Burning of the Sabarmati Express, Godhra
It all began with the burning of Sabarmati Express on 27th February 2002. According to reports, 58 people died and 43 were injured. Most of these were karsevaks, sympathisers of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, who were returning from Ayodhya after an event organised as part of a concerted campaign to build a temple on the Babri masjid site. This article by Rediff provides the official version soon after the incident –
When the train from Faizabad arrived at Godhra railway station at around 8.30 am (IST), the kar sevaks travelling on it and some locals on the platform started shouting slogans. As the train started moving, someone pulled the emergency chain and it came to a halt near the signal point, where a mob attacked the coaches with petrol and acid bombs, setting them on fire, the official said.
The Hindu reported eyewitness accounts-
About 1,200 `Ram sevaks' were travelling in the train. The local people in the Muslim-dominated Godhra town had been ``irritated'' by the ``abusive language'' used by the `Ram sevaks' while they were going to Ayodhya by the same train a few days ago. They had reportedly raised slogans as the train approached Godhra on the return journey this morning.
There have been several contradictory theories. According to this report in the BBC, an investigation by retired Supreme Court judge Umesh Chandra Banerjee concluded in 2005, that the fire was started by accident. However, the 2008 inquiry commission supported the state government’s conspiracy argument.
Manoj Mitta provides a detailed account of the trial court proceedings related to this case in Scroll. According to Mitta, there have been several lapses in the way the case was handled by the police including failure to protect the site of the incident.
When a fact-finding team of the Editors Guild of India visited the Godhra railway station on April 3, 2002, they were “surprised to see this prime exhibit standing in the yard unguarded and stray people entering it at will. Anyone could remove or plant anything in the carriage, tampering with whatever evidence it has to offer with none being any the wiser”.
Testimonies of nine VHP members who claimed to be eye witnesses when they assembled at the railway station to garland and welcome the karsevaks, was disregarded after they failed to provide crucial justification as to how they assembled at 6am, given that they did not claim to know that the train which usually arrives at 2.55am was delayed by 5 hours. All of the 28 muslims who were arrested on the day of the incident and the next day were exonerated, albeit having spent several years in jail.
Riot cases investigated by SIT
During the bandh call by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad on the next day, large scale rioting took place in towns and cities across Gujarat. One the first day of rioting alone, 140 people were killed. Eventually the death toll rose to more than a thousand.
The authorities said the toll in the day's orgy of violence in Ahmedabad alone could be at least 90. The number of cases of looting and arson, particularly of the minority shops and business establishments, was officially put at 118 in Ahmedabad but the authorities admitted that they had lost count. The authorities, for obvious reasons, refused to confirm the burning of a mosque in Surat city, the attack on the Islamic Study Centre in Baroda and the torching of the Waqf Board office in the old secretariat building in Gandhinagar. But eyewitness accounts confirmed the incidents.
Muslims were systematically targeted, including two housing colonies. One of them was the Gulbarg Housing Society massacre, where 69 people including former Congress M.P Ehsan Jafri was killed and the other, Narod Patia where 65 people were killed. According to this 2003 report by Human Rights Watch –
Women and girls were gang-raped in public view before being hacked and burned to death. Homes were looted and burned while the community mosque, the Noorani Masjid, was destroyed using exploding gas cylinders. The crimes in Naroda Patia were among the most brutal in the state.
The report details various cases and their mishandling by the police revealing that the state government actively protected the perpetrators of the riots.
Evidence of this is the compromise reached in one case where 29 people accused of violence in Palliyad village were let off by the court. Sathis Jha reports in the Indian Express -
On January 31, following a prolonged trial, an additional district court in Kalol acquitted all the 26 accused in the case. The order said most of the eyewitnesses had turned hostile and a “compromise was struck between the accused and the victims”. While no written documents were submitted, the court accepted the oral information given “about the amount (not mentioned in the order) of compensation given to the victims by the accused”.
Soon after the riots, most muslim families left the village and the main accused is the sarpanch.
Most of the legal battles have been painstakingly slow. In case of the Gulbarg Society, the Special Investigation Team court awarded life imprisonment to 11 men in June last year. Maya Kodnani, who was a minister at the time and is out on bail in the Narod Patia case, has denied all allegations in another case, in her statement to the court earlier this month.
