The Godhra Fire
- 1 Prologue
- 2 Godhra Fire
- 3 Sequence of events
- 3.1 Feb 27, 2002 – The fateful day
- 3.2 Mar 28, 2002 – no conspiracy found yet
- 3.3 Apr 10, 2002 – denial of selling any petrol
- 3.4 May 22, 2002 – 1st chargesheet, kerosene thrown from outside
- 3.5 May 27, 2002 – Noel Parmar takes over
- 3.6 July 2, 2002 – Forensic report – no liquid thrown from outside
- 3.7 July 9, 2002 – a new “know all” witness is found
- 3.8 Sep 20, 2002 – 2nd charge-sheet, petrol from inside.
- 3.9 Feb 23, 2003 – Petrol pump staff do a U-turn
- 3.10 Sep 4 2004 – UC Banerjee Committee appointed
- 3.11 Jan 2005 – UC Banerjee Committee submits report
- 3.12 Oct 2006 – Jurisdiction issues with Bannerjee committee
- 3.13 July 17 2007 – Tehelka expose
- 3.14 September 2008 – Nanavati Commission – Part 1
- 3.15 February 2011 – Trial Court acquits the alleged prime conspirator
- 4 The case of Umarji, the alleged lead conspirator
- 5 Action-reaction with respect to the abducted girl
- 6 Other Questions
- 7 Epilogue
- 8 References
If the Gujarat Government’s theory of Godhra being a pre-planned conspiracy was indeed the truth, why did their lead investigator need to resort to bribing the witnesses? Why couldn’t they create a foolproof case, with more reliable witnesses? Why did they have to change their own charge-sheet after the forensic reports?
The bigger the lie, the more people believe it. – Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of the coalition government of Germany on 30 January 1933. His party only had 32% of the seats in the Reichstag, the German parliament. He needed to pass the Enabling act to seize special emergency powers but needed the pretext to do so.
On 27 February 1933, the Berlin Fire Department received a message that the Reichstag Building was on fire. Hitler and his propaganda minister Goebbels’ arrived by car at the Reichstag, just as the fire was being put out. They immediately blamed the rival communists and declared:
“this act of arson is the most monstrous act of terrorism carried out by Bolshevism in Germany”.
Next day, Hitler was given full emergency powers by the President. Hitler claimed the fire was the start of a Communist plot to take over Germany. Nazi newspapers spread his propaganda. Nazis were able to increase their share of the vote in the 5 March 1933 Reichstag elections from 33% to 44%. The spark that had lit the Reichstag would go on to destroy large parts of Europe, and the Asia Pacific, and result in some of the worst human atrocities ever perpetrated.
A Dutch anarchist, Van der Lubbe, was arrested and given a capital punishment. But he was 80 percent blind and, at his trial in the fall of 1933, appeared to be mentally handicapped.
A lot of people always doubted the official version of events and suspected the Nazis to have started the fire themselves. However, the details of this plot remained a mystery. Most Nazi records had been captured by the Red Army and were inaccessible to the independent investigators of West Germany.
It was in April 2001 that Historians finally found conclusive proof about the plot. After going through over 50,000 pages of hitherto un-examined documents from former East German and Soviet archives, four leading German historians concluded that the fire was indeed a Nazi plot.
The very next year, on 27 February 2002 – exactly the same day as the Reichstag fire, another fire would cause wide repercussions to contemporary history.
On the morning of 27th February 2002, as Sabarmati Express pulled into the sleepy station of Godhra, the BJP in Gujarat was facing credibility and unity issues. After massive infighting, Keshubhai Patel had been removed, and Narendra Modi had been sent in by the central leadership as the makeshift CM till the next elections scheduled for March 2003. The results of by-polls on 3 seats just a few days back had seen Congress take back two of them, and mount an impressive and spirited challenge even in Rajkot-II, a very safe seat, that was contested by Mr Modi himself.
With the post 9-11 war still going on in Afghanistan, the NDA government in the centre had mobilised its troops to the western frontier following an attack on the Indian parliament on 13 Dec 2001. Meanwhile, BJP’s Sangh Parivar allies, the Bajrang Dal and VHP in particular, had raised the tempo for the Ayodhya Ram Mandir campaign, planning to do the next round of “KarSeva” at Ayodhya on 15 March.
It had all begun with the VHP’s Ultimatum to the BJP led central government during the “Chetavani Yatra” on January 20th 2002. The mobilisation was via a programme in Ayodhya, which they called ‘Purnahuti Maha Yagna’, a 100 day event that started on 24th February, and went on till 2nd June.1
As with previous similar Sangh Parivar events at Ayodhya, a large number of Karsevaks from Gujarat were involved. Three groups from Gujarat, consisting of about 2,000 activists each, were to go to Ayodhya by Sabarmati Express for the Karseva.
