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Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 16, April 9, 2011

Truth Behind the Fire in Sabarmati Express (Godhra, February 27, 2002)

Thursday 14 April 2011, by K S Subramanian


The special fast-track court judge, P.R. Patel, has pronounced his verdict on the mystery behind the fire incident in the Sabarmati Express at Godhra on February 27, 2002. The conspiracy theory put forward by the Gujarat Police has been upheld. A volley of protests has followed pointing to the many contradictions in the judgement, which will surely be contested before higher judicial authorities.

In this context, it is necessary to examine the verdict on the Sabarmati Express fire episode put forward by the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal (CCT) on Gujarat 2002, led by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer and consisting of former judges, P.B. Sawant (Supreme Court) and H. Suresh (Bombay High Court); civil rights lawyer K.G. Kannabiran; social activist Aruna Roy; scholars Tanika Sarkar and Ghanshyam Shah; and the present writer. The tribunal produced painstaking and massive three-volume documentation on the Gujarat carnage, 2002, titled “Crime against Humanity”.

A Special Investigation Team (SIT), led by R.K. Raghavan, was tasked by the Supreme Court of India to supervise the Gujarat Police’s investi-gation of the case. While the SIT chief has expressed his ‘professional’ satisfaction over the ‘success’ of the prosecution case, his role has come in for criticism. He is alleged to have failed to take an objective and detached view of the evidence collected by the Gujarat Police with some in the IPS fraternity holding that he acted as the ‘B team’ of the Gujarat Police. Others say that he is involved in a clear case of conflict of interest: being a well-paid cyber security consultant for the Tatas who have massive investments in Gujarat, he has nevertheless associated himself with a major criminal investigation to help the controversial Gujarat Chief Minister win a crucial political battle against his opponents.

We may here briefly examine the findings of the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal (CCT) on the issue of the Sabarmati Express fire incident on February 27, 2002 and put forward a counter- case, which needs consideration.

The Sabarmati Express, on its return journey from Ayodhya to Ahmedabad, reached Godhra on the morning of February 27, 2002. It was full of activists armed with trishuls and lathis, who got down at every passing station shouting Hindutva slogans. Many passengers felt harassed by this misbehaviour but kept quiet since the slogan-shouters had captured all the reserved seats in the train, which was packed to capacity.

The train arrived at the Godhra railway station at 7.30 am (three hours late). There were certain unsavoury incidents on the platform. A Muslim girl was molested and an attempt made to pull her into the train. A Muslim tea vendor, who boarded coach S-6, was insulted and sent out of the coach by the rowdy elements some of whom climbed onto the roof of the train and made obscene gestures at Muslim women living opposite the railway station. There was some stone-throwing, from both inside and outside the train.

The train left the platform at 7.48 am but was soon stopped by chain-pulling by some to enable some young men on the platform to get into the train, which was again stopped a kilometre ahead at Singal Falia. The engine driver saw some people outside pelting stones at the train. Soon thereafter, coach S-6 was on fire. How did the fire start?

The State Government has held that the Ghanchi Muslims residing near the railway station gathered in large numbers and attacked the kar sevaks by throwing fireballs into the train, which caused the fire. The full capacity of the train was about 1100 but it was actually carrying about 2000 passengers, mainly kar sevaks spread all over the train and not just in coach S-6.

Why did anyone target coach S-6 alone? If 2000 Muslims, as alleged, had gathered on the spot, why did they not attack the other coaches as well? Again, did anyone try to come out from the other coaches? If some of the passengers, including kar sevaks, rushed out, did anyone attack them?

After the fire, 58 dead bodies were found in coach S-6 (26 women, 12 children and 20 men). 43 persons had sustained injuries. The bodies were charred badly preventing easy recognition. The Collector of Godhra informed the Tribunal that five bodies could be identified. One was that of the local railway station master’s wife. No one could assert that all the dead bodies were those of kar sevaks.

Mystery of the Fire

Significantly, only one coach, S-6, had been burnt and the fire had not spread to the other coaches. It was not clear whether the train was stopped because of the fire or whether the coach was set on fire after the train had stopped. If the latter was correct, why was the train stopped at all? It could be that because of the fire, someone pulled the chain.

