You are on page 1of 25

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction

Nicole Elfi
(Published online February 2009:; revised and updated, July 2013)

Godhra, a city of the Indian State of Gujarat, was the lead story in all Indian newspapers on 27-28 February 2002. A shattering piece of news: 58 Hindu pilgrims had been burned alive in a train. 57 die in ghastly attack on train ran the Times of Indias headline; Mob targets Ramsevaks [Devotees of Rama] returning from Ayodhya; 58 killed in attack on train with Karsevaks [volunteers] (The Indian Express); 1500-strong mob butcher 57 Ramsevaks on Sabarmati Express (The Asian Age). But the BBCs announcement had a very different tone: 58 Hindu extremists burned to death or Agence France Press on March 2: A train full of Hindu extremists was burnt. A deluge of anguished news followed about a Muslim genocide: Mass killings of Muslims in reprisal riots (New York Times, March 5), The authorities share the prejudices of the Hindu gangs who have been busy pulping their Muslim neighbours (The Observer, March 4). We were told that Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, intended to eradicate Muslims from the Statemore than 9% of Gujarats population, in other words five million people. We read that the police was conniving in the mass slaughter and did nothing to prevent it. Narendra Modi was compared to Hitler, or Nero. We shuddered reading the reports describing rapes and various horrors, supposedly inflicted on Muslims by Hindus. Today, with the noises and cries of the wounds having fallen silent, what emerges from those events? What are the facts?

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 2

At 7:43 A.M. on February 27, 2002, the Sabarmati Express rolled into the Godhra station, fortunately with a four-hour delay, in broad daylight. This train transported more than 2,000 people, mainly karsewaks on their way back to Ahmedabad after participating in the Poorna Ahuti Yagya at Ayodhya, a ritual at the traditional birthplace of Rama. As it pulled out of the station, the train was pelted with stones and bricks, and passengers from several bogeys were forced to bring down their windows to protect themselves. Someone pulled the emergency chain: the train came to a halt about 100 metres away from the platform, surrounded by a large crowd of Muslims. The railway police managed to disperse the crowd, and the train resumed its journey. Within minutes, the emergency chain was simultaneously pulled again, from several coaches. It halted at about 700 metres from the station. A crowd of over 1,000 surrounded the train, pelting it with bricks, stones, then burning missiles and acid bulbs, especially on the S-5, S-6 and S-7 coaches. The vacuum pipe between coaches S-6 and S-7 was cut, thereby preventing any further movement of the train. The doors were locked from outside. A fire started in coach S-7, which the passengers were able to extinguish. But the attack intensified and coach S-6 caught fire and minutes later, was in flames. Passengers who managed to get out of the burning compartment were attacked with sharp weapons, and stoned. They received serious injuries, some were killed. Others got out through the windows and took shelter below the coach. Fifty-eight pilgrims were burned alive, including twenty-seven women and ten children. The whole attack lasted 20-25 minutes.1 What transpired, then, in the Indian press? Lets imagine a coach of French pilgrims coming back from Lourdes, burned alive. Strangely, instead of clearly, straightforwardly condemning the act, the Indian English-language press tried to justify it: Pilgrims provoked by chanting pro-Hindu slogans (they were not slogans but bhajans, or devotional

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 3

songs, ending with Jai Sri Ram (Victory to Sri Rama). Its because they were returning from Ayodhya, where they asked for the reconstruction of a temple at the traditional birth place of Rama; this offends the feelings of the Muslims. In sum, the victims, roasted alive, were guilty.

The Anger
Numb with shock, the people of Gujarat did not react straightaway. They remained calm at first. Till that afternoon, when the charred bodies started arriving at their respective familieswith no comforting voice, no condemnation of this barbaric actthen these people known for their nonviolent nature and exceptional patience, burst into a frenzy. There was a revolt in the whole of Gujarat. For three days, tens of thousands of enraged Hindus set fire to Muslim shops, houses, vehicles: they came out from all sides, all parties, all classes, uncontrollableone cannot control a revolution (except in China maybe). The fatalities: 720 Muslims, 250 Hindus, according to official figures. We read all over about a genocide of Muslims. Do we remember a single report on the Hindus who heroically helped save Muslims in their neighbourhood? Was even one family of Hindu victims interviewed following the criminal burning of the Sabarmati Express? One fourth of the dead in the ensuing riots were Hindus. How to classify those 250 victims? Who evoked the dead on the Hindu side? According to reports, Congress Party councillor Taufeeq Khan Pathan and his son Zulfi, notorious gangsters, were allegedly seen leading Muslim rioters. Another such character, Congress member of the Godhra Nagarpalika [municipality], Haji Balal, was said to have had the firefighting vehicle sabotaged beforehand. Then,
he stopped the vehicle on its way to the Godhra Station and did not allow it to proceed any further. A man stood in front of the vehicle, the mob started pelting stones, The headlights and the windowpanes of the vehicle got damaged Fearing for his own and his crew's life, the

