Godhra, a city of the Indian State of Gujarat, was the lead
story in all Indian newspapers on February 27th-28th, 2002. A shattering piece
of news: 58 Hindu pilgrims had been burned alive in a train. “57 die in
ghastly attack on train” ran the Times of India’s headline; “Mob
targets Ramsevaks [Devotees of Rama] returning from Ayodhya”; “58 killed
in attack on train with Karsevaks [volunteers]” (The Indian Express); “1500-strong
mob butcher 57 Ramsevaks on Sabarmati Express” (The Asian Age). But the
BBC’s announcement had a very different tone: “58 Hindu ‘extremists’ burned
to death” … orAgence France Press on March 2nd: “A train full of
Hindu ‘extremists’ was burnt.”
A deluge of anguished news followed about a “Muslim genocide”: “Mass killings of Muslims in reprisal riots” (NYT, March 5th), “The authorities … share the prejudices of the Hindu gangs who have been busy pulping their Muslim neighbours” (The Observer, March 4th). We were told that Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, intended to eradicate Muslims from the State — more than 9% of Gujarat’s population, in other words five million people. We read that the police was conniving in the mass slaughter and did nothing to prevent it. Narendra Modi was compared to Hitler, or Nero. We shuddered reading the reports describing rapes and various horrors, supposedly inflicted on Muslims by Hindus.
Today, six years later, with the noises and cries of the wounds having fallen silent, what emerges from those events? What are the facts?
At 7:43 A.M. on February 27th, 2002, the Sabarmati Express rolled into the Godhra station, fortunately with a four-hour delay, in broad daylight. This train transported more than 2,000 people, mainly karsewaks on their way back to Ahmedabad after participating in the Poorna Ahuti Yagya at Ayodhya, a ritual at the traditional birthplace of Rama.
As it pulled out of the station, the train was pelted with stones and bricks, and passengers from several bogeys were forced to bring down their windows to protect themselves. Someone pulled the emergency chain: the train came to a halt about 100 metres away from the platform, surrounded by a large crowd of Muslims. The railway police managed to disperse the crowd, and the train resumed its journey.
Within minutes, the emergency chain was simultaneously pulled again, from several coaches. It halted at about 700 metres from the station. A crowd of over 1,000 surrounded the train, pelting it with bricks, stones, then burning missiles and acid bulbs, especially on the S-5, S-6 and S-7 coaches.
The vacuum pipe between coaches S-6 and S-7 was cut, thereby preventing any further movement of the train. The doors were locked from outside. A fire started in coach S-7, which the passengers were able to extinguish. But the attack intensified and coach S-6 caught fire and minutes later, was in flames. Passengers who managed to get out of the burning compartment were attacked with sharp weapons, and stoned. They received serious injuries, some were killed. Others got out through the windows and took shelter below the coach.
Fifty eight pilgrims were burned alive, including twenty-seven women and ten children. The whole attack lasted 20-25 minutes.
What transpired then, in the Indian press? Let’s imagine a coach of French pilgrims coming back from Lourdes, burned alive.
Strangely, instead of clearly, straightforwardly condemning the act, the Indian English-language press tried to justify it: “Pilgrims provoked by chanting pro-Hindu slogans” (they were not slogans but bhajans, or devotional songs, ending with “Jai Sri Ram” (Victory to Sri Rama). “It’s because they were returning from Ayodhya, where they asked for the reconstruction of a temple at the traditional birth place of Rama; this offends the feelings of the Muslims.” In sum, the victims, roasted alive, were guilty.
Numb with shock, the people of Gujarat did not react straightaway. They remained calm at first. Till that afternoon, when the charred bodies started arriving at their respective families — with no comforting voice sounded, either from the government, or from the media, no condemnation for this barbaric act, but an indifferent, deafening silence — then these people known for their non-violent nature and exceptional patience, burst into a frenzy.
There was a revolt in the whole of Gujarat. For three days, tens of thousands of enraged Hindus set fire to Muslim shops, houses, vehicles: They came out from all sides, all parties, all classes, uncontrollable — one cannot control a revolution (except in China maybe). The fatalities: 720 Muslims, 250 Hindus, according to official figures.
We read all over about a “genocide of Muslims.” Do we remember a single report on the Hindus who heroically helped save Muslims in their neighbourhood? Was even onefamily of Hindu victims interviewed following the criminal burning of the Sabarmati Express? One fourth of the dead in the ensuing riots were Hindus. How to classify those 250 victims? Who evoked the dead on the Hindu side? According to reports, Congress Party councillor Taufeeq Khan Pathan and his son Zulfi, notorious gangsters, were allegedly seen leading Muslim rioters. Another such character, Congress member of the Godhra Nagarpalika [municipality], Haji Balal, was said to have had the fire-fighting vehicle sabotaged beforehand. Then,
he stopped the vehicle on its way to the Godhra Station and did not allow it to proceed any further. A man stood in front of the vehicle, the mob started pelting stones, … The
headlights and the windowpanes of the vehicle got damaged … Fearing for his own and his crew's life, the driver drove the vehicle through the mob, as it was not possible to move backwards. The mob gave in but 15-20 precious minutes had been lost.
