Godhra revisited

Written by Teesta Setalvad | Published on: October 1, 2003
 

The burning alive of 59 passengers in coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra on February 27, 2002 was used to justify genocidal violence against Gujarat’s Muslims. Now, 19 months later, families of the victims of the gruesome tragedy in Godhra complain that they, too, were taken for a nasty ride by the very leaders who pretended to be their
saviours
 

It was on Dussera day, October 5, 2003, that four families who had lost their wives and mothers in the mass burning inside coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra on February 27 last year, made their pilgrimage for justice to Mumbai. Addressing a packed press conference in the metropolis the same evening, they told the country of the cynical way in which they had been made unwitting pawns in the politics of hatred. (On being approached by family members of the Godhra victims, the Mumbai-based Citizens for Justice and Peace had promised legal help to them, just as it had earlier extended support to Zahira Shaikh and her family in the Best Bakery massacre case).
 

Suddenly, the images of the charred and burnt bodies of the passengers in that hapless coach, images that have been played and re-played over the past 19 months, became real and approachable once again, as grief-stricken and broken families spoke out bravely against their political manipulation. Their determination to risk the wrath of the political masters in Gujarat, to take such a stand even while they would continue to live in Ahmedabad, above all, to petition the Supreme Court of India for a transfer of the Godhra trial along with the retrial/trial of the Best Bakery and other key cases outside the state is itself a measure of the strength of their convictions.
 

Their demand for a trial of the Godhra case also outside the state became stronger after some of them had been physically prevented from giving an honest testimony before the Nanavati-Shah Commission on September 18-19. Before their travel to Mumbai, local members of the VHP had tried to threaten and cajole them against their decision to seek the CJP’s help. But they were determined to come. And courageous too.
 

Through the mass media, they also appealed for an immediate end to yatra politics, cautioned their country men and women against being drawn to such programmes and demanded an inquiry into the collection of huge funds in the name of the Godhra victims by the sangh combine.
 

Dr. Girishbhai Rawal, 82-years-old, is a singularly brave man. Sudhabehn (76), his wife died a horrible death in Godhra, by burning and asphyxiation. "When you are young, there is romance and desire," he told me, "but when you reach our age there is something more precious. There is harmony and sharing. I have lost the harmony of my existence," he said, as tears rolled down his weathered cheeks for the first time.
 

Girishbhai faced a second tragedy soon after losing his precious Sudhabehn. On April 16, 2002, he lost his 42 year old son Ashwinbhai Rawal. Ashwinbhai, the local Bajrang Dal chief, was stabbed to death in a communal killing in Ramol. Repeated appeals by local residents to the state and city police to put up an effective police chowkey in the area had gone unheeded.
 

Before her tragic death, Sudhabehn was associated with the Khoja Council of the Aga Khan Foundation, working with children of all faiths. Neither she, nor her husband, nor her 18-year-old grand-daughter, Khushboo, nor her widowed daughter-in-law, Belabehn, ever shared the hatred and venom that the VHP-BJP-RSS-BD brand of politics espouses.
 

Khushboo brought tears to many eyes during the press meet in Mumbai when she said without a trace of artifice, "My father was drawn to the politics of Hindutva. But none of the rest of our family is enamoured of it. The building of the Ram temple is not as important as communal harmony and peace. The coming yatra must be stopped. People must realise that there is only death, destruction and violence after such activities."
 

Dr Rawal, in his cogent and articulate affidavit filed in the Supreme Court of India, has clearly stated that the failure of the VHP-BJP to bring back the yatris safely had to do with the intemperate and abusive behaviour of the kar sevaks on their way to, and while returning from, Faizabad-Ayodhya. He has also clearly stated that under the current regime in Gujarat, the chances of free and fair investigation and trial are remote; unless the trials are shifted outside of Gujarat, justice will not be done.
 

No honest inquiry into the tragedy is taking place, the reports of forensic experts who have stated that 60 litres of inflammable liquid simply could not have been flung from outside into the compartment given the topography of the area, are being buried and denied, the affidavit has said. "We have been used; Godhra has been used to justify violence against our own people in every nook and corner. Is this Hinduism? It is not. I feel ashamed."


From Left to Right: Bharatbhai Panchal with daughter Shefali in front; Belabehn Rawal, Dr. Girishbhai Rawal; Khushboo Rawal with Prakashbhai Chodagar behind; Sharadbhai Mhatre. In front row, Dhawal and Harsh

The families of Dr Girishbhai Rawal, Sharadbhai Mhatre, Bharatbhai Panchal and Prakashbhai Chodagar all lived in Janata Nagar, Ramol, a communally sensitive area of Ahmedabad city. Each family has lost a female member.
 

Sudhabehn, Malabehn, Jyotibehn and Nilimabehn (Amibehn) were religious-minded, mutual friends. None was a member of the VHP-BD or the BJP. They had simply been attending the VHP-organised satsanghs every Saturday in their housing society and who felt that the VHP’s plan to take people to Ayodhya offered them the chance of a free religious pilgrimage; that too in each other’s company. Neetabehn Panchal, a leader of the Durga Vahini, was instrumental in enthusing them for the yatra from which they never returned. In all, 10 women from Janata Nagar died in the mass arson.
 

