BETWEEN US | Pankaj Vohra, Hindustan Times, March 5, 2006
The final findings of the U.C. Banerjee Commission, which went into the cause of the Godhra train blaze, have established that earlier reports of a mob setting the Sabarmati Express on fire on February 27, 2002, to kill kar sevaks were the state government’s figment of imagination. The Narendra Modi-led Gujarat government perhaps wanted to use the episode to consolidate the BJP’s position in the state just before the assembly polls.
The report comes before the final findings of the Nanavati Commission, which is inquiring into the aftermath of the Godhra incident. It is unlikely that the commission’s findings will be contradictory to what has been stated by Justice Banerjee. In fact, the Nanavati Commission has taken far too long to give its report. The government must ensure that no further extensions are given so that this report soon sees the light of day.
But if one goes by the implications of the Banerjee panel report, many questions can be raised about the role of important functionaries, including then Railway Minister Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi. While Nitish Kumar can be held guilty for not ensuring the mandatory inquiry by the commissioner of rail safety as per rules, Modi can be charged for coining a false theory about the incident that led to the communal riots in Gujarat.
In fact, the Gujarat police, as also senior officials of the state, must be held accountable for the riots which, as it transpires, took place because the false theory of attack on kar sevaks was allowed to gain credence. There was always suspicion that the RSS-BJP wanted to use Gujarat as a laboratory for the Hindutva formula. The commission’s findings have confirmed this. The revelation in last year’s interim report that the fire was accidental and not the act of a mob is a severe indictment of those who spoke of mob fury. Instead of maintaining impartiality, the state government was manufacturing evidence to substantiate a false theory, and destroy proof that pointed in the opposite direction.
Railway authorities, too, must be prosecuted for destruction of evidence, as is evident from the fact that the coach S-7, adjoining coach S-6 where the fire had broken out, was disposed of in a hurry. The allegation is that since the vestibule was closed, it would have exposed the petrol-pouring theory. Normally, the coach should have been preserved as case property. The exercise smacked of a cover-up operation.
The commission has revealed that many kar sevaks were among the survivors and out of the 200 people inside the coach, only 59 died. There was no substance in the assertion that the chain was pulled for a second time and that coach S-6 had been locked from outside to prevent the kar sevaks from escaping. Those familiar with rail travel will have no difficulty in understanding that the coach cannot be locked from outside by anyone other than a railway official in possession of the key. It has also been brought out that the fire was most intense between seats 48 and 72 and there was no fire on the floor — this was clear from the nature of injuries of the survivors.
In fact, the Banerjee panel has carried out a meticulous probe after going through documentation made available to it. The Railways have a good method of keeping records and this helped the panel. In the process, the judge found the local police theory of the fire breaking out at 8.20 a.m. to be false. In fact, it took place around 7.55 a.m. It is also imperative to point out that the Railway Ministry had first set up a committee to probe the cause of train fire but later gave it a commission status on finding that several officials were not cooperating.
The release of the interim report in January 2005 had sparked off an intense debate, as many BJP and NDA leaders tried to link the findings to the Bihar elections that were to be held later. Banerjee was perceived to be trying to help Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav in order to nail rival Nitish Kumar. Now, the report must be accepted for its attempt to reveal the incident in its true light. It is this revelation that shows how falsehood by lumpen elements in the Sangh parivar led to the country’s worst-ever communal riots.
Even senior BJP leaders have regretted what happened in Gujarat. The US declined to give Modi a visa only because of his alleged role in the shameful incidents. The report should compel power-hungry politicians to resolve that falsehood should never be made the basis for fighting an election, whatever the result. In the current debate on the verdict in the Best Bakery case and on suppression and tampering of evidence in the Jessica Lall case, the falsehood of Gujarat should also be brought under public as well as the judicial scanner.
Those responsible for the Gujarat carnage can’t be allowed to get away without facing judicial scrutiny. It takes little to raise communal temperature, as was evident even in the communal riots that broke out in Lucknow on Friday. So, if action is taken against those who incited the clashes in Gujarat or had any role in suppressing facts or twisting the truth, the right message will go to the masses. You cannot do something wrong and get away. Between us.