar sevaks.

The presence of the kar sevaks, the fact that some of these had misbehaved with Muslim vendors on the platform at Godhra both while on their way to Ayodhya and on their way back, and that an ugly spat had broken out on the platform minutes before the train left Godhra on that fateful morning, made just about everyone in Gujarat jump to the conclusion that angry Muslims had chased the train and set fire to the carriage, as an act of revenge.

By the afternoon of February 27, local Gujarati newspapers had universally ascribed the act to Ghanchi Muslims of a nearby shanty colony, who had been waiting with stones and rags dipped in kerosene to seek revenge. According to those news reports, no sooner did the train stop did they smash the windows and throw flaming kerosene-soaked rags into the bogey and set them on fire.

These reports formed the basis of the first police chargesheet in the case, with manufactured eyewitnesses, all from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, who presented identical statements about kerosene being thrown into the coach from outside.

The pogrom that followed is now history. But, in another of history’s fateful ironies, this initial claim by the police about the train fire was completely unfounded and had to eventually be abandoned in favour of a supposedly more plausible but equally unbelievable theory. Having declared from day one that the fire had been a deeply planned (Muslim) conspiracy, all the facts had to be tailor made to sustain this claim.

The lengths to which the Modi-led state government went to reinforce and sustain a falsehood in the face of the anomalies that it could not explain, was not accidental. On the contrary, it was sanctioned and sustained by Modi himself, with the express purpose of creating a wave of Islamophobia that would  sweep the BJP back to power in Gujarat.

In 2005, the railway minister in the then UPA government, Lalu Prasad Yadav, appointed a retired Calcutta high court judge, U.C. Banerjee, to head an inquiry into its cause. The Bannerjee commission appointed a five-man team of experts to re-examine the evidence. After a three-year lapse, the expert committee was left with only one way to do this: look at other carriages that had caught fire and compare the burn and smoke patterns in them to the one in S-6.

There were five burnt carriages preserved in the railway yards after earlier forensic examinations. In one of these, the burn and smoke pattern was almost identical to that found in S-6. The cause of that fire was known and not in doubt: it had begun in the centre of the carriage, possibly when someone knocked over a lighted cooking stove on which food was being warmed or tea made.

The flames had remained restricted to that area but the smoke the fire created had spread to the rest of the carriage, through the gaps between the upper and lower berths, and along the underside of the ceiling. As in S-6, the majority of deaths had resulted from asphyxiation. This explanation gained credibility because the railways were not using flame-retardant materials in second-class compartments then. So even a lighted match could start a fire and create large volumes of toxic smoke. What is more, cooking or warming one’s own food on long train journeys was, and may still be, a common practice among orthodox Hindus.

The BJP vociferously rejected the Banerjee commission’s report. The party’s then spokesman, Arun Jaitley, raised procedural objections, saying that the railway ministry, even while belonging to the Union government, had no right to conduct such an inquiry. “If it was an accident, what prevented passengers from jumping out?” he asked, rhetorically.

Following a strategy with which we have now become familiar, the state government got one of the Hindus who had been injured in the fracas on the Godhra platform in 2002 to challenge Justice Banerjee’s report in the Gujarat high court. The presiding judge then declared the formation of the Banerjee Committee “unconstitutional, illegal and null and void”, and called it a “colourable exercise of power with mala fide intentions”. He went on to berate the railway ministry for daring to set up the committee when the state government had already appointed the Shah commission, later joined by retired Supreme Court justice G.T. Nanavati, on March 8, immediately after the riots. He also dismissed the right of the railways to set up a high-level committee to ascertain how a fire had started on its own property, in order to make sure that it did not happen again.

This judgment was extraordinary, to say the least, but one does not have to rely on the Banerjee commission’s report alone to question the official account of how the fire started.

The report prepared by teams of experts from the Gujarat government’s own Forensic Science Laboratory in Ahmedabad after a site visit on May 3, 2002, formally debunked the police’s earlier explanation and concluded that the fire was consistent with what might happened if  “60 litres of flammable liquid had been poured using an unusually wide-mouthed container like a bucket” on to the floor of the coach and set alight.

Why did the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) so comprehensively debunk the claims made in the police’s chargesheet? The answer could be that  Modi had learned through the intelligence department that the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal (CCT), headed by former Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, was planning to visit Godhra in the beginning of May. The Ghanchi Muslim revenge plot explanation was therefore about to come apart.

