Stranger than fiction

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Inferno The charred Sabarmati Express bogie, Photo: Tehelka
Inferno The charred Sabarmati Express bogie, Photo: Tehelka

Three events within a single week have traumatised the country in a manner not experienced since the demolition of the Babri Masjid a decade ago. These are the attempt to start the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, the slaughter of passengers on the Sabarmati Express by a frenzied mob at Godhra, and the horrific ‘revenge’ killing of more than 600 Muslims in virtually uncontrolled reprisals all over Gujarat. Given their proximity, and the fact that all three relate to the vexed issue of communal relations, it is not surprising that much enlightened public opinion in India has linked all three events in a single chain of cause and effect and pinned the primary blame for the slaughter of innocent Muslims in Ahmedabad, and for that matter some of the blame for the killing of Hindus at Godhra, upon the Hindu revivalists of the saffron brigade.

It speaks volumes for the strength of secular sentiment in the Indian intelligentsia that despite being overwhelmingly Hindu, it is able to do so. But the interpretation is wrong. The three events were unconnected. Linking them together permits Muslims to plead extenuating circumstances for the murderers of Godhra just as much as ignoring the poison generated by the Ayodhya dispute permits Hindus to put all the blame for Ahmedabad and Mehsana upon the incitement provided by the murders at Godhra.

It is an inescapable truth that had there been no Ayodhya dispute, there would have been no kar sevaks travelling in the Sabarmati Express. There would, therefore, have been no altercation on the platform at Godhra. But that is about the only link between Ayodhya and the Godhra massacre. By no stretch of reasoning can an altercation with a Muslim tea stall owner, an ensuing fracas, abuse hurled at Muslims or Islam justify the roasting alive of men, women and children 1 km outside the train station at Godhra. Indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine how one act could even have set off the other.

To begin with, kar seva has been going on sporadically in Ayodhya for an entire decade. During all this time, kar sevaks have been going up and down the railroad from Ahmedabad to Ayodhya. There was nothing especially confrontational about the kar sevaks who had travelled back and forth in February. This did not mean that they were incapable of misbehaving, or getting into a quarrel with a tea stall owner — groups of young men travelling by train do so all the time, and the victims are by no means all Muslims.

The image of a people provoked beyond endurance, drawn by a reporter for The Washington Post carrying out a reconstruction seven days later — “They exposed themselves to other passengers. They pulled head scarves off Muslim women. They evicted a family of four in the middle of the night for refusing to join in chants glorifying the Hindu god Ram… When they refused to pay for their food, Muslim boys among the vendors at Godhra stormed the train. When the confrontation was over, 58 Hindu passengers — mostly women and children — were dead” — does not ring true, because during the brief halt at Godhra, there simply would not have been enough time for Muslim hooligans to piece together all this information and become sufficiently incensed to go on a murderous spree.

Had the altercation at Godhra alone set off the attack, the train would have been burned at Godhra station. Had a Muslim tea stall owner jumped on the train and pulled the chain to prevent the kar sevaks from getting away, the train would have stopped within yards and not a full kilometre away. Nor is it possible to even imagine how, in a spontaneous riot, only members of one community were killed. This is as implausible as stories from Kashmir and earlier Punjab, that only terrorists were killed or injured in an ‘encounter’ with the security forces.

The more closely one looks at Godhra, the more implausible does the thesis of a spontaneous Muslim reaction become. Both the bogies S-5 and S-6 were made of steel and contained no wood (the berths were made of flame-resistant rexine and foam). The train was stationery and not travelling at speed. So there was no wind to fan the blaze and make it spread from one point to the entire bogie as happened in a recent accident in which three bogies were consumed by fire. So how did the Muslim youth who did the burning manage to accumulate so much incendiary material in so short a time? If the petrol was collected in driblets, why did the train driver simply stay standing at the spot and not pull the train away? Most inexplicable of all, why did the passengers in the burning bogies not jump out and run away from the flames. How is it that virtually all the passengers in a single bogie, S-6, were trapped inside while those in S-5 mostly managed to escape?

There is only one answer to all these questions, and it is the one that the journalists who got to the scene first reported. The attack was pre-planned. All the narratives of provocation have been constructed after the attack. Other than an altercation at Godhra station, there is no evidence that any of it actually took place.

However, if the Godhra killing was a product of renascent Muslim fundamentalism, the scale of the carnage that followed owes a great deal to the decade-long saffronisation of the administration and the CM’s ambivalent attitude. The Godhra tragedy occurred in the early morning of 27 February. It hit television that evening and the newspapers on 28 February. The VHP scheduled its bandh for 28 February. The Gujarat government, therefore, had a clear day in which to take the standard precautions against communal rioting that all Indian administrations are familiar with. But instead of taking these precautions, Modi announced that his government would sponsor the VHP bandh. As a result, as almost none of these precautions were taken — there were no pre-emptive arrests of known bad characters; no peace committees formed, and no show of force in communally sensitive areas. A curfew was declared in 26 towns and cities, but with no enforcement, this proved worthless.

Some of the blame may rest upon the fact that the chief secretary of Gujarat was abroad at the time, and the person officiating for him, a lady, had very little actual experience of district administration. Coupled with a new and inexperienced chief minister, the power vacuum in Ahmedabad was complete. That was what prompted the Cabinet Committee on Security to send Defence Minister George Fernandes to Ahmedabad to supervise the use of the army.

The key reason for the administration’s torpor on 27-28 February was that the VHP was behind the bandh. In a BJP regime, the police and district administration would have needed very specific and unambiguous directives to use force against the VHP and arrest its leaders. But the administration’s hands were tied. As far as can be ascertained, those instructions were not given till Fernandes arrived in Ahmedabad.

Modi made himself an accomplice in the carnage that followed Godhra, through his markedly unsympathetic statements to the press. No one is likely to forget his attempt to give twice as much compensation to the victims in Godhra as elsewhere, or his remark that Ehsan Jafri and his family of 19 called down their own deaths by firing on the mob that had come to ransack their homes and perhaps kill them. Unfortunately, by defending him in Parliament, Deputy PM LK Advani also made the Centre an accomplice to the Gujarat killings.

This article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on 13 March 2002

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