Lost for a coach full of
innocent people in flames.
Which newspaper article stated that the most violent events took place following provocations by leaders of this sort? The Union Home Ministry's Annual Report of 2002-03 stated that 40,000 Hindus were in riot relief camps. What made those 40,000 Hindus rush to relief camps? To seek protection from whom? Why was it necessary if they were the main aggressors?
More than the barbaric event itself, it is the insensitivity of the Indian “elite” and of the media that infuriated the Gujaratis.
Those accused of terrorism often receive political support, are benevolently portrayed by the media, and a host of “human rights” organisations are always on hand to fight for them. But those victims whose life is cut down for no reason, are they not “human” enough to get some rights too? The great majority of those who took to revolt in Gujarat were neither rich nor particularly intellectual — neither right nor left: they were middle- and lower-class Gujaratis, simple people, workers, also tribals. But some from the upper middle class, among them a lot of women, took part in the upheaval.
The media sources
Apart from local journalists usually more objective in their reports, no English media reporter, thought it worthwhile to look deeper into the events at the Godhra railway station. Nobody came to question possible survivors of the tragedy. Is a coach of Hindu pilgrims even worth the trip? They had to wait for the “elite” to react; they had to receive directives from the politically correct, before taking their pens. Worse, they reported deliberate rumours and made up versions as actual news.
We were told, for instance, that when some pilgrims got off the ill-fated coaches to have tea, “some altercation took place” between them, and a Muslim tea vendor: “They argued with the old man on purpose,” wrote some newspapers; “they refused to pay for their tea”(though Gujarati honesty is well known); “they pulled his beard and beat him up ... They kept shouting ‘Mandir ka nirmaan karo, Babar ki aulad ko bahar karo’ (start building the temple and throw out the sons of Babar). Hearing the chaos, the tea vendor’s 16-year-old daughter came forward and tried to save her father from the karsevaks. She kept pleading and begging them to leave him alone. The karsevaks, according to this version, then seized the girl, took her inside their compartment and closed the door. The old man kept banging on the door and pleaded for his daughter. Then two stall vendors jumped into the last bogey, pulled the chain, and put the bogey on fire.”
But would they have been stupid enough to set fire to the coach where their colleague’s young daughter was being held? And why were 2,000 Muslims assembled there at 7 A.M. with jerry-cans of petrol bought the previous evening?
Rajeev Srinivasan, an American journalist of Indian origin, was e-mailed this anonymous report a dozen times, supposedly written by Anil Soni, Press Trust of Indiareporter. He contacted Anil Soni to check on the veracity of this account. Soni answered:
Some enemy of mine has done this to make life difficult for me, do you understand, sir? I did not write this at all. I am a PTI correspondent. Yes, that is my phone number, but it is not my writing.
Anil Soni apparently had heard
about it from hundreds of people, and was upset to see a false report
circulated in his name.
Inquiries with the Railway Staff and passengers travelling in the Sabarmati Expressshowed that: no quarrel whatsoever took place on the platform between a tea vendor and pilgrims, and no girl was manhandled nor kidnapped.
As the Nanavati Report established later, this fictitious report was in fact circulated by the Jamiat-Ulma-E-Hind, the very hand responsible for the carnage. It nevertheless went around the world, exhibited as “the true story.” Aren’t we compelled to conclude that the assailants, in India, are those who dictate what’s “politically correct,” and instruct the media?
Arson and Canards
On the afternoon of February 28th, Gujarati Hindus’ revolt broke out. A few journalists then booked their tickets for Gujarat. As far as we can see, they had a framework in place: the outbreak would be dealt with independently of the Godhra carnage, as a different, unrelated subject; it was a planned violence perpetrated by “fundamentalist” Hindus against Gujarat’s Muslims, fully backed by the State of Gujarat. From this day on, the burning of coach S-6 was to be left behind, forgotten.
On February 28th evening, Chief Minister Narendra Modi announced his decision to deploy the Army, and the next day, March 1st, by 11 A.M. the actual deployment of troops at sensitive points had begun. Violence abated in most major cities, after their arrival with orders to shoot on sight. But security forces were largely outnumbered by the angry flood of people, spreading for the first time like rivers in spate, to rural areas and villages. Apprehending the seriousness of the situation, Narendra Modi had made a request for security personnel from neighbouring States of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab. This request was turned down by each State. Why did no one report this fateful refusal?
That same day (1st March), at the peak of the turmoil, the National Human Rights Commission faxed a notice to the Gujarat Government, calling for a report within three days on the measures being taken … “to prevent any further escalation of the situation in the State of Gujarat which is resulting in continued violation of human rights of the people.” But it was silent on what had led to such a situation in the first place.