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 4

driver drove the vehicle through the mob, as it was not possible to move backwards. The mob gave in but 15-20 precious minutes had been lost.2

Lost for a coach-full of innocent people gone up in flames. Which newspaper article stated that the most violent events took place following provocations by leaders of this sort? The Union Home Ministry's Annual Report of 2002-03 stated that 40,000 Hindus were in riot relief camps. What made those 40,000 Hindus rush to relief camps? To seek protection from whom? Why was it necessary if they were the main aggressors? More than the barbaric event itself, it is the insensitivity of the Indian elite and of the media that infuriated the Gujaratis. Those accused of terrorism often receive political support, are benevolently portrayed by the media, and a host of human rights organisations are always on hand to fight for them. But those victims whose lives are cut down for no reason, are they not human enough to get some rights too? The great majority of those who took to revolt in Gujarat were neither rich nor particularly intellectualneither right nor left: they were middle- and lower-class Gujaratis, simple people, workers, also tribals. But some from the upper middle class, among them a lot of women, took part in the upheaval.

The Media Sources

Apart from local journalists usually more objective in their reports, no English newswriter thought it worthwhile to look deeper into the events at the Godhra railway station. Nobody came to question possible survivors of the tragedy. Is a coach of Hindu pilgrims even worth the trip? They had to wait for the elite to react; they had to receive directives from the politically correct, before picking up their pens. Worse, they reported deliberate rumours and made up versions as actual news. We were told, for instance, that when some pilgrims got off the ill-fated coaches to have tea, some altercation took place between them, and a Muslim

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 5

tea vendor: They argued with the old man on purpose, wrote some newspapers; they refused to pay for their tea (though Gujarati honesty is well known); they pulled his beard and beat him up ... They kept shouting Mandir ka nirmaan karo, Babar ki aulad ko bahar karo (start building the temple and throw out the sons of Babar). Hearing the chaos, the tea vendors 16-year-old daughter came forward and tried to save her father from the karsevaks. She kept pleading and begging them to leave him alone. The karsevaks, according to this version, then seized the girl, took her inside their compartment and closed the door. The old man kept banging on the door and pleaded for his daughter. Then two stall vendors jumped into the last bogey, pulled the chain, and put the bogey on fire. But would they have been stupid enough to set fire to the coach where their colleagues young daughter was being held? And why were 2,000 Muslims assembled there at 7 A.M. with jerry-cans of petrol bought the previous evening? Rajeev Srinivasan, an American journalist of Indian origin, was e-mailed this anonymous report a dozen times, supposedly written by Anil Soni, Press Trust of India reporter. He contacted Anil Soni to check on the veracity of this account. Soni answered:
Some enemy of mine has done this to make life difficult for me, do you understand, sir? I did not write this at all. I am a PTI correspondent. Yes, that is my phone number, but it is not my writing.3

Anil Soni apparently had heard about it from numerous people, and was upset to see a false report circulated in his name. Inquiries with the Railway staff and passengers travelling in the Sabarmati Express showed that no quarrel whatsoever took place on the platform between a tea vendor and pilgrims, and no girl was manhandled nor kidnapped. As the Nanavati Report established later, this fictitious report was in fact circulated by the Jamiat-Ulma-E-Hind, the very hand responsible for the carnage. It nevertheless went around the world, exhibited as the true story.

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 6

Arent we compelled to conclude that the assailants, in India, are those who dictate whats politically correct, and instruct the media?

Arson and Canards

On February 27 evening, the very day of the carnage, Chief Minister Narendra Modi, took steps to deploy the Rapid Action Force (RAF), State Reserve Police and local police at sensitive points. Apprehending the seriousness of the situation, he requested ten coys [companies] of central paramilitary forces to be provided immediately ... in addition to the four coys of R.A.F.4 He also issued a statement expressing deep shock at the attack and appealed to the people to remain calm and exert self-control, assuring them that the crime would not go unpunished. On the afternoon of February 28, Gujarati Hindus revolt broke out. A few journalists then booked their tickets for Gujarat. As far as we can see, they had a framework in place: the outbreak would be dealt with independently of the Godhra carnage, as a different, unrelated issue; it was a planned violence perpetrated by fundamentalist Hindus against Gujarats Muslims, fully backed by the State of Gujarat. From this day on, the burning of coach S-6 was to be left behind, forgotten. March 1, 11 A.M.: the actual deployment of troops at sensitive points had begun. Violence abated in most major cities, after their arrival with orders to shoot on sight. But security forces were largely outnumbered by the angry flood of people, spreading for the first time like rivers in spate, to rural areas and villages. The Gujarat Government requested from the chief secretaries of neighbouring states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, ten companies of armed police from each state to assist the Gujarat government in handling law and order situation. As Madhu Kishwar points out,5 at that time all three states had Congress I governments. And all three turned down the request. Why did no one report this fateful refusal?

