99 persons cited as accused

A special court in Ahmedabad will pronounce its verdict on Tuesday in the 2002 Godhra train burning case, in which 99 persons have been cited as accused. Of them, 21, including five juveniles, are on bail.

This is the first case in which the verdict is to be pronounced by a court in Gujarat dealing with the Godhra and post-Godhra cases being monitored by the Supreme Court.

The Godhra case is one of the nine highly sensitive cases of communal violence in which the Special Investigation Team, headed by the former CBI Director, R.K. Raghavan, conducted further investigation and ordered that some more persons be included in the charge sheet.

All the accused have been charged with criminal conspiracy, murder and burning of the S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express near the Godhra station on February 27, 2002, in which 59 people, mostly ‘kar sevaks' returning from Ayodhya, were killed. The maximum punishment likely is the death sentence, provided that the sessions judge brings this case under the ambit of the rarest of rare cases. The incident was used to instigate large-scale violence against Muslims across Gujarat that claimed hundreds of lives.

Initially, a charge sheet was filed. It invoked the Indian Penal Code and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. After conducting further investigation, the SIT wanted some more persons added as accused. Seventeen supplementary charge sheets were filed. All the accused were committed to the sessions court.

The Central POTA Review Committee found no basis for invoking charges of terrorism against the accused. This order was upheld by the Gujarat High Court, and the Supreme Court, too, did not interfere with the High Court order. Accordingly, on June 25, 2009, the sessions court framed charges under the IPC. The examination of witnesses began on July 1, 2009. The trial held in the Sabarmati jail was completed in September 2010. After the Supreme Court lifted its stay on the pronouncement of verdict on October 26, 2010, the special judge announced that the verdict would be delivered on February 22.

Banerjee report

In September 2004, when Lalu Prasad was Railway Minister, the United Progressive Alliance government constituted a committee, headed by the former judge of the Supreme Court, U.C. Banerjee, to probe the causes of the fire in the Sabarmati Express. In his report submitted in January 2005, Justice Banerjee said: “The blaze is an accident. There was no possibility of inflammable liquid being used. The fire originated in the coach itself, without external input.”

However, the Justice Nanavati Commission, appointed by the Narendra Modi government to probe the sequence of events that led to the fire, concluded that the fire was not caused by any accident but because of the petrol thrown at it.

Preliminary report

In its preliminary report submitted in September 2008, the commission said: “The burning of the coach S6 was a pre-planned act. In other words, there was a conspiracy to burn the coach of the Sabarmati Express coming from Ayodhya and to cause harm to the ‘kar sevaks' travelling in the coach.”

It said: “All the acts such as procurement of petrol, circulation of false rumour, stopping of the train and entry into coach S6 were in pursuant of the object of conspiracy. The conspiracy hatched by these persons appears part of a larger conspiracy to create terror and destablise the administration.”

Given the conflicting conclusions by the two commissions, it remains to be seen what the findings of the sessions court will be, especially with regard to the conspiracy theory.