Based on Gujarat SIB notes sent to UP Police, we know of following groups
- 2,800 led by Dilip Trivedi and Kum Malabehn Rawal left Ahmedabad on 22 Feb
- 1,900 led by Vijay Pramani, Hareshbhai Bhatt & Khemrajbhai Desai left Vadodara on 24 Feb.
- 1,500 VHP, Bajrang Dal and Durga Vahini activists led by Narendrabhai Vyas left Ahmedabad on 26 Feb
A group began their return journey to Ahmedabad by the Sabarmati Express on the evening of February 25, 2002.2 (It is unclear why they returned early, or if it was common knowledge that they were returning). Most of them travelled without Reservation, and forced the actual ticket paying passengers to “adjust” in a limited space. So overcrowded had the compartment become that the ticket collector who came aboard the train at Ratlam (two stations before Godhra) was not allowed to enter the coach.3
Sequence of events
Feb 27, 2002 – The fateful day
- 07:42AM. Sabarmati Express, Train No. 9166 UP, carrying karsevaks on their way back from Ayodhya arrives on platform No.1 at Godhra railway station. The train is nearly five hours behind scheduled arrival time 02554
- As Karsevaks come down, they shout slogans and there are several reports of provocations
- Karsevaks clash with Muslim tea vendors on the platform.
- There is a rumour that a Muslim girl, Sophiya Shaikh has been abducted by the Karsevaks.
- The Muslims on the platform started pelting stones at the train.
- 07:47AM: The train driver, Rajendrarao Raghunath Rao, gets a green signal at 0745, but as soon as he starts moving, the chain is pulled and the train stopped. Some Karsevaks were yet to board the train.
- 07:55AM The Sabarmati Express train starts again
- 08:00AM After moving a short distance, once again the train came to a halt because of automatic brake system, on account of dropping of vacuum, near Cabin-A, about a kilometre from the station.
- A mob has chased them from the station, and heavy stone pelting continues. All Windows are shut, S-6 is a non A/C 3-tier sleeper coach, which have metallic grille sliding blinds.
- 08:20AM Smoke first seen rising from Coach S-6
- 08:20AM Fire Brigade operator receives the call about the fire.
- 08:26AM District Collector Jayanti Ravi received a telephone message from DSP Raju Bhargav that Sabarmati Express train was under attack.
- 08:30AM DSP Shri Raju Bhargav Reaches the scene, disperses the mob.
- 08:35AM The only working Fire Brigade Engine in Godhra (the other two had been lying broken) arrives at the scene.
- 08:50AM District Collector Ms Jayanti Ravi Reaches the scene, fire is already doused
- 09:00AM Home secretary informs about the incident to Narendra Modi, the Home Minister and the CM of Gujarat.
- 09:39AM Narendra Modi talks to VHP leader Jaydeep Patel – an accused of the riots, twice.
- 12:40PM Sabarmati Express is sent on its onward journey, with 3000 passengers.
- 04:30PM Modi arrives at the scene, and calls the attack a pre-planned conspiracy
Mar 28, 2002 – no conspiracy found yet
A month after the Godhra carnage, police investigations had not thrown up any evidence that the mindless act, in which 58 passengers perished, was pre-planned. IGP (Railways) PP Agja, told Times Of India that 4
“the case is still being investigated and if there was some deep conspiracy, then we are yet to find it,”
Apr 10, 2002 – denial of selling any petrol
The two petrol pumps near Godhra station were sealed off by the police on February 27, 2002. The first petrol pump, on Vejalpur road, was owned by MH & A Patel, while the other was owned by Asgarali Qurban Hussein (Kalabhai).
Prabhatsingh Patel and Ranjitsingh Patel were two salesmen employed at Kalabhai’s petrol pump at the time of the Godhra incident. On April 10, 2002, just a month after the incident, the two had told the police that they were at work since 6:00 PM on February 26, 2002 up till 9:00 AM on February 27, 2002 and had not sold any loose petrol to anybody during that period.
May 22, 2002 – 1st chargesheet, kerosene thrown from outside
The first charge-sheet in the Godhra Train Burning case was filed by DySP KC Bawa, the Investigating Officer, on 22nd May 2002 alleging that the S6 coach was burnt from outside by the use of some inflammable fluid (He did not clearly specify whether the inflammable fluid was petrol, kerosene or diesel). Bawa relied upon the statements of nine eyewitnesses who claimed to have been standing near the Cabin near which the S6 coach had burnt. Curiously, all these witnesses were BJP members of Godhra, and made allegations against the local leaders of their rival, the Congress.