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 7

Instead, at the peak of the turmoil the same day, the National Human Rights Commission faxed a notice to the Gujarat Government, calling for a report within three days on the measures being taken to prevent any further escalation of the situation in the State of Gujarat which is resulting in continued violation of human rights of the people! To which Gujarat Chief Secretary sent a request to grant 15 more days, as the State machinery is busy with the law & order situation ...6 Indeed. But the NHRC was silent on the Gujarat Governments urgent calls for assistance, as well as on what had led to such a situation in the first place. One major event which received a great deal of attention from the media was the conflagration at the Gulbarg Society in Ahmedabad, home of a former Member of Parliament, Ehsan Jaffri. This man, rather refined and usually respected, did not feel threatened. But on February 28 morning, a crowd surrounded his house, in which a number of Muslims had taken refuge. Jaffri made a number of panic-stricken phone calls for help to authorities and to his colleagues, journalists and friends. The crowd was growing (from 200 to 20,000, figures vary in the reports). The Indian Express (March 1, 2002), as well as police records, reported that eventually, in panic, he fired at the 5,000-strong mob 2 were killed and 13 injured ... That incensed the mob which at 1:30
P.M. set the bungalow ablaze by exploding a gas cylinder. Final toll: 42 (March

11 edn). Human Rights Watch, an NGO based in New York, published a dossier (April 30, 2002) about the Gujarat events which caused a sensation and fed a large number of articles in the international press.7 In this report, Smita Narula had an unnamed witness at hand, to relate the attack on Jaffris house. First a 200 to 500-strong mob threw stones; refugees in the house (also 200-250 peoplesic!) also threw stones in selfdefence. Then the crowd set the place on fire at about 1:30 P.M. Our witness then jumped from the third floor where he was hidingand from where he had been observing in minute detail all that was going on in the ground floor, even

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 8

the theft of jewels (it would seem the floors between the third and the ground floor were transparent). At that point we jump into the sensational. Narulas witness sees that four or five girls were raped, cut, and burned ; two married women were also raped and cut. Some on the hand, some on the neck ; Sixty-five to seventy people were killed. Those rapes and hackings are said to have started at 3:30 P.M. ... when the house was already on fire. Was the mob waiting for everything to be reduced to cinders to commit its crimes? Among the most morbid canards, the novelist Arundhati Roys vitriolic article (Outlook Magazine, 6 May 2002). She describes the event which precedes Ehsan Jaffris death (extract):
A mob surrounded the house of former Congress MP Iqbal Ehsan Jaffri. His phone calls to the Director-General of Police, the Police Commissioner, the Chief Secretary, the Additional Chief Secretary (Home) were ignored. The mobile police vans around his house did not intervene. The mob broke into the house. They stripped his daughters and burned them alive. Then they beheaded Ehsan Jaffri and dismembered him

Wait a minute. Jaffri was burned alive in the house, trueis it not awful enough? Along with some other 41 people. Not enough? But his daughters were neither stripped nor burnt alive. T.A. Jafri, his son, in a front-page interview titled Nobody knew my fathers house was the target (Asian Age, May 2, Delhi edn), felt obliged to rectify:
Among my brothers and sisters, I am the only one living in India. And I am the eldest in the family. My sister and brother live in the US. I am 40 years old and I have been born and brought up in Ahmedabad.

There we are, reassured as regards Ehsan Jaffris children. He had only one daughter, who was living abroad. No one was raped in the course of this tragedy, and no evidence was given to the police to that effect. The Gujarat Government sued Outlook magazine. In its May 27 issue, Outlook published an apology to save its face. But in the course of its apology, the magazines editors quoted a clarification from Roy, who withdrew her lie

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 9

by planting an even bigger one: the MPs daughters were not among the 10 women who were raped and killed in Chamanpura that day! From Smita Narula to Arundhati Roy, four or five girls had swollen to ten women, equally anonymous and elusive. Roy begins theatrically:
Last night a friend from Baroda called. Weeping. It took her fifteen minutes to tell me what the matter was. It wasnt very complicated. Only that Sayeeda, a friend of hers, had been caught by a mob. Only that her stomach had been ripped open and stuffed with burning rags. Only that after she died, someone carved OM on her forehead.