One major event which received a great deal of attention from the media was the conflagration at the Gulbarg Society in Ahmedabad, home of a former Member of Parliament, Ehsan Jaffri. This man, rather refined and usually respected, did not feel threatened. But on February 28th morning, a crowd surrounded his house, in which a number of Muslims had taken refuge. Jaffri made a number of panic-stricken phone calls for help to authorities and to his colleagues, journalists and friends. The crowd was growing … (from 200 to 20,000, figures vary in the reports). The Indian Express (March 1st, 2002), as well as police records, reported that “eventually, in panic, he fired at the 5,000-strong mob … 2 were killed and 13 injured ... That incensed the mob …” which at 1:30 P.M. set the bungalow ablaze by exploding a gas cylinder. Final toll: 42 (March 11th edition).
Human Rights Watch, an NGO based in New York, published a dossier (on April 30th, 2002) about the Gujarat events which caused a sensation and fed a large number of articles in the international press.
In this report, Smita Narula had an unnamed “witness” at hand, to relate the attack on Jaffri’s house. First “a 200 to 500-strong mob threw stones; refugees in the house (also 200-250 people — sic!) also threw stones in self-defence.” Then the crowd set the place on fire at about 1:30 P.M. Our witness then jumped from the third floor where he was hiding — and from where he had been observing in minute detail all that was going on in the ground floor, even the theft of jewels (it would seem the floors between the third and the ground floor were transparent). At that point we jump into the sensational. Narula’s witness sees that “four or five girls were raped, cut, and burned …; two married women were also raped and cut. Some on the hand, some on the neck” …; “Sixty-five to seventy people were killed.” Those rapes and hackings are said to have started at 3:30 P.M. ... when the house was already on fire. Was the mob waiting for everything to be reduced to cinders to commit its crimes?
Among the most morbid canards, the novelist Arundhati Roy’s vitriolic article (Outlookmagazine, May 6th, 2002). She describes the event which precedes Ehsan Jaffri’s death (extract):
… A mob surrounded the house of former Congress MP Iqbal Ehsan Jaffri. His phone calls to the Director-General of Police, the Police Commissioner, the Chief Secretary, the Additional Chief Secretary (Home) were ignored. The mobile police vans around his house did not intervene. The mob broke into the house. They stripped his daughters and burned them alive. Then they beheaded Ehsan Jaffri and dismembered him …
Wait a minute. Jaffri was burned alive in the house, true — is it not awful enough? Along with some other 41 people. Not enough? But his daughters were neither “stripped”nor “burnt alive.” T. A. Jafri, his son, in a front-page interview titled “Nobody knew my father’s house was the target” (Asian Age, May 2nd, Delhi ed.), felt obliged to rectify:
Among my brothers and sisters, I am the only one living in India. And I am the eldest in the family. My sister and brother live in the US. I am 40 years old and I have been born and brought up in Ahmedabad.
There we are, reassured as
regards Ehsan Jaffri’s children. He had only one daughter, who was living
abroad. No one was raped in the course of this tragedy, and no evidence was
given to the police to that effect.
The Gujarat Government sued Outlook magazine. In its May 27th issue, Outlookpublished an apology to save its face. But in the course of its apology, the magazine’s editors quoted a “clarification” from Roy, who withdrew her lie by planting an even bigger one: the MP’s daughters “were not among the 10 women who were raped and killed in Chamanpura that day”! From Smita Narula to Arundhati Roy, “four or five girls” had swollen to “ten women,” equally anonymous and elusive.
Roy begins theatrically:
Last night a friend from Baroda called. Weeping. It took her fifteen minutes to tell me what the matter was. It wasn’t very complicated. Only that Sayeeda, a friend of hers, had been caught by a mob. Only that her stomach had been ripped open and stuffed with burning rags. Only that after she died, someone carved ‘OM’ on her forehead.
Balbir Punj, Rajya Sabha MP and journalist, shocked by this “despicable incident”which allegedly occurred in Baroda, decided to investigate it. He got in touch with the Gujarat government.
The police investigations revealed that no such case, involving someone called Sayeeda, had been reported either in urban or rural Baroda. Subsequently, the police sought Roy’s help to identify the victim and seek access to witnesses who could lead them to those guilty of this crime. But the police got no cooperation. Instead, Roy, through her lawyer, replied that the police had no power to issue summons.
This redefines the term “fiction
Another story about a “pregnant Muslim woman” whose stomach was allegedly “ripped open,” her “foetus taken out” and both being burnt, horrified people all over the world. The first mention of it seems to be in a BBC report around March 6th, which, though“uncorroborated,” spread like wildfire, with fresh details (divergent and varied, but who cares?), so much so that you end up feeling there is no smoke without fire. The rumour was never confirmed — which twisted tongue first whispered it?