What were these nine BJP men doing at the station? None of them was travelling on the Sabarmati Express nor had any plans to board any train from Godhra. So what were they doing there so early in the morning? They have an explanation — common to all of them.5
“On 27.2.2002, as the activists and karsevaks who had gone to Ayodhya were to come back on the Sabarmati Express, I and other activists were waiting at 6:30am at Godhra railway station to welcome them and serve them tea and snacks.”
How they ascertained the 5-hour delay in Sabarmati express by calling any railway inquiry line around 1-2 am at night, is not established.
All nine name same eight VHP leaders who they claim were travelling on Sabarmati Express, and whom they were there to greet with refreshments. They were unable to prove to the court that they had indeed purchased any such refreshments. No proof of purchase of platform tickets was provided either.
What exactly did these nine BJP men witness? They claim they witnessed everything — the assembling of the mob, the sharp-edged weapons and inflammable material it was carrying, and the actual setting of the fire itself, one kilometre away from the platform.
After making out a case that coach S-6 was burnt from outside, Bawa started discovering any number of carboys containing traces of kerosene from around the A cabin. Between March 29 and April 5, three carboys were allegedly recovered from three of the accused, Haji Bilal, Abdul Majid Dhantiya and Kasim Biryani.
May 27, 2002 – Noel Parmar takes over
On May 27, 2002 — five days after the first chargesheet — a new investigating officer was appointed. Noel Parmar, ACP control room of Vadodara City, takes over from KC Bawa.
In an undercover conversation with Noel Parmar, TEHELKA found that Parmar was far from a neutral investigator. A few snatches of his conversation are enough to expose Parmar’s deep-seated hatred for Muslims. Here are some of the statements he made:6
“During Partition, many Muslims of Godhra migrated to Pakistan… In fact, there is an area called Godhra Colony in Karachi… Every family in Godhra has a relative in Karachi… They are fundamentalists… This area, Signal Falia, was completely Hindu but gradually Muslims took over… In 1989 also there were riots… Eight Hindus were burnt alive… They all eat cow’s meat since it comes cheap… No family has less than ten children… they are all complete fundamentalists, associated with the Tablighi Jamaat.”
Parmar retired in 2005, but the state government refused to let him go and have been granting him five six-monthly extensions since then. During these extensions, he continued to be involved in the Godhra case.7
This was a privilege no police officer has enjoyed so far. In his last extension, he even got promoted to the rank of IPS and as superintendent of police. It is thus clear that he was Modi’s blue-eyed boy, who was given a lot of “rewards”. He was even nominated as a supporting officer to the Gujarat SIT.
July 2, 2002 – Forensic report – no liquid thrown from outside
Assistant Director Dr MS Dahiya of Ahmedabad-based Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) produced a report that proved it was not possible to pour inflammable liquid inside the S6 coach from outside. 7
The report said the height of the window of the bogie was found to be seven feet. In these circumstances, it was not possible to throw inflammable liquids into the bogie from the outside with the help of a bucket or a jerry-can because by this method most of the liquid fell outside the bogie.
No marks below the coach windows; the charred marks were to be seen only at or above the window level, clearly indicating that the fire had actually started inside the coach and its leaping flames had singed the outside of the compartment, above the window level. 8
One thing to remember is, Windows in the 2nd class Sleeper coaches of Indian Railways have shutters, in addition to the sliding sash glass windows. Once the stone pelting had started in the platform, by all witness accounts, the windows had been closed, and shutters been drawn. Not only is the height of the window too high for people on the ground level to reach, with shutters drawn, hardly any of the liquid thrown will reach inside, most of it will simply fall outside. There was no petrol residue found on the ground.
While the FSL found traces of hydrocarbons in samples from coach S6, The reliability of the FSL report on samples collected from the site is highly doubtful. State government, in its zeal to politically exploit the Godhra fire, had failed to keep the scene of crime off limits to general public. Instead, ministers visited the site along with their entourage, and exploited it for propaganda. Hundreds of onlookers and visitors, including the chief minister and other ministers, had visited the site and also entered coach S-6 before the samples were collected. Suspect material could easily have been removed from inside the coach. Equally, what the FSL found inside the coach could well have been planted from outside. Even if there was a conspiracy to throw some inflammable liquid, the state government weakened prosecution case by creating this doubt over the integrity of the forensics. Why would it do so?
July 9, 2002 – a new “know all” witness is found
The FSL report created a big problem for the Gujarat Government, whose investigations thus far had simply tried to prove the CM’s own detective work correct.