As the train left the Godhra station, all the windows and doors of coach S-6, as well as those of the other coaches, remained closed because of the stone throwing. When the train was stopped, nobody from the outside could identify any particular person from any particular coach as a kar sevak, though they were overwhelmingly present in the train. The fact that the fire did not spread to the remaining coaches clearly indicated that it originated within S-6. This also explains why only persons in that coach died. In all probability, as the fire broke out, extreme panic resulted. Many men managed to escape through the vestibules to the other coaches, leaving mostly women and children behind, who succumbed to the fire. The evidence suggested that the passengers had had their belongings stacked against the doors making it impossible for anyone to easily get out of or get into coach S-6.

The Tribunal inspected the burnt coach S-6 on May 7, 2002. The sloping site where the train had stopped is an elevated bund. From the ground level, the height of the bund could be about 12-15 feet high. At the top, there was no space for 2000 persons to assemble on both sides of the track. If so many had actually gathered there, the crowd would have spread over a much larger area than the stretch of coach S-6. If the government version were true, the other coaches should have been targeted as much as coach S-6. Taking into account the height of the bund and the height at which the train stood, no fire-balls could have been lobbed in; the outside of the coach did not show signs of charring. The Tribunal found no marks below the coach windows; the charred marks were to be seen only at or above the window level, clearly indicating that the fire had actually started inside the coach and its leaping flames had singed the outside of the compartment, above the window level. Even to the naked eye, it was clear that the fire was from within, not from outside.

The findings of the Tribunal were later confirmed by the reports of the State Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL). The relevant section of the Forensic Science Laboratory report (State of Gujarat, New Mental Corner, Ahmedabad-16, Spot Investigation Report No. 2 regarding CR No. 9/2002, Godhra Railway Police Station), filed by Assistant Director Dr M.S. Dahiya, clearly stated:

  ”It was found that the height of the window of the coach was around 7 ft. from the ground at the place. Under this circumstance, it was not possible to throw any inflammable fluid inside from outside the coach from any bucket or carboy, because by doing this, most of the fluid was getting thrown outside. At the place of the incidents, there was one heap of grit, of three feet height at a distance of around 14-ft, in the southern side of the coach. Water was thrown on the windows of the coach with the help of bucket standing on the top of the said heap, in that case only about 10 to 15 per cent of the water went inside and the rest of the quantity was spilled outside itself. Thus, if the inflammable fluid is thrown from outside, then a major part of it would fall around the track outside and catch fire and cause damage to the outer part of bottom side of the coach. But after examination of the coach and the track, no effect was found of the fire on bottom side below the windows of the coach. By taking into consideration this fact, and also the burning pattern of the outer side of the coach, a conclusion can be drawn that no inflammable fluid had been thrown inside from outside the coach.

“There also appears to be no possibility that any inflammable liquid was thrown through the door of the bogie. By observing the condition of the frames of the windows of the coach, it appears that all the windows of the coach were closed during the time of the fire.”

The Tribunal was convinced that the fire came from inside. This was seen from the inner side of the coach. The intensity of the fire was such that even the iron rods, the seats, the fans were all burnt to such an extent that we found them twisted and molten out of shape. The Tribunal found rice and wheat partly burnt and scattered all across the floor of compartment S-6. Some of the Tribunal witnesses stated that kar sevaks had stoves in the train. The FSL report showed that for such an intensity of fire, 60 litres of inflammable liquid had to be poured into the coach, “by using a wide mouthed container”. The question arose: where was this container? There is no evidence of anyone carrying 60 litres of inflammable liquid. At what point of time was the liquid taken inside the coach, or into the passage? Who was travelling in the train? If such a large number of kar sevaks, armed with trishuls and in an aggressive mood, were inside the train, how could the Ghanchi Muslims enter the train? And how could they have carried so much petrol openly or even clandestinely without being discovered by the passengers?

So, the mystery of the fire remained, the only thing certain being the fact that it came from within.

Was Godhra Pre-Planned?