Press articles kept quoting one another, creating “dossiers” out of floating rumours. None of the authors even deigned to visit the scene of the alleged events; none except the official inquiry commissions, had the honesty to question fairly, in parallel, the involved Hindu families regarding the tragedy unfolding in the two Gujarati communities.
Onlookers get caught
On March 1st, 2002, in a village on the outskirt of Vadodara (Baroda), the “Best Bakery” was set on fire: fourteen persons were burnt alive (nine Muslims and three Hindus). This particular incident made much ink flow, since the prime witness, young Zaheera Habibullah Sheikh, aged 19, turned against the prosecution in favour of the accused in the trial court.
Though Zaheera lost several family members in the tragedy, on May 17th, 2003, in the Vadodara High Court, she testified that the accused persons in the dock were innocent and had nothing to do with the arson. She, as well as the other witnesses, did not recognize their own alleged statements before the police.
Justice Mahida of the High Court observed that:
1) There has been an inexcusable delay in the First Information Report (FIR). The so-called FIR of Zahiribibi (Zaheera) was sent to the Magistrate after four to five days. So there is every reason to believe that factually this FIR was cropped up afterwards in the manner suitable to the police.
2) The arrested persons had nothing to do with the incident.
“We all knew these accused persons and because of them, our lives are saved,” reported Lal Mohammed Shaikh, a witness before the court. … “There were cordial relations between my family members, the persons residing in the compound of Best Bakery and all the accused persons before the court … The 65 persons who are saved in this incident are all before the Court and all these were saved by and due to the accused and their family members … These persons had called us, in darkness we silently came out of our house, and they saved our lives.”
3) The police is trying to put as accused passers-by at the place of incident, innocent persons gathering there or persons residing in the neighbourhood (in confidence that the police wouldn’t do anything to them).
4) No legal or acceptable evidence at all is produced by the prosecution against the accused involving them in this incident. In this case, … it has come out during the trial … that false evidences were cropped up against the present accused to involve them in this case. The case … is not proved and hence the accused are acquitted .
On June 27th, 2003, the twenty-one defendants were freed, and Zaheera Sheikh felt the court has given her “all the justice she wanted.”
In the interests of a community
But all were not satisfied. A former Chief Justice of India, A.S. Anand, Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission decided that the Vadodara judgement was a“miscarriage of justice” and the twenty-one “not-guilty” people were actually guilty and therefore should be punished. Now this honourable person should have been aware that seated in Delhi at the helm of this “human rights” affair, he would have been the first target of a number of dubious NGOs with vested political interests. Strangely, Justice Anand did not even consider it important to send his own team of independent inquiry before questioning the judgment of another court of law.
Consequently, just after the fast-track court acquittals, three members of Zaheera’s community “barged into her home” around midnight, and told her she would have to change her statement “in the interests of the community.”
This meant that Zaheera had to declare that she had lied to the court (which is a criminal offence ). Did she have a choice?
Along with her mother and brother, she was taken to Mumbai “without their consent,”and brought to Teesta Setalvad, an activist of the much-vaunted “human rights.” The activist took them under her wing for several months, accommodated them in a rented apartment while providing assistance for a living. In the meantime she prepared affidavits (in English which Zaheera does not read) for the girl to sign before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), in which she “confessed” to having lied to the Vadodara trial court, “trembling with fear and threatened” by BJP MLA Madhu Shrivastav (who had nothing to do with her area and whom she did not even know). And Zaheera now designated as guilty, the twenty-one people she had considered innocent. All media were ready with their cameras, mikes and pens to splash the news.
The Gujarat High Court dismissed the appeal, rightly suspecting that the witness had been pressured to turn hostile, and upheld the acquittals.
But the Supreme Court accepted the retraction and, as demanded by NHRC and Setalvad, ordered the retrial of the case outside Gujarat. The acquittal of the twenty-one people was quashed. In 2004, Zaheera “managed to flee” from her confinement by the activist, and in November, seized by remorse for having allowed innocent people to be accused, stated that whatever she had told the Supreme Court, was done under duress from Teesta Setalvad and her associate Rais Khan; and whatever she told the NHRC was a lie. “Ramzan is on and I want to state the truth,” she said. “What I had said in Vadodara Court during the trial was my true statement. The judgement was correct and had given me all the justice I wanted.” She sought police protection from Teesta Setalvad.
The Supreme Court judge called the girl “flip-flop Zaheera,” accepted a “high-powered committee” report which indicted Zaheera Sheikh as a “self-condemned liar,” and awarded the girl with a simple one-year imprisonment for contempt of court, as well as a fine of Rs. 50,000. Activist Teesta Setalvad was cleared.
Now, who took the court for a ride? Especially in light of the new revelation that “a host of Gujarat riot case victims were misled into signing affidavits giving false information,” for which as many as ten of them had received 100,000 rupees from Teesta Setalvad NGO.