Official scientific evidence had clearly shown and conclusively proven that the fire originated from inside, and could not have been a result of throwing petrol from outside via windows.9
The state had not done its initial investigation honestly. The first charge-sheet was a mesh of conflicting and contradictory claims, and the theory proposed by it had now been exposed to be false by the FSL report. A new charge-sheet was needed. To bring some method to the madness, the police produce a new witness — a tea vendor, not a Muslim but a Hindu — on July 9, 2002, a month and a half after the first charge-sheet, and five months after the actual incident. Ajay Baria, the new witness was a tea vendor at Godhra railway station, and was unemployed at the time. Noel Parmar’s interview to rediff provides some details on this witness.
He claimed that on the morning of February 27, 2002, just after the Sabarmati Express had arrived, nine hawkers — all Muslims — whom he knew since they all sold wares at Godhra station, forcibly took him to the house of Razzak Kurkur. Once there, the nine hawkers went inside Kurkur’s house and brought out carboys filled with “kerosene” (he doesn’t specify the number of carboys and he specifically uses the word kerosene).
He said that one of the hawkers then forced him to load one carboy onto a rickshaw while the remaining carboys were loaded by the other hawkers. The hawkers forced him to go along. The frightened Baria jumped into the rickshaw, which the hawkers then drove up to Cabin A, where the train was standing. According to him, a few hawkers first tried to set coach S-2 on fire.
When they failed, they cut the vestibule (connecting passage) between coaches S-6 and S-7. Having done that, six hawkers went inside S-6 and poured “kerosene” along the floor of the coach. Three others sprinkled kerosene through the windows into the coach. And one vendor then threw a burning cloth into coach S-6. Thus, the coach was set on fire.
- If there were already nine Muslim hawkers to load carboys onto the rickshaw, why did they need Baria to load just one carboy?
- Also, why Muslims would take a Hindu tea vendor along to execute a communal crime defies logic.
Sep 20, 2002 – 2nd charge-sheet, petrol from inside.
Who are we to question about why the first investigation was so obviously shoddy. People who have read my other articles, and SIT report will understand this was not a unique or unusual case of totally absurd and ludicrous false theories produced by Modi’s favourite officers of Gujarat Police.
The alleged conspiracy included the plan to set fire to the Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002. For that purpose, 140 litres of petrol was allegedly bought from Kalabhai’s petrol pump the previous night and kept in Kurkur’s house. It is alleged that at around 9.30-10 pm on February 26, 2002, Maulana Umarji had directed that coach S-6 should be set on fire.
The entire charge by the prosecution (Gujarat Government) that coach S-6 was burnt down in pursuance of a pre-planned conspiracy rests on a few suspicious witness testimonies, and forensic science laboratory report, which mentions that some residual hydrocarbons were found in samples collected from the site and that petrol was found in two carboys. As mentioned above, this sample itself was unreliable, as the crime scene had been visited by hundreds of people before samples were collected.
Feb 23, 2003 – Petrol pump staff do a U-turn
Prabhatsingh Patel and Ranjitsingh Patel, two salesmen employed at Kalabhai’s petrol pump at the time of the Godhra incident, had told the police that they had not sold any loose petrol to anybody during that period.
The police now approached the two again on February 23, 2003. In a disturbing turnaround, the two now claimed that they had sold 140 litres of petrol to six Muslims, including Razzak Kurkur and Salim Paanwala. They said Siraj Lala, Salim Paanwala, Jabir Binyamin Bahera, Salim Zarda and Shaukat Babu had come in a parrot coloured tempo while Razzak Kurkur had come ahead on an M-80 scooter.
Sep 4 2004 – UC Banerjee Committee appointed
Nanavati commission had already been appointed by Narendra Modi. When UPA Government came to power in the centre in 2004, Modi quickly expanded the terms of reference of the Nanavati commission to pre-empt any other inquiry being set up by the centre.
However, the section 6(c) of the Railway Act requires the Commissioner of safety to make an inquiry under this Act into the cause of any accident on a railway that involves loss of life, or serious injuries, or a major damage to railway property. The Railways Ministry under BJP led NDA Government in the centre had not done this.
The UPA central government tried to exploit the Railways Act to do an independent investigation into the Godhra Fire. A committee headed by former Supreme Court judge UC Banerjee was constituted on September 4, 2004.
Jan 2005 – UC Banerjee Committee submits report
On the basis of available evidence, the Committee has found it unbelievable that ‘Kar Sevaks’ (to the extent of 90 percent of the total occupants) armed with “trishuls”, would allow to get themselves burnt without a murmur by miscreant activity like a person entering S-6 coach from outside and setting the coach on fire. It has also noted the forensic laboratory’s experiment and verified its conclusion that it was impossible to set fire to the train from the outside. It also examined and ruled out any electrical short circuit as the cause of the fire.