Balbir Punj, Rajya Sabha MP and journalist, shocked by this despicable incident which allegedly occurred in Baroda, decided to investigate it. He got in touch with the Gujarat government.
The police investigations revealed that no such case, involving someone called Sayeeda, had been reported either in urban or rural Baroda. Subsequently, the police sought Roys help to identify the victim and seek access to witnesses who could lead them to those guilty of this crime. But the police got no cooperation. Instead, Roy, through her lawyer, replied that the police had no power to issue summons.8

This redefines the term fiction writer. Another story about a pregnant Muslim woman whose stomach was allegedly ripped open, her foetus taken out and both being burnt, horrified people all over the world. The first mention of it seems to be in a BBC report around March 6, which, though uncorroborated, spread like wildfire, with fresh details (divergent and varied, but who cares?), so much so that you end up feeling there is no smoke without fire. The rumour was never confirmed which twisted tongue first whispered it? Press articles kept quoting one another, creating dossiers out of floating rumours. None of the authors even deigned to visit the scene of the alleged events; none except the official inquiry commissions, had the honesty to

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 10

question fairly, in parallel, the involved Hindu families regarding the tragedy unfolding in the two Gujarati communities. 3 March 2002: Prevention Of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) invoked against those arrested for Godhra train burning case. 25 March 2002: POTO suspended on all the accused due to pressure from the Central Government.

Onlookers Get Caught

On March 1, 2002, in a village on the outskirt of Vadodara (Baroda), the Best Bakery was set on fire: twelve persons were burnt alive (nine Muslims and three Hindus). This particular incident made much ink flow, since the prime witness, young Zaheera Habibullah Sheikh, aged 19, turned against the prosecution in favour of the accused in the trial court. Though Zaheera lost several family members in the tragedy, on May 17, 2003, in the Vadodara High Court, she testified that the accused persons in the dock were innocent and had nothing to do with the arson. She, as well as the other witnesses, did not recognize their own alleged statements before the police. Justice Mahida of the High Court observed that:
1) There has been an inexcusable delay in the First Information Report (FIR). The so-called FIR of Zahiribibi (Zaheera) was sent to the Magistrate after four to five days. So there is every reason to believe that factually this FIR was cropped up afterwards in the manner suitable to the police. 2) The arrested persons had nothing to do with the incident. We all knew these accused persons and because of them, our lives are saved, reported Lal Mohammed Shaikh, a witness before the court. There were cordial relations between my family members, the persons residing in the compound of Best Bakery and all the accused persons before the court The 65 persons who are saved in this incident are all before the Court and all these were saved by and due to the accused and

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 11

their family members These persons had called us, in darkness we silently came out of our house, and they saved our lives. 3) The police is trying to put as accused passers-by at the place of incident, innocent them). 4) No legal or acceptable evidence at all is produced by the prosecution against the accused involving them in this incident. In this case, it has come out during the trial that false evidences were cropped up against the present accused to involve them in this case. The case is not proved and hence the accused are acquitted.9 persons gathering there or persons residing in the neighbourhood (in confidence that the police wouldnt do anything to

On June 27, 2003, the twenty-one defendants were freed, and Zaheera Sheikh felt the court has given her all the justice she wanted.

In the Interests of a Community

But all were not satisfied. A former Chief Justice of India, A.S. Anand, Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) decided that the Vadodara judgement was a miscarriage of justice and the twenty-one notguilty people were actually guilty and therefore should be punished. Now this honourable person should have been aware that seated in Delhi at the helm of this human rights affair, he would have been the first target of a number of dubious NGOs with vested political interests. Strangely, Justice Anand did not even consider it important to send his own team of independent inquiry before questioning the judgment of another court of law. The Gujarat government quickly appointed three public pleaders for the purpose of suing Justice Anand for contempt of court; these pleaders, in turn, filed an application before the Vadodara judge asking him to move the state's High Court to punish the contemnor who, they said, had insulted the honour and dignity of the judge, besides undermining the entire judiciary.10 But even before any move by the Gujarat government, Justice Anand rushed to petition the apex court to order a re-trial of the 21 not guilty Best Bakery accused.

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 12

Consequently, just after the fast-track court acquittals, three members of Zaheeras community barged into her home around midnight, and told her she would have to change her statement in the interests of the community. This meant that Zaheera had to declare that she had lied to the court (which is a criminal offence). Did she have a choice? Along with her mother and brother, she was taken to Mumbai without their consent, and brought to Teesta Setalvad,11 an activist of the muchvaunted human rights. The activist took them under her wing for several months, accommodated them in a rented apartment while providing assistance for a living. In the meantime she prepared affidavits (in English which Zaheera does not read) for the girl to sign before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), in which she confessed to having lied to the Vadodara trial court, trembling with fear and threatened by BJP MLA Madhu Shrivastav (who had nothing to do with her area and whom she did not even know). And Zaheera now designated as guilty, the twenty-one people she had considered innocent. All media were ready with their cameras, mikes and pens to splash the news. The Gujarat High Court dismissed the appeal, rightly suspecting that the witness had been pressured to turn hostile, and upheld the acquittals. But the Supreme Court inexplicably accepted the retraction and, as demanded by NHRC and Setalvad, ordered the retrial of the case outside Gujarat. The acquittal of the twenty-one people was quashed. In 2004, Zaheera managed to flee from her confinement by the activist, and in November, seized by remorse for having allowed innocent people to be accused, stated in an affidavit before the Vadodara Collector that whatever she had told the Supreme Court, was done under duress from Teesta Setalvad and her associate Rais Khan; and whatever she told the NHRC was a lie. Ramzan is on and I want to state the truth, she said. What I had said in Vadodara Court during the trial was my true statement. The judgement was correct and had