As it stands today, nine persons among the twenty-one passer-bys picked up, have been condemned to life imprisonment and are languishing in jail.
In December 2004, a fatwa was issued against Zaheera by the Muslim Tayohar Committee, excommunicating her with the approval of All India Muslim Personal Law Board, “for having constantly lied.” In other words, for having stood by the twenty-one wrongly accused Hindus neighbours.
Let us pursue our investigation.
Human Rights Watch Smita Narula’s report (April 30th, 2002) was titled “ ‘We have no order to save you’ — State participation and complicity in anti-Muslim violence.” From US shores, its words were lapped up by the Indian elite and politicians:
What happened in Gujarat was not a spontaneous uprising, it was a carefully orchestrated attack against Muslims … planned in advance and organized with extensive participation of the police and state government officials.
But where are the facts to corroborate such an allegation, which of course was instantly peddled the world over? Can a “carefully orchestrated attack” happen overnight? And how can someone sitting in the U.S., gauge the “spontaneity” of such an outbreak?
By contrast, a genuine, on-the-spot investigation was conducted under the aegis of the New Delhi-based Council for International Affairs and Human Rights. Its findings were made public as early as April 26th, 2002, through a press conference held in Delhi. Running counter to the politically correct line of an “orchestrated attack,” they were largely ignored by the media.
On March 3rd, 2002 the five-member fact-finding team under Justice Tewatia’s direction went to Godhra and spent six days visiting three affected areas in Ahmedabad and some of the relief camps. At all places, team members interacted with the two communities freely, without intervention of any officials. Five delegations from both communities presented their facts and views. The team then went to the Godhra railway station and interviewed officials, survivors and witnesses of the burning of the S-6 coach, as well as the fire brigade staff. They met the Godhra District Collector, along with other officials.
On April 4th, the team was in Vadodara (Baroda) visiting five relief camps of both communities, and seven areas which were the scenes of violence in the preceding month, as well as a number of sensitive areas. To have exposure to the ground realities they visited some areas still under curfew and also met the Commissioner of Police and District Collector along with other officials. Thirteen delegations consisting of 121 citizens met the team and presented their testimonies; they included not only members of both communities, but ranged from the Association of Hoteliers to a group of Gujarati tribals (Vanavasis).
Let us quote some findings of Justice Tewatia’s Inquiry Commission, which its report described as “indisputable”:
• The attack on Sabarmati Express on 27.02.02 was pre-planned and pre-meditated. It was the result of a criminal conspiracy hatched by a hostile foreign power with the help of local jehadis … carried out with the evil objective of pushing the country into a communal cauldron.
• The plan was to burn the entire train with more than two thousand passengers in the wee hours of February 27th, 2002.
• There were no quarrels or fights between the vendors and the Hindu pilgrims on the platform of Godhra Railway Station.
• Firebombs, acid bulbs and highly inflammable liquid(s) were used to set the coaches on fire that must have been stored [the day before] already for the purpose.
• The fire fighting system available in Godhra was weakened and its arrival at the place of incident wilfully delayed by the mob with the open participation of a Congress Councillor, Haji Balal.
• Fifty-eight passengers of coach S-6 were burnt to death by a Muslim mob and one of the conspirators was a Congress Councillor, Haji Balal.
• Someone used the public address system exhorting the mob “to kill kafirs and enemies of Bin Laden.”
About the police:
• Police was on many occasions overwhelmed by the rioting mobs that were massive and carried more lethal weapons than the police did.
• [They] did not have the training and know-how to manage situations of communal strife witnessed in the state in recent weeks.
• In many places, … [they] made a commendable work in protecting life and property. Barring a few exceptions, it was not found to be communally motivated.
• Available information shows that the Army was requisitioned and deployed in time.
The involvement of the “tribal” communities or Vanavasis, in the post-Godhra riots added a new dimension to the communal violence, as Justice Tewatia’s report reveals:
• In rural areas the Vanvasis attacked the Muslim moneylenders, shopkeepers and the forest contractors. They used their traditional bows and arrows as also their implements used to cut trees and grass while attacking Muslims. They moved in groups and used coded signals for communication. Apparently, the accumulated anger of years of exploitation … had become explosive.
About the media:
• Gujarati language media was factual and objective. Yet its propensity to highlight the gory incidents in great detail heightened communal tension.
• English language newspapers … appeared to have assumed the role of crusaders against the State [Gujarat] Government from day one. It coloured the entire operation of news gathering, feature writing and editorials. They distorted and added fiction to prove their respective points of view. The code of ethics prescribed by the Press Council of India was violated … with impunity. It so enraged the citizens that several concerned citizens in the disturbed areas suggested that peace could return to the state only if some of the TV channels were closed for some weeks.