Some evidence of cooking inside the coach by Kar Sevaks was also given before the Committee.
With the elimination of the ‘petrol theory’, ‘miscreant activity theory’ as well as the ruling out of any possibility of ‘electrical fire’, Justice UC Bannerjee concluded that the fire in S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express can at this stage be ascribed as an “accidental fire”.10
It was also very critical of the Railway Administration has also not made any concerted effort to preserve clues of the incident. In particular, the Committee has criticised the onward travel to Ahmedabad of S-7 coach despite some damage to it and despite it being a crucial piece of evidence.
In fact, the damaged portion of S-7 has been disposed of as scrap! The vestibule of the S6 coach itself was made of strong rubber material, that was impossible to cut. Prosecution had claimed that the attackers had cut the canvas vestibule of coach S7, but as this crucial piece of evidence was destroyed. Even if prosecution’s case had any merit, there was no way to prove it with certainty. Why did the Railways destroy this piece of evidence? I have seen any number of old coaches, damaged by accidents, rusting near the yards, so what was the reason for hurry in disposing it off in this case?
It has severely criticised the entire hierarchy of Western Railway in pre-judging the issue by describing the incident of fire as a miscreant activity without conducting even a preliminary inquiry. It may be noted that VN Sehgal former director of the Government’s Central Forensic Science Laboratory and member of Interpol, who also examined the evidence as an independent adviser to a civil society group making a documentary Godhra Tak had arrived at the same conclusion back in 2003. This documentary was banned in Gujarat, and its other shows disrupted elsewhere in India by VHP. Here is the relevant excerpt.11
Oct 2006 – Jurisdiction issues with Bannerjee committee
However, the appointment of this committee was challenged in the Gujarat HC by a VHP activist. The judge, Justice DN Patel ruled that neither under the Commission of Inquiry Act nor under the Indian Railways Act, the Railway Ministry was authorised to appoint a committee to probe the same matter already under inquiry by another commission. Hence the committee was deemed illegal on the technical grounds of overlap in jurisdiction, and its report barred from being tabled in parliament. It is important to note that this judgement does not imply anything about the conclusions of Justice Bannerjee themselves, just that this committee’s formation violated the procedure.
July 17 2007 – Tehelka expose
Over a period of six months, TEHELKA’s undercover reporter Ashish Khetan infiltrated VHP, RSS and BJP circles deep inside Gujarat. He posed as an RSS man writing a book on Hindutva. After meeting several Sangh Parivar and BJP leaders in Ahmedabad, a BJP leader in-charge of Panchmahal district (Godhra is in Panchmahal) introduced the reporter to Kakul Pathak, one of the nine BJP Godhra witnesses. After meeting Pathak twice and tutoring himself on the internal politics of the BJP in Godhra, the reporter made a cold call on Murli Mulchandani, (also one of the nine BJP witnesses) posing as an RSS man travelling across Gujarat to assess the mood of the electorate.11
Pathak laid bare the horrible truth about how he and other eight BJP members had colluded with the police to indict innocent Muslims. Contrary to their statements, Pathak said neither he nor the other eight BJP men were on the spot when the coach was set on fire. The truth is by the time Pathak reached the spot the mob had dispersed. The truth is that Pathak did not even know that the police had attributed a statement to his name and made him a witness, but when he did come to know about his statement, he backed the police to the hilt. Joining ranks with the police, Pathak identified two people in the police parade who had been named as culprits in his statement.
He knew the two were not involved in the crime, but he still damned them as he thought it was his duty towards the “Hindu Samaj”.
“Yeh hindutva ka kaam hai… jo party bolegi woh karne ka hai,”
Pathak told TEHELKA. (This is the work of Hindutva… We must do whatever the party commands).
In another shocking disclosure, Murli Mulchandani, currently vice-president of the Godhra Municipal Council, told the TEHELKA reporter that he was actually sleeping at home at the time of the incident. Much like Pathak though, he readily cooperated with the police and did not blink an eye when his name was included among the eyewitnesses.12
Ranjitsingh Patel and Prabhatsingh Patel — the petrol pump employees who, in a complete volte-face, claimed they sold 140 litres of petrol to the accused — now live under round-the clock police vigil. They quit their petrol pump jobs after their police statements and are living in their village, Saapa Sigwa, about six miles away from Godhra town. When the TEHELKA reporter tried to meet Prabhatsingh, his family denied him access.
