GANDHINAGAR: The Gujarat High Court’s decision to commute the death sentence into life imprisonment to 11 of the convicts involved in the gruesome Godhra train burning case of February 27, 2002, even as sharply criticising the Gujarat government and the Indian Railways for miserably failing to maintain the law and order, has opened up fresh possibilities of re-examining the event.
While the HC has, at the same time, refused to change the trial court verdict, which acquitted 63 persons, including Maulvi Umarji, accused of being the mastermind behind the fire, there is reason to wonder what led to the incident, which was immediately described by the Gujarat government as a “criminal conspiracy” hatched in Pakistan, without even waiting for the investigators begin doing their job to find out how on that fateful date 58 people, most of them kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya, were burnt alive.
Godhra has roughly an equal population of Muslims and Hindus, with a long and bloody history of communal tension and violence. The Muslims in Singal Falia, situated near the railway station, who allegedly attacked the Sabarmati Express, belong to the Ghanchi community, which is largely uneducated community with poor civil values and religiously always charged. Many of them have been allegedly under the influence of tabliqis of the Deobandi tradition, and have had the history of participating in communal violence.
The court termed it as “preplanned inhuman collective violent act of terrorism”. The fact is, the police, especially the DSP, arrived at the scene of the incident at the site of the incident at 8.30 am, by which time the mob had already dispersed. According to one report, since he heard no cries or any sounds from coach S6, he had no apprehensions of massive civilian casualties in that coach. This was discovered only later when the district collector entered the coach. Reportedly, all the bodies were in a heap in the centre of the coach S6. There is reason to wonder: Why did the Gujarat police not call forensic experts for a physical examination of the burnt railway coach for two long months even though it was freely accessible to the public from day one?
Sardar Vaghela, 77, locally known as Sardar Kaka, insists his son Rajesh is alive. “My son got lost in 2002. He was on the train. I am sure he will be back,” he said Monday.
The train he was referring to is the Sabarmati Express, which was set on fire in February 2002 leading to the death of 59 kar sevaks. On Monday, Gujarat High Court commuted to life the death sentences of 11 of those convicted.
“I have heard about the Gujarat High Court judgment and it has not done justice,” Sardar told. “My neighbours were on the train and they died. Those who killed them should not be forgiven. Giving them a life sentence is not enough.”
“Kaka has lost his mental balance after 2002,” said Dinesh Goswami, a survivor, who was on S6, the coach that was set on fire at Godhra station that day, the event that triggered communal riots in Gujarat. “Kaka goes to temples and mosques looking for his son. He is sharp when it comes to other matters, but when it is about his son he refuses to accept that he is dead,” Goswami said.
“The decision has come keeping the elections in mind. Advantage will be taken of this decision. The judgment is totally wrong and I think it will give out a wrong message to those who committed such a crime,” said Goswami, who had come to visit Sardar to tell his family about the judgment and the compensation announced.
“I was 31 years old when the incident happened,” he added. “I was one of the lucky ones who managed to escape. I could not recognise the charred bodies of my friends. This is what we call, in law, a rarest-of-the-rare case. The train burning made people so angry that the entire state erupted in violence. It was not the VHP or the BJP or the Congress or any political party. It was the anger of people because of what had happened to the kar sevaks.”
Goswami and Sardar live in Khokra area of Ahmedabad.
Gayatri Panchal of Vastral, Ahmedabad, is another survivor; she lost her parents and two sisters. She says she wants to move on rather than reflect on something that happened 16 years ago.
“I was on the train and have given statements several times. I am disappointed with the judgment but don’t want to say anything that may spark controversy. It has been 16 years and I want to move on.”
Gayatri, 32, is currently taking a break from work. She was in class XI when she lost her parents Nita and Harshad, and sisters Pratiksha and Chhaya.
She used to live in Ramol area of Ahmedabad and was later resettled in Vastral by members of the VHP.
“Most of the sevaks were from Ramol area. The VHP resettled many after the riots,” said Bipin Thakkar, 44, a businessman who deals in auto parts and is a VHP member. “I was there, helping families move and ensuring they got compensation. My father-in-law and brother-in-law died on the train and I am very disappointed with the high court judgment. The lower court judgment awarding the death sentence was the right one. I will make sure that we take the matter to the Supreme Court. I will do it individually if necessary.”
He said it had been a last-minute decision that made his father-in-law Mansukh Soni and brother-in-law Jesal Soni join the team visiting Ayodhya.
“It is a loss that no compensation can make up for. My wife does not know about the judgment yet. She will be disappointed,” Bipin said.
The VHP too expressed disappointment with the judgment. “The judgment of the high court is not just,” its Gujarat general secretary Ranchhod Bharvad said at a a press conference at the VHP office. “The murderers of the Ram bhakts cannot get away with only life imprisonment. We will take this matter to the Supreme Court. We want those who committed the crime to get the harshest punishment possible. We also want special packages and compensation from the government for those who died on the train. The Rs 10 lakh compensation is not enough. People have lost their families.”