A few healing voices
It would be unfair not to mention a few voices that rose from among the journalists themselves, against this enormity. The most eloquent one was Vir Sanghvi’s, usually part of the “secular” establishment, ever ready to portray Muslims as victims, Hindus as aggressors. Vir Sanghvi’s crisis of conscience suddenly gave him intellectual clarity. Some extracts from his article “One-way ticket” in The Hindustan Times of Feb. 28th, 2002:
There is something profoundly worrying in the response of what might be called the secular establishment to the massacre in Godhra. …
There is no suggestion that the karsewaks started the violence … there has been no real provocation at all … And yet, the sub-text to all secular commentary is the same: the karsewaks had it coming to them.
Basically, they condemn the crime; but blame the victims …
Try and take the incident out of the secular construct that we, in India, have perfected and see how bizarre such an attitude sounds in other contexts. Did we say that New York had it coming when the Twin Towers were attacked last year? Then too, there was enormous resentment among fundamentalist Muslims about America's policies, but we didn't even consider whether this resentment was justified or not.
Instead we took the line that all sensible people must take: any massacre is bad and deserves to be condemned.
When Graham Staines and his children were burnt alive, did we say that Christian missionaries had made themselves unpopular by engaging in conversion and so, they had it coming? No, of course, we didn't.
Why then are these poor karsewaks an exception? Why have we de-humanised them to the extent that we don't even see the incident as the human tragedy that it undoubtedly was …
I know the arguments well because — like most journalists — I have used them myself. And I still argue that they are often valid and necessary.
But there comes a time when this kind of rigidly 'secularist'construct not only goes too far; it also becomes counter-productive. When everybody can see that a trainload of Hindus was massacred by a Muslim mob, you gain nothing by blaming the murders on the VHP or arguing that the dead men and women had it coming to them.
Not only does this insult the dead (What about the children? Did they also have it coming?), but it also insults the intelligence of the reader.
There is one question we need to ask ourselves: have we become such prisoners of our own rhetoric that even a horrific massacre becomes nothing more than occasion for Sangh Parivar-bashing?
S. Gurumurthy in The New Indian Express (March 2nd), Jaya Jaitley, in The Indian Express (March 7th), Rajeev Srinivasan in Rediff on Net (March 25th), Arvind Lavakare inRediff on Net (April 23rd), T. Tomas in Business Standard (April 26th), François Gautier inThe Pioneer (April 30th), M.V. Kamath in The Times of India (May 8th), Balbir Punj in Outlook (May 27th), each one expounded the absurdity of a situation where the majority of Indians — the Hindu community — are looked down upon as second class citizens. A negligible lot taken for granted because it is harmless, non-aggressive, and unable to speak and act as one coherent, organized group.
A farcical interlude
Two and a half years after the events, on Sept. 3rd, 2004, the cabinet of the Central Government (ruled by the UPA coalition) approved the setting up of a committee constituted by the Railways Minister Lallu Prasad Yadav, and headed by Justice U. C. Banerjee, former judge of the Supreme Court, to probe the causes of the conflagration in the Sabarmati Express.
“The blaze is an accident,” Justice Banerjee coolly concluded in January 2005. There was “no possibility of inflammable liquid being used,” said he, and the fire originated “in the coach itself, without external input.” The Cabinet ministers were fully satisfied.
Now among the few survivors, Neelkanth Bhatia, was not one. He gathered enough strength to challenge the formation of this committee, and in October 2006, the Gujarat High Court quashed the conclusions of the Banerjee Committee. It declared its formation as a “colourful exercise,” “illegal, unconstitutional, null and void,” and its argument of accidental fire “opposed to the prima facie accepted facts on record.” Moreover, one high-level commission conducted by Justice Nanavati-Shah had been appointed by the Gujarat Government to probe the incident, two months earlier. The Court also did not miss the point that the interim report was released just two days before the elections in Bihar — the State of the Railways minister, well-known for his political ambitions and notorious for his histrionics.
Politicians know no common sense or shame. But what about the judiciary?
The Nanavati Report
The first part of Justice Nanavati-Shah Inquiry Commission report was released in September 2008, after four years of thorough investigations. It lifted the cloak of blame that had been wrapped around the Gujarati people all those years. It also cleared the most blackened Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi.
There is absolutely no evidence to show that either the Chief Minister and/or any other Minister(s) in his Council of Ministers or Police officers had played any role in the Godhra incident or that there was any lapse on their part in the matter of providing protection, relief and rehabilitation to the victims of communal riots or in the matter of not complying with the recommendations and directions given by National Human Rights Commission. There is no evidence regarding involvement of any definite religious or political organization in the conspiracy. Some individuals who had participated in the conspiracy appear to be involved in the heinous act of setting coach S/6 on fire.
The policemen who were assigned the duty of travelling in the Sabarmati Express train from Dahod to Ahmedabad had not done so and for this negligent act of theirs an inquiry was held by the Government and they have been dismissed from service.