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 13

given me all the justice I wanted. She sought police protection from Teesta Setalvad.12 Fearing arrest, the activist moved the High Court seeking anticipatory bail. The Bombay High Court asked the Gujarat government to give her a 72hour notice if they wanted to arrest her. But the court disposed of the plea on the ground that no complaint had been lodged till now. The Supreme Court Judge however was on a different track and left Zaheera Sheikh alone on her path of truth: in August 2005, a Supreme Court committee indicted her as a self-condemned liar giving inconsistent statements during the trial,13 and on March 8, 2006, awarded her with a simple one-year imprisonment for contempt of court, as well as a fine of Rs. 50,000. Activist Teesta Setalvad was cleared. Now, who took the court for a ride? Especially in light of the revelation that a host of Gujarat riot case victims were misled into signing affidavits giving false information, for which as many as ten of them had received 100,000 rupees from Setalvads Citizens for Justice and Peace. A list of names were sent to the CPI(M) relief fund, and demand drafts were handed out at a function in Ahmedabad on August 26, 2007 by CPI(M) politburo member Brinda Karat, Teesta Setalvad and Rais Khan.14 On April 13, 2009, the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) charged the activist Teesta Setalvad, with adding morbidity to the post-Godhra riots by cooking up macabre tales of killings. The SIT report stated that all the affidavits of 22 witnesses were drafted, typed and printed from the same computer, giving sufficient grounds to believe they were tutored. When the SIT questioned those who signed the affidavits, it was shocked to learn that these complainants were not even aware of the incidents.15 In December 2004, a fatwa was issued against Zaheera by the Muslim Tayohar Committee, excommunicating her with the approval of All India Muslim Personal Law Board, for having constantly lied. In other words, for having stood by the twenty-one wrongly accused Hindus neighbours.

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 14

Let us pursue our investigation.

Premeditated Files
Human Rights Watch Smita Narulas report (30 April 2002) was titled We have no order to save youState participation and complicity in anti-Muslim violence. Issued from US shores, its words were lapped up by the Indian elite and politicians:
What happened in Gujarat was not a spontaneous uprising, it was a carefully orchestrated attack against Muslims planned in advance and organized with extensive participation of the police and state government officials.

But where are the facts to corroborate such an allegation, which of course was instantly peddled the world over? Can a carefully orchestrated attack happen overnight? And how can someone sitting in the U.S., gauge the spontaneity of such an outbreak?16

Authentic Inquiry
By contrast, a genuine, on-the-spot investigation was conducted under the aegis of the New Delhi-based Council for International Affairs and Human Rights.17 Its findings were made public as early as April 26, 2002, through a press conference held in Delhi. Running counter to the politically correct line of an orchestrated attack, they were largely ignored by the media. On March 3, 2002, the five-member fact-finding team under Justice Tewatias direction went to Godhra and spent six days visiting three affected areas in Ahmedabad and some of the relief camps. At all places, team members interacted with the two communities freely, without intervention of any officials. Five delegations from both communities presented their facts and views. The team then went to the Godhra railway station and interviewed officials, survivors and witnesses of the burning of the S-6 coach, as well as the fire brigade staff. They met the Godhra District Collector, along with other officials.

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 15

On April 4, the team was in Vadodara, visiting five relief camps of both communities, and seven areas which were the scenes of violence in the preceding month, as well as a number of sensitive areas. To have exposure to the ground realities they visited some areas still under curfew and also met the Commissioner of Police and District Collector along with other officials. Thirteen delegations consisting of 121 citizens met the team and presented their testimonies; they included not only members of both communities, but ranged from the Association of Hoteliers to a group of Gujarati tribals (Vanavasis).

Indisputable Facts
Let us quote some findings of Justice Tewatias Inquiry Commission, which its report described as indisputable:
The attack on Sabarmati Express on 27.02.02 was pre-planned and premeditated. It was the result of a criminal conspiracy hatched by a hostile foreign power with the help of local jehadis carried out with the evil objective of pushing the country into a communal cauldron. The plan was to burn the entire train with more than two thousand passengers in the wee hours of February 27, 2002. There were no quarrels or fights between the vendors and the Hindu pilgrims on the platform of Godhra Railway Station. Firebombs, acid bulbs and highly inflammable liquid(s) were used to set the coaches on fire that must have been stored [the day before] already for the purpose. The fire fighting system available in Godhra was weakened and its arrival at the place of incident wilfully delayed by the mob with the open participation of a Congress Councillor, Haji Balal. Fifty-eight passengers of coach S-6 were burnt to death by a Muslim mob and one of the conspirators was a Congress Councillor, Haji Balal. Someone used the public address system exhorting the mob to kill kafirs and enemies of Bin Laden.

