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The truth about Godhra

Three years after 59 train passengers, most of them VHP members and sympathisers or their family members, perished in a fire on board coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra, a coherent picture is finally emerging of what actually happened th at fateful morning.Siddharth Varadarajan pieces together the puzzle.

The top two photographs are of coach S-6, the bottom of a coach (16526) which accidentally caught fire at a railway yard in Jagadhri, Delhi. The photos on the left show the similarity in heat marks on the outside of the coaches with paint melting greater on the end where the fire initiated. The photos on the right show inside details of the side where the fire initiated. (Source: The Hazards Centre, New Delhi)

WE HAVE before us now four bodies of evidence regarding the cause of the February 27, 2002, fire — the police charge sheet (based on the police investigation), the Justice U.C. Banerjee Committee's interim report, the deposition of passengers and police and rail officials before the Nanavati Commission and the technical report prepared by an independent panel of engineering experts on behalf of the Hazards Centre.

Unfortunately, none other than the Hazards Centre report can be considered a complete body of evidence. The police charge sheet is riddled with contradictions and relies too heavily on retracted confessions and statements by witnesses of dubious credibility. The Banerjee interim report bears all the hallmarks of a rush job, while the Nanavati panel's work shows no signs of concluding despite the passage of nearly three years.

Nevertheless, the burden of evidence gathered so far definitely does not seem to support the pre-planned conspiracy theory of the police.

Mr. Justice Banerjee and the Hazards Centre experts aver that the fire was most likely caused by an accident, though there is no doubting the fact that coach S-6 was stoned by an angry mob.

That there was an accidental fire at the same time an angry mob was throwing stones from outside might seem like something of a coincidence. Perhaps it was the panic induced by the stoning which made an accident more likely — a half-smoked cigarette thrown down carelessly, a stove used for making tea not turned off properly.

On the other hand, if the Hazards Centre theory — of a smouldering object under a berth eventually burning the latex seat, thereby generating thick black smoke and then bursting into flames — is correct, then the process of combustion might actually have started 15-20 minutes prior to the first time smoke was detected. This would be well before the stoning started.

The platform

By now all narratives agree that a fracas broke out on the platform between aggressive karsevaks and Muslim vendors. A Muslim girl was molested by them. Stones were thrown on the coach and the karsevaks also gathered stones to throw back. Worried that the situation might deteriorate, the station master sent the train off suddenly at 7.48 a.m.

The first stop

No sooner had the engine crossed the platform than chain-pulling stopped the train. Satyanarayan Varma, the train guard, told the Nanavati Commission that the chain had been pulled because some passengers had been left behind.

The first charge sheet says the karsevaks pulled the chain but subsequent charge sheets claim one of the conspirators forced a Muslim vendor to board the train and pull the chain.

In fact, rail records submitted to the Banerjee Committee show that the chain had been pulled in four coaches (83101, 5343, 91238 and 88238). These were rectified but it is possible there was a fifth coach too which was not rectified. The record in the chargebook of the Assistant Station Master (ASM) shows that there was another coach requiring rectification.

Once the four coaches were set right, the train started moving again. The time now was 7.55 a.m. according to the ASM and 8 a.m. according to the guard. Passengers have testified that even as the train was standing and then began to move, the stone-pelting which began on the platform continued.

The second stop

Soon after the engine crossed Cabin `A' about a kilometre to the west of the station, the train came to a halt again. There is no written record of a chain pull or rectification or of an altered clappet valve or dangling hosepipe as per the police claim that one Anvar Kalandar stopped the train because the conspirators told him a Muslim girl had been kidnapped by the karsevaks. It is possible that the unrectified fifth coach dragged the train to a halt. Either way, there is no record of physical evidence to suggest someone from outside the train got it to stop. The only evidence with the police is Kalander's statement as a witness that he was responsible.

Time the key

Given the speed of the train after the first stop (10-12 km/h) and the distance of Cabin `A', the train would have come to a stop the second time around 7.55-8.05 a.m.

Assuming the police case is correct, the conspirators were already in position and began cutting the vestibule connecting S-6 and S-7. Presumably, the process of cutting the vestibule, clambering aboard the train with jerry cans, opening the door to allow three more conspirators to get on board, emptying all the petrol and then setting the coach on fire would take more than a couple of minutes.

Even allowing for the implied claim that the karsevaks on board S-6 did not attempt to stop the conspirators from performing these tasks as rapidly as possible, it is difficult to square this scenario with the fact that in the railway records the fire/smoke is reported at 7.55 a.m.

The fire

In fact, the railway records state that the second stoppage and sighting of smoke were simultaneous. The Wardhi Book entry of the GRP, for example, records a complaint of fire at 7.55 a.m. received from the ASM, who had in turn been intimated by the guard. The duty of the officer recording the complaint ended at 8 a.m., when he handed over charge. The GRP inspector, M.J. Zala, noted that the information about the fire was received by him at 8.05 a.m.

Finally, the Special Duty Diary of the Vadodara control room shows notification of the fire by 8.05 a.m. The Godhra fire station, for some reason, records receiving the information only at 8.20 a.m.

Even assuming a five-minute gap between the second stoppage and the fire, the police case is quite improbable.

The charge sheet says the main conspirators ran from the platform after the stoning began all the way to a lane near the Aman Guest House where the petrol was stored, loaded it on to an autorickshaw, drove to a drain some 50 steps from the track, unloaded the cans, ran up to the track and then cut the vestibule. Even assuming they began this process at 7.43 a.m., as soon as the Sabarmati Express arrived at the Godhra station, and set the train on fire by 8 a.m., was 17 minutes enough time?

According to a `panchnama of rehearsal' dated 18.9.2002, it took the police four minutes to move by auto from the Guest House to the drain. In the remaining 13 minutes, the conspirators would have to have run from the platform to the Guest House, loaded and unloaded the petrol, covered the 50 steps by foot, cut the vestibule and gone on board S-6.

Even this improbable scenario becomes possible only because of the 8-10 minutes additional delay caused by the first stoppage. If the guard's testimony is correct, the first stoppage was because karsevaks on board pulled the chain. How could the conspirators, assuming they ran from the platform at exactly 7.43 a.m., have known the karsevaks would pull the chain?

No waiting mob

Finally, the testimony before the Nanavati commission of Rajendraprasad Meena, ASM on duty at Cabin `A' at the time, makes it clear there was no mob standing between the cabin and the train when it came to a halt the second time. There was, however, a crowd running alongside the train after it moved from the platform. When he got down from the cabin, "some people from the crowd had come near the cabin... the mob did not arrive together but 10-15 persons were coming and gathering... There were women and children also." Mr. Meena was not witness to anybody trying to cut the vestibule. "I did not see personally as to who set the fire and how."

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