However, TEHELKA was fortunate enough to get to the other witness, Ranjitsingh Patel. When the reporter posing as a Bajrang Dal man approached Ranjitsingh on July 16, 2007, the latter was tilling a field and the two policemen who shadow him 24/7 had gone for a tea break. After some initial apprehension, Ranjitsingh told the reporter that he was paid Rs 50,000 by Noel Parmar.
The importance of this cannot be over-emphasised. One of the prime witnesses, on whom the entire police case rests, confessed that the chief investigating officer had bribed him. He said a similar amount was also paid to his colleague, Prabhatsingh. He also said that Parmar had told him that when the time came to identify the accused in the court, he would show the accused to Ranjitsingh in advance and on the sly so that he could remember their faces and pin them down in court.
Key witness, Ajay Baria was living under the protection of Gujarat Police, and Ashish Khetan was unable to locate him. However, Baria’s mother said her son had become a police witness out of fear. She said Ajay was at home and fast asleep at the time of the incident at Godhra station. She also said that the police do not allow Baria to visit her or come to Godhra too often.
Summary of Tehelka sting:
- Noel Parmar was a very communal officer and held prejudice against Muslims.
- Petrol pump assistants were bribed by the investigating officer Noel Parmar.
- The key prosecution witnesses such as the 9 BJP local leaders were lying to the court.
- The “know all” prosecution witness Ajay Baria was absent from the scene of crime, as per his mother.
In September 2008, the Nanavati Commission submitted the “Part I” of the report 13 dealing with the Godhra incident, in which it supported the conspiracy theory originally propounded by the Gujarat police. Maulavi Umarji, a cleric in Godhra, and a dismissed CRPF officer named Nanumiyan were presented as the “masterminds” behind the operation. Nanavati agreed with Gujarat Police theory that 140 litres of Petrol were collected in advance by the conspirators. The report concluded that the train was attacked by thousands of Muslims from the Signal Falia area.
According to the report, setting fire to the train was part of a “larger conspiracy” to “instil a sense of fear” in the administration and create “anarchy” in the state.
February 2011 – Trial Court acquits the alleged prime conspirator
The trial court of Panchmahal District convicted 31 people and acquitted 63 others. Maulvi Umarji, who was believed by the SIT to be the prime conspirator, was acquitted for lack of evidence. Why were so many people, including the lead conspirator, acquitted?
Actually, the question should perhaps be, why the remaining ones still sentenced, given the shockingly biased nature of prosecution case, built on lies that were exposed by the Tehelka sting operations, and the shoddy investigation that had so many holes?
The sessions Judge PR Patel provides some insights into this himself, by making some observations that test the principles of jurisprudence, and put a question mark over the quality of judiciary in Indian courts.
In his Judgement, Judge PR Patel quotes some of the principles for acceptance of evidence, based on other past judgements extensively:14
A Judge does not preside over a criminal trial, merely to see that no innocent man is punished. A judge also presides to see that guilty man does not escape. Both are public duties.
Justice cannot be made sterile on the plea that it is better to let a hundred guilty escape than punish an innocent. Letting the guilty escape is not doing justice according to law.
The proof beyond reasonable doubt is mere guide-line and not fetish.
Judge PR Patel rejects the defence plea of the bribe of Rs 50,000 paid by Noel Parmar to the petrol pump attendants on the ground that
Story of payment of Rs. 50,000/- to each of this witness and that too, by an Investigating Officer is highly improbable.
No prudent man would dare to take such a great risk of giving false evidence, against huge number of accused belong to muslim community without thinking about his entire future life.
He also makes a remark (p147), which suggests he has doubts about prosecution’s case.
Exaggerated story put up by the prosecution would not wash away the entire incident, which has been proved by the witnesses who were present on the spot. The incident might have commenced somewhat in different manner but the fact of the commission of the offence, when proved by the witnesses, the prosecution’s case cannot be thrown out only on the basis that prosecution has put inflated version of the commencement of incident.
His summary accepts the prosecution’s version of the events, and also the conspiracy angle
 As the assailants could not succeed in setting on fire the coach by throwing burning rags etc, some assailants found out another way and after cutting canvas vestibule of Coach S-7, suceeded in opening eastern side sliding door of Coach S-6 forcibly and after entering into the coach, the East-South corner door of Coach S-6 came to be opened, from which some others entered with Carboys containing petrol and poured petrol sufficient enough in the coach and then by a burning rag, the entire Coach S-6 set on fire.
The session court judge’s observation does not explain the very important point raised by Supreme court judge UC Bannerjee. How could a few assailants enter the coach, and pour the inflammable liquid without any resistance?