On the basis of the facts and circumstances proved by the evidence the Commission comes to the conclusion that burning of coach S/6 was a pre-planned act. In other words there was a conspiracy to burn coach S/6 of the Sabarmati Express train coming from Ayodhya and to cause harm to the Karsevakstravelling in that coach. All the acts like procuring petrol, circulating false rumour, stopping the train and entering in coach S/6 were in pursuance of the object of the conspiracy. The conspiracy hatched by these persons further appears to be a part of a larger conspiracy to create terror and destabilise the Administration.
According to Justice Nanavati, Maulvi Hussain Umarji from Godhra was the brain behind the events. Two of the main accused, Salim Panwala et Farukh Bhana, are absconding, very likely having fled to Pakistan. The report named a few others, with various degrees of involvement in the events, but they are unlikely to be troubled in view of their political connections.
Heartstrings for whom?
It is easy to see why the Nanavati Report was frowned upon by Citizens for Justice and Peace, namely Activist Teesta Setalvad who asked the Supreme Court “to restrain the Gujarat Government from acting upon, circulating and publishing this report.” Fortunately on October 13th, 2008, the highest court sharply turned down the petition, thus making the testimonies and inquiries available to all (the Nanavati Report is available on the Internet).
However, under pressure from the UPA Government and pestered by the National Human Rights Commission and Citizens for Justice and Peace NGO, on October 21st, 2008, the Supreme Court directed that the Prevention of Terrorist Act (POTA) could not be used against the 134 accused in the Godhra train burning incident, whose trial was to be held under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code. This amounted to accepting prima facie that the guilty were not terrorists: we are allowed to call them “militants,” “gunmen” — but not terrorists. This ruling will have nationwide impact, as other State governments may have to drop charges under POTA against those accused of indulging in terrorist activities. The recent terrorist attacks on Mumbai (on November 26th) demonstrate the danger of such a withdrawal.
Pattern for Harmony
This appears to be a pattern: whenever Muslim riots or bomb attacks target Hindus, it is thought acceptable to accuse the victims, in order to avoid possible revolts. Thus in 1993 in Mumbai, after eleven coordinated bomb blasts in Hindu majority areas, which killed 257 people and injured 713, the then Maharashtra Chief Minister Sharad Pawar quickly cooked up a twelfth explosion … in a Muslim area! “I have deliberately misled people,” he explained later, to show that both communities had been affected.” And to portray both communities’ potential to behave as “terrorists”! Truth and clarity of mind are the casualties.
We remember the great art historian A.K. Coomaraswamy’s words in 1909:
It is unfortunate that libels upon nations and religions cannot be punished as can libels upon individuals.
Gujarat had greatly suffered throughout all those years. Through a devastating Bhuj region earthquake in January 2001, in which more than 20,000 people died; the pilgrims burned alive at Godhra in Feb. 2002 and just six months later another terrorist attack in the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar, where thirty-three peaceful worshippers were brutally gunned down (with seventy injured). Amidst those tragedies the people of Gujarat seemed to have no doubt whatsoever regarding the sincerity of their Chief Minister, whose administration happens to be among the least corrupt in the whole of India. State elections were held twice since those events: in December 2002 and December 2007. How is it that Narendra Modi won landslide victories on both occasions despite extremely hostile and sustained media campaigns, seeking to demonise him as a blood-thirsty ruler?
Official India has chosen to forget a millennium of Islamic intolerance and brutality. Millions of butchered Indians have no right to be remembered, not even in history textbooks, where invaders are sometimes turned into heroes. Sadly, this ostrich-like attitude leaves the wounds open and condemns us to relive the past rather than heal it.
© Nicole Elfi
Nicole Elfi left France thirty-four years ago for India,
drawn to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. She participated in publication of works
related to them and in research on Indian culture, authoring two books in
French; the second one, Aux Sources de l’Inde was published June 2008. Contact
 See Commission of Inquiry Report of Justice G.T.
Nanavati & Justice Akshay H. Mehta (“Justice Nanavati Report” for
short further below): p. 71-84: 97-125; p.86: 128; p.89-90: 130; p.170: 223;
p.172: 226-27; p.174-175: 229; the integral text is available on the website of
the Gujarat Government:http://home.gujarat.gov.in/homedepartment/downloads/godharaincident.pdf
See also Godhra the Missing Rage, by S.K. Modi (New Delhi: Ocean Books, 2004).
 One of the main vehicles was out of order, as its clutch-plates had been taken out a few days earlier. On their arrival on 27.02.02 in their office, firemen found that the other fire engine had been tampered with. (Justice Tewatia Report and Justice Nanavati Report: p.88-89: 131.)
 Justice Nanavati Report, p.39-41: 50-52, p.48-49: 67-68.
 To which Gujarat Chief Secretary sent a request to grant further time of 15 days, as “the State machinery is busy with the law & order situation, it would take some time to collect the information and compile the report.” Indeed.
 See Balbir Punj in Outlook, May 27th and July 8th; also in The New Indian Express, March 8th, 2002.