About the police:

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 16

Police was on many occasions overwhelmed by the rioting mobs that were massive and carried more lethal weapons than the police did.

[They] did not have the training and know-how to manage situations of communal strife witnessed in the state in recent weeks.

In many places, [they] made a commendable work in protecting life and property. Barring a few exceptions, it was not found to be communally motivated.

About army deployment:

Available information shows that the Army was requisitioned and deployed in time.

After Godhra
The involvement of the tribal communities or Vanavasis, in the post-Godhra riots added a new dimension to the communal violence, as Justice Tewatias report reveals:
In rural areas the Vanavasis attacked the Muslim moneylenders, shopkeepers and the forest contractors. They used their traditional bows and arrows as also their implements used to cut trees and grass while attacking Muslims. They moved in groups and used coded signals for communication. Apparently, the accumulated anger of years of exploitation had become explosive.

About the media:

Gujarati language media was factual and objective. Yet its propensity to highlight the gory incidents in great detail heightened communal tension. English language newspapers appeared to have assumed the role of crusaders against the State [Gujarat] Government from day one. It coloured the entire operation of news gathering, feature writing and editorials. They distorted and added fiction to prove their respective points of view. The code of ethics prescribed by the Press Council of India was violated with impunity. It so enraged the citizens that several concerned citizens in the disturbed areas suggested that peace

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 17

could return to the state only if some of the TV channels were closed for some weeks.18

A Few Healing Voices

It would be unfair not to mention a few voices that rose from among the journalists themselves, against this enormity. The most eloquent one was Vir Sanghvis, usually part of the secular establishment, ever ready to portray Muslims as victims, Hindus as aggressors. Vir Sanghvis crisis of conscience suddenly gave him intellectual clarity. Some extracts from his article One-Way Ticket in The Hindustan Times of Feb. 28, 2002:
There is something profoundly worrying in the response of what might be called the secular establishment to the massacre in Godhra. There is no suggestion that the karsewaks started the violence there has been no real provocation at all And yet, the sub-text to all secular commentary is the same: the karsewaks had it coming to them. Basically, they condemn the crime; but blame the victims Try and take the incident out of the secular construct that we, in India, have perfected and see how bizarre such an attitude sounds in other contexts. Did we say that New York had it coming when the Twin Towers were attacked last year? Then too, there was enormous resentment among fundamentalist Muslims about America's policies, but we didn't even consider whether this resentment was justified or not. Instead we took the line that all sensible people must take: any massacre is bad and deserves to be condemned. When Graham Staines and his children were burnt alive, did we say that Christian missionaries had made themselves unpopular by engaging in conversion and so, they had it coming? No, of course, we didn't. Why then are these poor karsewaks an exception? Why have we dehumanised them to the extent that we don't even see the incident as the human tragedy that it undoubtedly was

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 18

I know the arguments well becauselike most journalistsI have used them myself. And I still argue that they are often valid and necessary. But there comes a time when this kind of rigidly secularist construct not only goes too far; it also becomes counter-productive. When everybody can see that a trainload of Hindus was massacred by a Muslim mob, you gain nothing by blaming the murders on the VHP19 or arguing that the dead men and women had it coming to them. Not only does this insult the dead (What about the children? Did they also have it coming?), but it also insults the intelligence of the reader. There is one question we need to ask ourselves: have we become such prisoners of our own rhetoric that even a horrific massacre becomes nothing more than occasion for Sangh Parivar-bashing?20

S. Gurumurthy in The New Indian Express (March 2), Jaya Jaitley in The Indian Express (March 7), Rajeev Srinivasan in Rediff on Net (March 25), Arvind Lavakare in Rediff on Net (April 23), T. Tomas in Business Standard (April 26), Franois Gautier in The Pioneer (April 30), M.V. Kamath in The Times of India (May 8), Balbir Punj in Outlook (May 27), each one expounded the absurdity of a situation where the majority of Indiansthe Hindu communityare looked down upon as second-class citizens. A negligible lot taken for granted because it is harmless, non-aggressive, and unable to speak and act as one coherent, organized group.

A Farcical Interlude
Two and a half years after the events, on Sept. 3, 2004, the cabinet of the Central Government (ruled by the UPA coalition21) approved the setting up of a committee constituted by the Railways Minister Lallu Prasad Yadav, and headed by Justice U. C. Banerjee, former judge of the Supreme Court, to probe the causes of the conflagration in the Sabarmati Express. The blaze is an accident, Justice Banerjee coolly concluded in January 2005. There was no possibility of inflammable liquid being used, said he, and

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 19

the fire originated in the coach itself, without external input. The Cabinet ministers were fully satisfied. Neelkanth Bhatia, among the few survivors, was not. He gathered enough strength to challenge the formation of this committee, and in October 2006, the Gujarat High Court quashed the conclusions of the Banerjee Committee. It declared its formation as a colourful exercise, illegal, unconstitutional, null and void, and its argument of accidental fire opposed to the prima facie accepted facts on record. Moreover, one high-level commission conducted by Justice Nanavati-Shah had been appointed by the Gujarat Government to probe the incident, two months earlier. The Court also did not miss the point that the interim report was released just two days before the elections in Biharthe State of the Railways minister, well-known for his political ambitions and notorious for his histrionics. Politicians know no common sense or shame. But what about the judiciary?