 Taking advantage of quarrel took place on platform and misbehaviour by karsevaks with muslim girls, the absconding accused co-conspirator Salim Panwala and the accused Mehbub Ahmed @ Latiko raised shouts, called muslim people from nearby area of Signal Faliya etc., by misleading that karsevaks were abducting muslim girl inside the train, and also instructed to stop the train by chain pulling.
This conspiracy observation assumes that the accused needed the quarrel to have taken place in order to carry out their plan? So, this conspiracy was created by a handful of people, relied on Karsevaks misbehaving with girls? How could the accused be sure beforehand that this would happen? 15
The case of Umarji, the alleged lead conspirator
Umarji was one of the most respected maulvis of Godhra. During the communal riots in 1965, ‘69, ‘80 and ‘89, Umarji had been a member of the peace committees formed by the district administration. After the Sabarmati incident, he was the only local Muslim leader allowed by the District Administration to run a relief camp for riot victims for several months in Godhra. He had also taken delegations to meet dignitaries like Congress president Sonia Gandhi, former Prime Minister Deve Gowda, and the then Defence Minister George Fernandes during their visits to Godhra after the incident. On April 4, 2002, when Prime Minister AB Vajpayee visited Godhra, accompanied by Chief Minister Narendra Modi, Maulvi Umarji gave him a memorandum. However, he snubbed Modi by refusing to hand him a copy of the memorandum.15
With his outspoken denunciation of the treatment of Muslims to the Prime Minister, and his open help to the families of those arrested from Godhra, he had become the defiant face of Gujarat’s Muslims at a time when the entire community was cowed down.16
His condemnation of the incident and his appeal for peace sent to newspapers went unreported.
This was the man arrested as the “mastermind” of the train burning, on the basis of a statement made by a criminal in custody who retracted it the moment he was produced before a magistrate.
The next day, the media went berserk with lurid tales of contacts with Pakistan and Afghanistan’s Mullah Umar, fiery sermons, hidden wealth … all these accompanied by close-ups of the Maulana’s face contorted in anger, fitting exactly the stereotype of the “jehadi anti-national Mullah.” Such was the impact of this coverage that when he was acquitted eight years later, Hindus across Gujarat cursed the police and the judge for letting the “mastermind” off.
He told a reporter in April 2002,
“But what makes me angry is when they question our patriotism. My own guru was in jail in Malta for six years. The British promised him freedom if he only gave up Gandhiji. He refused.
“I fear the country is not safe in their hands. It will be ruined.”
“If this is the reward you get for doing social work, God save this country.”
Maulavi Umarji died of brain haemorrhage on 13 Jan 2013.
Action-reaction with respect to the abducted girl
At any point in time, there are some 250 hawkers on the station. How and why did a larger mob from Signal Falia assemble so quickly? Even if we agree there was a conspiracy hatched by the accused, as alleged, they clearly needed to provoke people on some basis for them to assemble.
As per many witness accounts, the Muslim mob at Godhra was initially agitated as there had been a rumour that a Muslim girl, Sofia Bano, had been dragged onto the train by the kar sevaks. That was the prime reason the mob targeted the coach S6.
Sofia Bano stated in her deposition, which figures in the Nanavati commission’s report, that some men wearing saffron headbands had beaten up a bearded man close to where she was sitting.
Thereupon, my mother, sister and I started to go towards the musafirkhana. At this time, one man from the same group came from behind and pressed my mouth with his hands and tried to drag me towards the coach of the train. When my mother saw this, she raised cries “Save her… save her.” Thereupon the person who had caught hold of me, let me go. We were very frightened and stood inside the office of the booking clerk.
The Nanavati-Shah commission, amazingly, rejected her testimony. The grounds on which it did so were astonishing. It held that the attempted abduction was “not such as to create so much fear”. For good measure, it added that
“It is difficult to believe that a Ramsevak attempted to abduct a Ghanchi Muslim girl”
According to several witness accounts, Sofia’s hiding inside the booking office indeed created the misunderstanding that she had been abducted.
Assistant Station Master (ASM) Harimohan Meena was manning the cabin A, and was closest to the scene of the crime. TEHELKA’s undercover reporter decided to meet him posing as a research scholar. Meena — not aware that he was talking to a journalist or being recorded — said that when he came down and asked the mob why they were chasing the train, a few people from the mob replied that one of their people had been abducted by the Karsevaks on the train. He saw no swords, any other sharp weapon or inflammable material being carried by the mob. On the contrary, according to him, the mob mainly consisted of women and children carrying sticks and pelting stones.
While much of the genocide in Gujarat is contextualised and justified as “Post-Godhra riots” by the Hindu right wing, we have never seen Godhra itself being called a “post-molestation reaction” by the Muslims.
