On February 27, 2002 coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express was set on fire in Godhra railway station. Fifty-eight passengers died. Next day riots broke out in Gujarat, which was described by critics as genocide. Chief Minister Narendra Modi was accused of deliberately unleashing the genocide. The Justice Nanavati Commission of inquiry set up by Modi to probe the fire and the subsequent riots released the first part of its report on
September 25. The report claims that the train fire was part of "a larger conspiracy to create terror and destabilize" the government. The release of this report is most timely for the BJP – elections in several BJP ruled state assemblies are shortly due.
Justice Nanavati further goes on in this first part of the report to categorically give a clean chit to Modi about complicity in the riots. This is surprising since the second part of the report dealing with the riots is yet to be released. Modi has already demanded an apology from his critics. Justice Nanavati’s son was appointed as standing counsel of Gujarat state by Modi in the same year that the good Judge consented to head the commission of inquiry.
The findings of the Nanavati Commission are diametrically opposed to the findings of the earlier Justice Banerjee Commission appointed by union railway minister Laloo Prasad Yadav. That report was released before the Bihar assembly elections. The Banerjee Commission reported that the Godhra train fire was an accident and there was no conspiracy. The findings of that report were of electoral advantage to Laloo Yadav.
The BJP leaders are elated over the Nanavati Report. Their joy might prove to be premature. A little after the Godhra train fire and the Gujarat communal carnage this scribe wrote several articles on the subject. Some questions were raised. They remained unanswered. The revival of the issue makes them relevant once again. Perhaps the Gujarat government, Justice Nanavati and the BJP leaders might care to address those questions. This scribe tended to agree with Justice Nanavati about a conspiracy to set the train on fire and that it was part of a larger conspiracy to destabilize the government. However, his doubts about the origins of the conspiracy seem to differ greatly from what Justice Nanavati seems to indicate. The doubts arose from the following reported facts.
First, the Ahmedabad based Forensic Science Laboratory claimed that the railway carriage was set afire from inside the train. The outside doors of the burnt bogey were locked from inside. The arsonists to enter the train from outside would have had to enter through the corridor from the adjoining bogey. The only entrance to coach S-6 was through coach S-5 which was packed with VHP activists. How could Muslims from outside pass through these VHP activists and set fire to the adjoining bogey?
Secondly, 150 registered Muslim station vendors in Godhra station were alleged arsonists. Recall that there was disturbance and pelting of stones on the train by some vendors. However, within hours of the fire all the 150 vendors vanished. It was speculated by the police that they had fled to Mumbai. How could all 150 disappear unless there was prior arrangement for flight?
Thirdly, the Human Rights Watch in America carried out an extensive probe into the riots. It submitted a 70-page well documented report written by Smita Narula, an American of Indian origin. The report claimed that the Gujarat riots were pre-planned before the Godhra train fire occurred. The rioters had kept in readiness lists of shops and houses to be burnt or attacked. If the riots were indeed pre-planned, how could the incident seized as the provocation for riots be spontaneous? And if there was a large conspiracy, who was its mastermind?
Fourthly, reportedly a meeting of top officials was held on the night of the Godhra fire. Officials were told to go soft on the Bajrang Dal and VHP activists. Apart from media reports to this effect, Mr KPS Gill, who was briefed by Gujarat’s police officers, confirmed that they had told him this.
Fifthly, on the explicit orders of Chief Minister Modi, seventeen bodies of the Godhra victims were transported for their last rites to Ahmedabad for a mammoth funeral procession through its streets. That procession inflamed public opinion and ignited the riots. How could Modi, reputed to be an able administrator, take such a stupid decision? Unless the Godhra fire succeeded in emotionally upsetting his judgment -- as might have been the intention of the conspirators? Recall how Indira Gandhi’s assassination led to an emotional and destructive response by Rajiv Gandhi.
Sixthly, of the 58 passengers who died in the train fire only four were reserved passengers. Nineteen remained unidentified. Thirty-five charred victims were ‘identified’ by the government. Their names were not publicized. Who were they? Were there in fact any VHP karsevaks among the victims? Two former Railway Ministers Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee had a public spat. Mamata Banerjee accused Nitish Kumar of holding back the list of the reserved passengers to curry favour with the BJP. She said she had seen the forensic report. Nitish Kumar said that only months after the Godhra fire did the police investigators ask for the list of the reserved passengers. Why such delay? What was Mamata hinting at? Some enlightenment is in order.
Seventhly, hours after the Godhra fire the Gujarat police described it as the work of the ISI. It named one ISI conspirator who allegedly escaped to Bangladesh. But a couple of months later the same police suddenly said that it was a spontaneous incident. Why did it change its view? If the disappearing Godhra station vendors were activated by the conspirators, could VHP activists have been infiltrated by a hostile domestic or foreign enemy? The Sangh Parivar leaders must acknowledge that the lumpen elements recklessly recruited by Bajrang Dal renders that organization extremely porous and open to infiltration and subversion.
Justice Nanavati has reported in clear terms that the Godhra fire was part of a larger conspiracy. Now the second part of his report is awaited. It remains to be seen whether it answers these doubts or raises new questions.