Sharadbhai had been reluctant to let his wife undertake the journey to Ayodhya. But with a chance to make a religious pilgrimage, that too with close friends like Jyotibehn and Amibehn, she was adamant. He now has two children to raise without a mother.
 

"We realise now how we and others have been made pawns in the VHP and BJP game. They say things, use abusive and offensive language. This upsets the tranquillity of local areas and people get fooled and drawn to this. I have plied rickshaws for a living for years but never thought about the religion of my passengers. They say such things to trap people into joining them. That is all," says an angry Bharatbhai, who now faces the task of bringing up 16-year-old Shefali and his younger son, Dhawal, all alone. Bharatbhai is suspicious about why none of the leaders of the BJP and VHP, who had encouraged innocent believers to make the yatra and accompanied them, suffered any injury on that fateful day.
 

"For years, Hindu and Muslim children, as also little ones of other faiths, have always been ferried by us in our rickshaws to and from school. This was true about Ahmedabad and the rest of Gujarat. But today’s Gujarat is no longer the Gujarat we had known and lived in. Never before has Gujarat been so demeaned as by this regime. There is distance and hatred everywhere. Is this the way to treat our own people? Cutting up people, burning and killing them? As Gujaratis, how can we be proud of what happened to young girls and women in Gulberg society, in Naroda Pattiya?" These are the words of Prakashbhai, simple and reticent, but clear and firm in his convictions.
 

The clear-cut prayers of these families in their appeals to the Supreme Court are:

  • A ban on future Ayodhya yatras, especially the one planned from October 15, 2003. (The appeal was filed before that date);
  • Adequate reparation and compensation – material, psychological and physical – to all victims of the Godhra and post-Godhra violence, from the VHP, BJP, Gujarat government and railway ministry, irrespective of caste, creed and community and with total impartiality;
  • Investigation into the source of funds and their utilisation by the VHP and the BJP received in the name of the Godhra victims;
  • The immediate transfer of the Godhra inquiry, as also inquiries into the Naroda Pattiya, Gulberg and other major massacres, outside Gujarat and conducted in the immediate vicinity of the Supreme Court.

For over five-six months before the press conference in Mumbai, I, as a CJP representative, had met members of the aggrieved families to share their pain and sorrow. In the process, I developed an understanding of how simple and religious-minded Hindus were mobilized and how thereafter the tragedy itself and the trauma of the families of the deceased was cynically manipulated by the VHP-BJP-BD-RSS combine to justify the ‘retaliatory’ carnage that was orchestrated in Gujarat last year.
 

Listening to each one of them accounts reveals a tale of the cynical manipulation of basically good and honest people for a sinister political scheme that feeds on their individual loss, pain and suffering to conjure up an imagery of the perpetual victim (Hindu) of (Muslim) violence. The testimonies of the aggrieved families of the Godhra burning, contrast sharply with the utterances of saffron leaders on Godhra. There was pain, grief and sorrow in their accounts over the deaths of their near and dear ones. But there was no trace of hatred, no suggestion of ‘revenge’ against the entire community of Muslims. In fact they were categorical that the torching of the train at Godhra was the work of anti-socials who must be caught and severely punished but for which all Muslims must not be blamed.


This in sharp contrast to what VHP leader Togadia said in an interview to the Gujarati weekly, Hotline on March 2: "This has never happened in the history of independent India. Hindu society will avenge the Godhra killings. Muslims should accept the fact that Hindus are not wearing bangles. We will respond vigorously to all such incidents". It even stands in sharp contrast to Vajpayee’s speech in Goa in April: "Wherever there are Muslims, they do not want to live with others (who practise different faiths). Instead of living peacefully, they want to preach and propagate their religion by creating fear and terror in the minds of others.’’


The tragedy took place between 8 and 8.20 a.m. on February 27. The official version until 7 p.m. that day called the tragedy an "accident". In his official statement on the incident in Parliament at 2 p.m., Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee also described the tragedy as an accident. The collector of Panchmahal district, Ms Jayanti Ravi had maintained the same view throughout the day.


It was only after 7 p.m. that evening that Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, began looking at the ‘ISI-conspiracy in Godhra’ theory. This was all that was needed to launch what was obviously a carefully orchestrated genocide in at least 16 of the 24 districts of the state. Thereafter, the image of the burnt S-6 coach and the bodies within were used and reused for mass mobilization, especially to harvest votes in the Gujarat state elections.


The way the Godhra inquiry is being conducted is in itself reason for the apex court to intervene and examine events. Dozens of people are arrested under POTA which was not even in force on the day of the tragedy. The Act, notified for Gujarat only the day after the tragedy, cannot be invoked against the Godhra accused.


Blatantly illegal methods of detention and injection of serum for questioning have been used by the authorities investigating the Godhra incident. Instead of keeping aloof from the investigation, the prosecution (the state of Gujarat) appears to be dictating the conduct of investigations (see accompanying story).


The family members of the Godhra victims are today openly challenging the calculated manipulation of the death of their near and dear ones to justify the massacre of a few thousand innocents. Their voices force us to re-visit Godhra and reflect on the tragedy that not only took 59 innocent lives, but was also used to butcher another 2,500 innocents. In the seemingly pointless cycles of violence and counter-violence that threaten peace today, voices such as these, if heeded, may help us reverse this cycle. For that to happen, however, enough of us have to be listening. 

Archived from Communalism Combat, October 2003. Year 10, No. 92, Cover Story 1