This is what the CCT concluded after its own visit:

“On 7-5-2002, we inspected the coach and the site where it was burnt. The site where the train stopped is an elevated bund. From the ground level, the height of the bund could be about 12-15 feet and it is a slope. At the top, there is hardly enough space for 2,000 persons to assemble on either side of the track. Assuming that so many had gathered at that spot, the crowd would be spread over a much larger area than the stretch of coach S-6. This is only to indicate that if the government version is true, the other coaches would have been as easy a target as Coach S-6.

Again, if one takes into account the height of the bund and the height of the train, and if fire-balls were to be thrown at the train, the outside of the coach should have shown signs of being charred. But we found that there were no such marks below the windows; the charred marks were to be seen only around the windows and above that height. This is a clear indication that the fire started inside the coach and the flames leaping out of the windows singed the outside of the compartment, above window level (emphasis added). Therefore, even to the naked eye, it was clear that the fire was from within and not from outside.

But if the fire started within, who could have possibly lit it? The Gujarat government needed an answer that would justify the collective punishment that the Hindu community had inflicted upon the Muslims in the days that followed. Building on the FSL’s ‘scientific’ analysis, the police came up with a new explanation. Investigating officers claimed that some Muslims had boarded the train when it stopped opposite Signal Falia, cut the vestibule connecting S-6 and S-7, forcibly entered S-6 and poured 60 litres of petrol down the corridor and set a match to it.

The absurdities in this theory have been pointed out many times in the last two decades. First, since buckets would have had to be carried by hand, and very few buckets have a capacity of more than 20 litres, a minimum of  three buckets would have had to be carried on to the train. Would a train jam-packed with hyped-up kar sewaks spoiling for a fight have allowed three persons carrying buckets of a fluid whose smell is easily recognisable to board the train at a place where a large crowd of hostile Muslims had already collected? Clearly not, which is why the police could not find a single passenger to corroborate this absurd claim.

Curiously, the FSL’s ‘experts’ based their 60 litres calculation upon how far the liquid would travel in an empty carriage, not one that was jampacked with people whose shoes, and luggage, would have come in the wayFor, as the tally of the dead and injured showed, there were at least 108 persons in the carriage when the fire broke out, not counting those who escaped before the rush of panic-stricken passengers to the doorways began. It is inconceivable that forensic experts could have made such an elementary mistake. So the only explanation is that they were commanded to find another explanation that would continue to point the finger of blame at the Muslim community. And they obliged.

In Ahmedabad, on February 27, 2002, VHP cadres roamed the streets announcing that a large number of kar sevaks returning from their holy mission in Ayodhya had been burnt alive by Muslims in Godhra. On February 28, they took processions through the city, holding the charred (and unrecognisable) corpses high to build up the mountainous wave of hate that broke upon the city the next morning. However reprehensible their actions were considered, no one doubted them, and almost no one doubts even today that these were indeed the corpses of kar sevaksBut a close analysis of the identities of the passengers in the ill-fated S-6 carriage shows that most of those who died were ordinary passengers who had boarded the train at Lucknow and intermediate stops, before it was swamped by kar sewaks in Ayodhya.

The railway booking chart for the carriage at Lucknow shows that 43 of the 72 berths in carriage S-6 had confirmed bookings. Of these 19 were for adult males, 19 were for adult females and five were for minors. More than half of the booked passengers were families travelling together. Another 23 passengers had boarded the train at intermediate stations. Since they all had berths, few if any would have been near the vestibules at the two ends of the carriage, and therefore in a position to escape when the fire started.

The first to die would have been the weakest among them, the women and the children. The forensic examination of the dead, carried out three days later, confirmed this for it showed that whereas 20 of the dead were men, 26 were women, and 12 were children. In all, 38 of the 58 dead were of the wrong sex and age to have been kar sevaksEven among the male casualties, a large number, probably the majority, would have died because they stayed with their families, trying to get out till the smoke overwhelmed them.

The number of kar sevaks killed may have been even smaller for, as the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal headed by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer pointed out, all but a fraction of these were physically fit young men who, having muscled their way on to the train, were more likely to be at the ends of the carriage than the middle, and would have been able to muscle their way out of the burning carriage with relative ease. That many did indeed do so is suggested by the fact that of the 43 persons who are known to have managed to escape from the carriage, only five needed to be hospitalised. Taking all this into account, it is unlikely that even a dozen of those killed were kar sevaks.

Looking back at the events of  February 27, 2002, it is difficult not to conclude that it was the day when India’s voyage to modern nationhood began to fail. For Godhra brought Narendra Modi to power in Gujarat, and started him on the road to becoming the prime minister of India. Modi consolidated his party’s power in Gujarat by sowing fear and suspicion between communities. He is now doing the same in India. And there is no one to stop him.

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