This video has VN Sehgal’s investigation and will give you a good idea of the scene of the crime, and also the situation about the assembly of the mob.
There are many questions about the plot itself that have not been sufficiently explained
- Its not clear how the alleged conspirators knew of the travel plans of the Karsevaks to return from Ayodhya just after day 2 of the Purnahuti Maha Yagna.
- Do we have any conclusive evidence of what the plan was, had the train arrived on time, at 0155 AM in the night, instead of being 5 hours late? How did the accused intend to mobilise the mob in the middle of the night in that event?
- How did the cut in the vestibule be made and then people enter the coach one at a time without being challenged by the belligerent Karsevaks inside the train? By all accounts, S-6 was bursting at its seams. The number of passengers in the coach was at least three times its normal capacity. According to eyewitnesses, there were about 250 passengers, these would naturally spill over to the vestibule and the passage area near the toilets. How could the accused go till seat 72, and spray petrol?
- How much of the mob could assemble in the rather small area of the embankment (the elevated bund) towards the south side of the train? Coach S9 was much closer to the road, and coach S6 had stopped a further 200m west, why would the mob attack S6 specifically, as Karsevaks were present on most coaches? At the top, there was no space for 2000 persons to assemble If so many had actually gathered there, the crowd would have spread over a much larger area than the stretch of coach S-6. If the government version were true, the other coaches should have been targeted as much as coach S-6. Also, note that witness Baria claims they first tried to set S2 on fire, which was further 300 meters to the west.
- Even if there was some pre-planned conspiracy, wouldn’t it be far more plausible that the fuel was smuggled inside the coach at Godhra station, or perhaps even earlier? Carrying so many large jerry-cans of petrol 200 meters away from the road, cutting the vestibules, entering the crowded coach would be a risky plan to carry out, within a time of 20 minutes.
It is clear that Godhra is communally sensitive. It is agreed that Godhra’s Muslims, as Hindus and Muslims unfortunately in many parts of the country are quick to react emotionally, assemble, even commit acts of violence. It cannot be disputed that they assembled on February 27 2002, and indulged in very heavy stone pelting of the Sabarmati Express.
The moot question is whether the act of burning alive 59 persons was a pre-planned act designed and executed in the manner as alleged by the prosecution, the Gujarat State government?
Clearly, the bribing of witnesses for the statement behind the selling of 140 litres of petrol by the lead investigating officer himself would have been sufficient grounds for dismissing the prosecution case under the normal scenario. This was the bedrock of the “conspiracy” angle to the case. The manner in which this serious issue of tampering of key witnesses has been casually disregarded, especially in the context on numerous examples of miscarriages of justice in Gujarat such as the Bilkis Bano case, is very strange and questionable.
Godhra was one of the few cases in Gujarat where Hindus had been targeted, and Modi government was actually extremely keen to punish the perpetrators.
There can only be one true version of events that actually transpired that morning, resulting in the fire.
The question then arises, if the Gujarat Government’s theory of Godhra being a pre-planned conspiracy was indeed the truth, if the fire occurred as claimed by their police, why did they need to resort to bribing the witnesses, why did they need to depend on nine BJP leaders as key witnesses? Why couldn’t they create a more foolproof case, with less suspicious witnesses, with a theory that was less questionable? Why were they initially talking of Kerosene being thrown from outside? Why were a vast majority of accused, including the alleged “mastermind” acquitted from the trial court? A court which otherwise appears very sympathetic to the prosecution’s case!
Based on the forensic evidence, there are 2 possibilities of the cause of fire
- The fire was indeed caused by a large amount of petrol somehow pouring a large amount of petrol by the accused, as alleged.
- The fire was an accidental one, possibly from some (at least 60 litres, as per one FSL report) of inflammable material being carried by the Kar Sevaks themselves, as alleged by SC Judge UC Bannerjee, VN Sehgal, or as an study by IIT Delhi that compared Godhra with another fire in a train coach showed. 17
The sessions court took nearly a decade over this case. It now lingers in the High Court. The alleged mastermind who was acquitted after 9 years in custody – Maulavi Umarji, is already dead now. It may be another couple of decades before this reaches Supreme Court, a lot of associated people may die natural deaths by then.
After the Reichstag fire, the German people, overcome by hatred and emotional revulsion, fell for the Nazi propaganda, and did not ask the questions, or seek the truth in an objective and scientific manner. The fire propelled Hitler to power. By the time they discovered the truth about the plot, it was too late, as Hitler had already occupied power, led their country to war with nationalistic jingoism, and razed it to ground. Will history judge Godhra fire in a similar manner?
Those who forget History, are condemned to repeat it – Santayana