The Hindu has an update on the various cases including those relating to the rape and murder of 19 year old Bilkis Bano and burning of the Best Bakery in Vadodara after several ups and downs which were transferred to Maharashtra.
Then role of then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, in the riots has been one of the main reasons for the opposition against him becoming the Prime Minister. Soon after the riots, Modi called the attack pre-planned and an act of terrorism. On the evening after the riots, he appeared on television appealing for calm, saying that very few have been reported among 18000 villages in the state, but that he was disturbed by the developments in the cities. There have however, been several accusations suggesting that Modi instructed police not to stop rioters and interfered in cases against those arrested.
It is interesting to note his repeated justification of the anger and grief, although he did assure people that the culprits would be given the harshest punishment and people should not take the law into their own hands.
Undercover interviews of Bajrang Dal leaders by journalist (now with AAP) Ashish Khetan, are chilling.
The government has also come under criticism for targeting activist Teesta Setalvad whose NGO Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) has been dealing with several of the cases in the aftermath of the riots. Senior advocate Indra Jaisingh concluded -
The issue is not whether CJP has committed financial misconduct. The issue is how fair are our pre-trial processes and how impartial our justice delivery system. In contrast to the vehemence of the Gujarat police to prosecute and arrest Teesta and Javed, one sees the failure of the CBI to appeal against the discharge of Amit Shah, the chief of the ruling BJP, in a case in which he is accused of three murders. One wonders if this is not a case of manipulation of the investigation machinery by the State?
The Telegraph reported that a bipartisan committee on Religious Freedom appointed by former U.S President Barack Obama was also critical of the government –
Recently, the Indian government has been accused of targeting human rights activist Teesta Setalvad and her husband, Javed Anand, for allegedly violating the FCRA and receiving funds unlawfully, the report says. Mrs. Setalvad is renowned for her supportive endeavours for victims of the 2002 anti-Muslim Gujarat riots. She has been campaigning to seek criminal charges against Indian officials, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for their alleged involvement in the anti-Muslim riots.
Extracts from a biography, Untold Vajpayee: Politician and Paradox by Ulekh NP, published in The First Post suggest that Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was Prime Minister during that time wanted Modi to step down as Chief Minister and spent severall days distraught over the events in Gujarat. The author writes about one incident in particular – a press conference held in the aftermath’s riot when a reporter asked Vajpayee what message he would give the Chief Minister –
In controlled displeasure, Vajpayee stated that Modi should ‘follow his Rajdharma’. He explained that Rajdharma was a meaningful term, and for somebody in a position of power, it meant not discriminating among the higher and lower classes of society or people of any religion. In a bid to stop Vajpayee from saying something scathing about him, Modi turned towards Vajpayee, tried to catch his eye and said with a strong note of threatening defiance, ‘Hum bhi wahi kar rahe hain, sahib (That is what we are also doing, sir).’ Vajpayee immediately changed tack and said, ‘I am sure Narendrabhai is also doing the same
The author also says that Modi offered to step down as Chief Minister at the BJP’s national executive in Goa held in April that year but was shouted down. Vajpayee decided not to take the issue further feeling that some of the younger leaders within the party supported Modi.
Since the riots, Modi continued to rule Gujarat as Chief Minister and was eventually cleared of all charges relating to his personal involvement or negligence in the riots by a team appointed by the Supreme Court in 2012. However, NDTV noted –
The conclusions of Mr Raghavan's committee differ with those of senior lawyer Raju Ramachandran, who was asked by the Supreme Court to separately study the allegations against Mr Modi. In his report submitted last year to the Supreme Court, Mr Ramachandra reportedly advised that Mr Modi and senior policemen should be cross-examined.
This was due to the testimony by a senior police officer who claimed that Modi asked police officials to let the rioting continue. The investigation team rejected the testimony as other police officers claimed he was not at the meeting. However, a review petition has been filed in the Gujarat High Court by Zakia Jaffri, wife of slain Ehsan Jaffri. The next hearing on the case will be the 31st of March.
Read more from the author:News that made headlines in 2016