The Nanavati Report

The first part of the Nanavati Report was released in September 2008, after four years of thorough investigations.22 It lifted the cloak of blame that had been wrapped around the Gujarati people all those years. It also cleared the most blackened Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi.
There is absolutely no evidence to show that either the Chief Minister and/or any other Minister(s) in his Council of Ministers or Police officers had played any role in the Godhra incident or that there was any lapse on their part in the matter of providing protection, relief and rehabilitation to the victims of communal riots or in the matter of not complying with the recommendations and directions given by National Human Rights Commission. There is no evidence regarding involvement of any definite religious or political organization in the conspiracy. Some individuals who had participated in the conspiracy appear to be involved in the heinous act of setting coach S/6 on fire.

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 20

The policemen who were assigned the duty of travelling in the Sabarmati Express train from Dahod to Ahmedabad had not done so and for this negligent act of theirs an inquiry was held by the Government and they have been dismissed from service. On the basis of the facts and circumstances proved by the evidence the Commission comes to the conclusion that burning of coach S/6 was a pre-planned act. In other words there was a conspiracy to burn coach S/6 of the Sabarmati Express train coming from Ayodhya and to cause harm to the Karsevaks travelling in that coach. All the acts like procuring petrol, circulating false rumour, stopping the train and entering in coach S/6 were in pursuance of the object of the conspiracy. The conspiracy hatched by these persons further appears to be a part of a larger conspiracy to create terror and destabilise the Administration.23

Heartstrings for Whom?

It is easy to see why the Nanavati Report was frowned upon by Citizens for Justice and Peace, namely Activist Teesta Setalvad who asked the Supreme Court to restrain the Gujarat Government from acting upon, circulating and publishing this report. Fortunately on October 13, 2008, the highest court sharply turned down the petition, thus making the testimonies and inquiries available to all. However, under pressure from the UPA Government and pestered by the National Human Rights Commission and Citizens for Justice and Peace NGO, on October 21, 2008, the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan (whose tenure was marked by allegations of misbehaviour)24 directed that the Prevention of Terrorist Act (POTA) could not be used against the 134 accused in the Godhra train burning incident. The trial would have to be held under the regular provisions of the Indian Penal Code. This amounted to accepting prima facie that the guilty were not terrorists: we are allowed to call them militants, gunmen but not terrorists. This ruling will have nationwide impact, as other State governments may have to

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 21

drop charges under POTA against those accused of indulging in terrorist activities. On February 22, 2011, out of 94 accused in the Sabarmati Express Burning Case, 31 were convicted by a special Fast Track Court inside the Sabarmati Central Jail; it awarded the death sentence to 11 and life imprisonment to 20.

Pattern for Harmony

This appears to be a pattern: whenever Muslim riots or bomb attacks target Hindus, it is thought acceptable to accuse the victims, in order to avoid possible revolts. Thus in 1993 in Mumbai, after eleven coordinated bomb blasts in Hindu majority areas, which killed 257 people and injured 713, the then Maharashtra Chief Minister Sharad Pawar quickly cooked up a twelfth explosion in a Muslim area! I have deliberately misled people, he explained later, to show that both communities had been affected.25 And to portray both communities potential to behave as terrorists. Truth and clarity of mind are the casualties. We remember the great art historian A.K. Coomaraswamys words in 1909:
It is unfortunate that libels upon nations and religions cannot be punished as can libels upon individuals.26

Gujarat has had its share of suffering. The devastating Bhuj earthquake of January 2001, in which more than 20,000 people died preceded the attack on the pilgrims at Godhra in February 2002; just six months later, another terrorist attack struck Gandhinagars Akshardham temple, in which 30 peaceful worshippers were brutally gunned down (with 80 injured). Amidst those tragedies the people of Gujarat have continued to repose their trust in their Chief Minister, whose administration happens to be among the least corrupt in India. State elections have been held three times since those events: in 2002, 2007 and 2012; Narendra Modi won landslide victories all three times, despite hostile and sustained media campaigns that demonized him as a blood-thirsty ruler.

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 22

Official India has chosen to forget a millennium of Islamic intolerance and brutality. Millions of Indian victims have had no right to be remembered, not even in history textbooks, where invaders are sometimes turned into heroes. Sadly, this ostrich-like attitude leaves the wounds open and condemns us to relive the past rather than heal it.