 See Vadodara Sessions Court, Best Bakery Case, Justice H.U. Mahida’s Judgement, June 27th, 2003.
 Columnist Arvind Lavakare in “Blindfolded in Best Bakery” (9.9.2003), commented: “ … The Gujarat government quickly appointed three public pleaders for the purpose of suing [Justice Anand] for contempt of court; these pleaders, in turn, filed an application before the Vadodara judge asking him to move the state's high court to punish the contemnor who, they said, had insulted the honour and dignity of the judge, besides undermining the entire judiciary. … But Justice Anand … went to the Supreme Court even before an appeal against the Vadodara verdict could be thought out by the Gujarat government. His NHRC petitioned the apex court to order a re-trial of the 21 'not guilty' Best Bakery accused. And the re-trial demanded is one that should be out of Gujarat state!…” Though article 20(2) of the Constitution of India prohibits trial for the same offence twice (M. N. Buch, The Indian Express, Mumbai, August 13th, 2003).
 Section 191 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, says, “Whoever, being legally bound by an oath or by an express provision of law to state the truth or being bound by law to make a declaration upon any subject, makes any statement which is false, and which he either knows to or believes to be false or does not believe to be true, is said to give false evidence.” Section 193 lays down that punishment for the offence of giving “false evidence” is imprisonment which may extend to seven years and shall also be liable to fine.
 Social activist and Secretary of the NGO Citizens for Justice and Peace, and co-editor ofCommunalism Combat, a CPI-CPI(M) affiliated magazine.
 Zaheera isn’t the only one to seek police protection from activist Teesta Setalvad. Rais Khan, who worked closely with her, now feels under threat and recently asked for it too.
 As it happens, “a host of Gujarat riot case victims were misled into signing affidavits giving false information at the behest of Setalvad’s Citizens for Justice and Peace, which was instrumental in organising payment of Rs. 1 lakh each to ten witnesses in various post-Godhra riot. Among the recipients, four are Best Bakery case witnesses. A list of names were sent to the CPI(Marxist) relief fund, and demand drafts were handed out at a function in Ahmedabad on August 26th, 2007 by CPI(M) politburo member Brinda Karat, Teesta Setalvad and Rais Khan. Incidentally, those who were both victims and eyewitnesses received 100,000 rupees, some others 50,000 rupees, while the victims got a mere 5,000 rupees each. This has raised eyebrows over the selection of beneficiaries and the purpose of paying a disproportionately large sum to the eyewitnesses before the trial.” See Navin Upadhyay, Daily Pioneer, Dec. 20th, 2008: www.dailypioneer.com/144856/Godhra-riot-witnesses-got-Rs-1-lakh-each.html
 South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of the report.
 This New York-based Human Rights Watch, still watches
the Indian shores closely, as it appears, but not to protect innocent lives. On
Dec. 3rd, 2008, just a week after the ghastly Nov. 26th terrorist attacks in
Mumbai, HRW issued a statement to the Government of India, offering gratuitous
advice on how to manage its affairs and demanding that investigators should
respect the human rights of captured terrorist Ajmal Amir Kasab (also
called “Butcher of Mumbai”). A commentator in The Jerusalem Postpointed
out, “The HRW’s website lists 38 reports attacking counter-terrorism
efforts around the globe but only three on the brutal impact of terrorism on
civilians.” See also Kanchan Gupta’s excellent article,“Mumbai’s Butcher
and human rights,” in The Pioneer, Dec. 17th, 2008.
 Council for International Affairs and Human Rights (governing body for the term 2001-2003), New Delhi. “Facts Speak for Themselves: Godhra and After,” A Field Study by Justice D. S. Tewatia, Dr. J.C. Batra, Dr. Krishan Singh Arya, Shri Jawahar Lal Kaul, Prof. B. K. Kuthiala. Available online atwww.geocities.com/hsitah9/facts_speak_for_themselves.htm .
 From Justice Tewatia Report.
 The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) is a pro-Hindu organization.
 The Sangh Parivar is a network of pro-Hindu organizations deriving from the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS).
 The UPA is a coalition of political parties, the main one being the Congress presided over by Sonia Gandhi; Manmohan Singh is the Prime Minister. As many as 10 Cabinet ministers (at the helm of India’s affairs till today …) as well as 93 Lok Sabha MPs face criminal charges ranging from rape, extortion and murder (Association of Democratic Reforms, New Delhi, in The New Indian Express, Dec. 6th, 2006).
 Among its specific tasks, the Nanavati Commission was required by the Government to consider:“Role and conduct of the then Chief Minister and/or any other Minister(s) in his council of Ministers, Police Officers, other individuals and organizations in both the events referred to in clauses (a) and (b); (e) Role and conduct … (i) in dealing with any political or non-political organization which may be found to have been involved in any of the events referred to hereinabove; (ii) in the matter of providing protection, relief and rehabilita