The evidence analysed above clearly indicated that the incident was not pre-planned by the Muslims, as alleged by the State Government. In this connection, The Times of India on March 29, 2002 reported a statement made by the IGP, Railways, P.P. Agja, to the effect that there was no evidence of a pre-planned conspiracy behind the Godhra incident. He added: “The case is still being investigated and if there was some deep conspiracy, then we are yet to find it.’’ He further told The Times of India, standing in front of the railway police station on the platform where the trouble had began:

“According to the sequence of events as found by the police, all was not well in coach S-6 of the Ahmedabad-bound Sabarmati Express on that day. A group of unruly Ram sevaks had boarded the train at Lucknow without reser-vations and had put to discomfort the 66 genuine passengers of the coach. Some of the ticket-paying passengers had to sleep on the floor; so overcrowded had the compartment become that the ticket collector who came aboard the train at Ratlam (two stations before Godhra) was not allowed to enter the coach.

“At Godhra station, the hawkers on the platform started stoning the train after an unsavoury incident, especially targeting coach S-6, because some occupants of the coach had given offence. At any point of time, there are some 250 hawkers on the station. Some of them carry stoves with kerosene in them. All of them live in the slum called Signal Falia, next to the station.

“This means it is not surprising that a crowd could collect at the station so fast. The people, who live cheek by jowl in the slums next to the station, include a fair share of criminals indulging in railway crimes like looting, pick-pocketing and stealing of goods of passengers and also railway property. All of them are Ghanchi Muslims and they are uneducated, without any jobs and poor.”

It was thus clear that the attack on S-6 coach was not pre-meditated.
From 8.30 am, just after the fire on the Sabarmati Express took place, until 7.30 pm that evening, repeated statements by the Godhra District Collector, Smt Jayanthi Ravi, relayed on Doordarshan and Akashwani (radio) stated that “the incident was not pre-planned, it was an accident”.

As is evident from the voluminous evidence recorded by the Tribunal, and substantive other evidence made available to it, investigating officials did not find any proof of the Godhra atrocity being pre-planned.

However, by the evening of February 27, a well-thought-out scheme to extract maximum political capital out of Godhra had been launched. As part of this scheme, at around 2.30 am, the bodies of the kar sevaks were brought to Ahmedabad in a provocative procession. Around 500 people were waiting outside the Sola Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad for the charred bodies to arrive from Godhra. By 3.35 am on February 28, a convoy of five trucks led by a pilot Gypsy entered the hospital compound. The State Government and the administration, instead of appealing for restraint and peace, became the agents of a well-planned action against innocent Muslims of the State that was in fact projected as a ‘reaction’. The corpses of the unfortunate victims of the Godhra train fire were used to launch a Statewide pogrom.

Was ‘Godhra’ Allowed to Happen?

During the period, Gujarat and the country was on red alert due to the aggressive mobilisation by the VHP on the issue of the projected temple at Ayodhya. While the Mumbai Police had made preventive arrest of as many as 8000 persons in the first week of March, in Gujarat, even after the Godhra fire incident, the State Police arrested only two persons in Ahmedabad, both Muslims.

A major administrative lapse in the antici-pation and handling of the violence was the blatant ignoring of the basic principles of law and order maintenance and governance. In 1965, when disturbances erupted in Godhra, the then Collector promptly arrested both Muslims and Hindus whose names appeared in FIRs. In a couple of days, the disturbances were curbed. After the October 1980 disturbances, the then Collector immediately put the miscreants behind bars. If a similar non-partisan approach had been followed in Godhra after the fire incident of February 27, 2002, the prevailing tension would have been contained and the chances of a vengeful and highly-organised spree of retaliatory killings demonstrating every element of ethnic cleansing and genocide would have been pre-empted. That this did not happen suggests a lack of intent, on the part of those in government, to take prompt preventive measures in order to de-escalate the situation.

On February 27, 2002, the Tribunal recorded the evidence of both the Collector and DSP of the Panchmahal district at Godhra. The evidence showed that though the Central Government’s Rapid Action Force (RAF) had been called in, adequate powers were not given to it. Despite the curfew, the RAF men were made to sit in the officers’ mess, helpless, unable to do anything. Though the Fire Brigade Station was only five minutes away from the railway station, it took a while for the fire brigade to reach the torched S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express.


Four official reports and at least three non-official reports on the Gujarat violence have rejected the thesis of a conspiracy behind the fire incident in the Sabarmati Express at the Godhra railway station on February 27, 2002. Only the Nanavati Commission and the recent special court judgement have intriguingly opted for the theory. A prolonged legal battle appears to be in store for the affected people.

The author is a former IPS officer who is currently an ICSSR Senior Fellow at the Council for Social Development, New Delhi.

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