Nicole Elfi has been living in India since 1975. She worked on the publication of works related to Mother and Sri Aurobindo and researched aspects of Indian culture. She has authored Satprem, par un Fil de Lumire (ditions Robert Laffont, 1998) and Aux Sources de lInde, linitiation la connaissance (ditions Les Belles Lettres, 2008). Email:

Nicole Elfi, 200913

Notes & References

See Commission of Inquiry Report of Justice G.T. Nanavati & Justice A.H. Mehta

(henceforth Nanavati Report), the integral text is available on the website of the Gujarat Government: (accessed June 2013). All unreferenced quotations below are from this Nanavati Report. See also S.K. Modi, Godhra the Missing Rage, Ocean Books, New Delhi, 2004.

One of the main vehicles was out of order, as its clutch-plates had been taken out a

few days earlier. On their arrival on 27.02.02 in their office, firemen found that the other fire engine had been tampered with. From Nanavati Report; also Justice Tewatia Committee Report, online at:

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 23 (accessed June 2013).

3 4

Rajeev Srinivasan, Predatory intelligentsia, 14 May, 2002, Madhu Purnima Kishwar, Modinama, part 7: When Congress State Governments

Snubbed Modis Request for Additional Police Force, May 2013, online at:
5 6

Ibid. Quoted in S.K. Modi, Godhra the Missing Rage, Ocean Books, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 65-


See Balbir Punj in Outlook, May 27 and July 8; also in The New Indian Express, March 8,


See Vadodara Sessions Court, Best Bakery Case, Justice H.U. Mahidas Judgement,

June 27, 2003.










at: (accessed June 2013).


Social activist and Secretary of the NGO Citizens for Justice and Peace, and co-editor of

Communalism Combat, a CPICPI(M) affiliated magazine.


Zaheera is not the only one to have sought police protection from activist Teesta

Setalvad. Rais Khan, her close associate for years, soon felt under threat and asked for it too. Zaheera Sheikh a 'self-condemned liar': SC panel, PTI, August 29, 2005, online at: (accessed June 2013).
13 14

... Those who were both victims and eyewitnesses received 100,000 rupees, some

others 50,000 rupees, while the victims got a mere 5,000 rupees each. This has raised eyebrows over the selection of beneficiaries and the purpose of paying a disproportionately large sum to the eyewitnesses before the trial. See Navin Upadhyay, Daily Pioneer, Dec. 20, 2008: (accessed 2009)

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 24


Abraham Thomas, Daily Pioneer, 14.4.2009, online at: (accessed April 2009).


This New York-based Human Rights Watch still watches the Indian shores closely,

as it appears, but not to protect innocent lives. On Dec. 3, 2008, just a week after the ghastly Nov. 26 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, HRW issued a statement to the Government of India, offering gratuitous advice on how to manage its affairs and demanding that investigators should respect the human rights of captured terrorist Ajmal Amir Kasab (also called Butcher of Mumbai). A commentator in The Jerusalem Post pointed out, The HRWs website lists 38 reports attacking counter-terrorism efforts around the globe but only three on the brutal impact of terrorism on civilians. See also Kanchan Guptas excellent article, Mumbais Butcher and human rights, in The Pioneer, Dec. 17, 2008, online at (accessed December 2008).

Council for International Affairs and Human Rights (governing body for the term

2001-2003), New Delhi. Facts Speak for Themselves: Godhra and After, A Field Study by Justice D.S. Tewatia, Dr. J.C. Batra, Dr. K. Singh Arya, Shri Jawahar Lal Kaul, Prof. B. K. Kuthiala (henceforth Tewatia report).
18 19 20

From Justice Tewatia Report. The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) is a pro-Hindu organization. The Sangh Parivar is a network of pro-Hindu organizations deriving from the

Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS).


The UPA (United Progressive Alliance) is a coalition of political parties, the main one

being the Congress (I) presided over by Sonia Gandhi.


Among its specific tasks, the Nanavati Commission was required by the Government

to consider: Role and conduct of the then Chief Minister and/or any other Minister(s) in his council of Ministers, Police Officers, other individuals and organizations in both the events referred to in clauses (a) and (b); (e) Role and conduct (i) in dealing with any political or non-political organization which may be found to have been involved in any of the events referred to hereinabove; (ii) in the matter of providing protection, relief and rehabilitation to the victims of communal riots (iii) in the matter of recommendations and directions given by National Human Rights Commission from

The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction / p. 25

time to time. By that notification the Government also included within the scope of inquiry the incidents of violence that had taken place till 31-5-2002.
23 24

Nanavati Report. For a few examples of allegations against K.G. Balakrishnan, see: (accessed June 2013) (accessed June 2013) (accessed June 2013) Allegations continued during his tenure as Chairman of the National Human

Rights Commission (from 2010 onward).

25 26

The New Indian Express, August 13, 2006. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Essays in National Idealism, Munshiram Manoharlal

Publishers, Delhi, 1981.

You might also like