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Godhra fire accidental, says Banerjee panel

By Vinay Kumar

NEW DELHI, JAN. 17. Debunking the previous National Democratic Alliance regime's "conspiracy theory" behind the fire incident in the Ahmedabad-bound Sabarmati Express at Godhra on February 27, 2002, in which 59 people died, the Justice U.C. Banerjee Committee today said the fire in the S-6 coach was purely "accidental."

"With the elimination of the ``petrol theory'', the ``miscreant activity theory'' and the ruling out of any possibility of ``electrical fire'', the fire in the S-6 coach can at this stage be ascribed as an `accidental fire'," the Committee said in its interim report. It noted that there was a preponderance of evidence that the fire originated in the coach S-6 itself without any external input.

Sequence of fire

"Moreover, the possibility of an inflammable liquid having been used is completely ruled out as there was first a smell of burning, followed by dense smoke and flames thereafter. This sequence is not possible in case the fire is caused by an inflammable liquid thrown on the floor of the coach or an inflammable object thrown from outside the coach. The `inflammable liquid theory' also gets negated by the statement of some of the passengers who suffered injuries on the upper portion of the body and not the lower body and who crawled towards the door on elbows and could get out without much injury," the Committee concluded

The report is not without political significance. The "Godhra incident" — as per the then Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition Government at the Centre and the party's Government in Gujarat — was caused by a fire ignited by miscreants at the Godhra railway station , killing `kar sevaks' returning from Ayodhya. It triggered widespread communal riots in Gujarat in February-March 2002, in which thousands lost their lives and a large number were rendered homeless.

`Unpalatable comments'

The report, running into two volumes, was presented by Mr. Justice Banerjee to the Railway Board Chairman, R.K. Singh. Mr. Justice Banerjee said that many comments would "not be palatable to the Railways." The high-level committee was appointed by the Railway Minister, Lalu Prasad, on September 4, 2004, about three months after the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance came to power at the Centre. The initial term of the Committee was for three months but it was granted extension for three more months.

A statutory inquiry by the Commissioner of Railway Safety was abandoned within days of the Godhra incident on the plea that the State Government had already appointed the Nanavati-Shah Inquiry Commission . Even the Divisional Railway Manager of Vadodara had described the fire as having been caused by miscreants. "Higher-ups in the railway administration have failed to inculcate a sense of safety among the passengers. All is not well with railway safety. The entire approach of the Railways has been very casual and it is unfortunate that the Western Railway did not adhere to any norms of the accident manual," Mr. Justice Banerjee said in his brief opening remarks.

Incidentally, the expert committee was the first such panel to have been appointed by the Railway Ministry, nearly three years after the incident took place. Mr. Justice Banerjee refused to reply to questions either on railway safety or the timing of the interim report on the eve of Assembly elections in Bihar, Haryana and Jharkhand.

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