Return of Guilt

A report in Hardnews in 2004 proves that the railway ministry ignored reports that were sent by railway personnel from Godhra

Hardnews Bureau Delhi

BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi does not mince words. So when Nitish Kumar made an oblique criticism of Narendra Modi over happenings in Gujarat, she was quick to remind all that Nitish was the railway minister when the Godhra tragedy took place. Here she was not just sharing a historical fact, but suggesting a lot more. For those who think that Godhra happened long years ago and the country needs to move on, the truth is that Nitish was not only a minister, he also helped the BJP (and Modi) by airbrushing the dirty reality behind the incident. A report that appeared in Hardnews in 2004 proves that the railway ministry actually ignored reports that were sent by railway personnel from Godhra. Under these circumstances, can Nitish really disengage from the BJP?

Hardnews investigations in 2004 revealed that certain Indian Railways officials may have connived with the ruling BJP in Delhi to tidy up some of the early reports sent by the Godhra railway staff to Western Railways headquarters in Mumbai.

One of the early messages received at 9.05 am on February 27, 2002, states: “On 27.02.02 at about 0742 hrs, the train no. 9166 UP (Varanasi-Ahmedabad) Sabarmati Express arrived at Godhra Railway station. Some passengers of the train (supporters of VHP) shouting slogans of ‘Jai Shree Ram’ started beating two bearded men. A mob of about 4000-5000 supporters of VHP and Bajrang Dal gathered at the spot and started pelting stones. The mob set three general coaches of the train on fire. City Police, GRP and RPF Godhra attended the spot at 0835 hrs and tried to pacify… disperse the mob…”

The truth is that Nitish was not only a minister, he also helped the BJP (and Modi) by airbrushing the dirty reality behind the incident

Thereafter, a team of senior railway officials was sent to Godhra. The subsequent report on the incident had no mention of the role played by the VHP and Bajrang Dal members. Interestingly, parts of this sanitized report were used during the parliamentary debate by the then railway minister, Nitish Kumar.

What is intriguing is that, for quite a while, the railway authorities were even unwilling to give the details of all the passengers who travelled in the Sabarmati Express that fateful day. It was only after an exposé by Hardnews that they decided to make the details public. The curious thing about this passenger list was that there were six empty berths in the burnt coach S6, which was actually supposed to have been packed to the seams with participants of the VHP/Bajrang Dal rally. Only six people from the reserved list had died — and all of them were between seat numbers 18 and 24. The rest who perished were travelling on unreserved tickets.

Railway ministry insiders reveal that in an attempt to curry favour with the BJP bosses, senior officials toed the line. Their shenanigans came unstuck when the Justice UC Banerjee inquiry reaffirmed another Hardnews exposé, that the Godhra incident could even be an accident. The report appeared in the February 2004 edition of Hardnews at a time when the BJP was still in power and there were no takers for this theory. The exposé showed that the burning of the train may not be deliberate, but could have been an ‘accident’. To buttress this point, Hardnews had stated that there was a spurt in train fires around the same time the Sabarmati Express had caught fire and all of them presented similar images of arson. The commissioner of safety had not come to any conclusion on why the trains were catching fire. Experts had told Hardnews that the trains could not catch fire even 
if kerosene or petrol was thrown from buckets on the coaches. The only way it could happen was if the rubberized vestibule caught fire and, as the UC Banerjee report pointed out, it could happen due to an accident.  

This narrative debunked Modi’s resort to Newton’s third law of “action and reaction” to explain the carnage that ensued after the Godhra incident, which in his view was perpetrated by Muslims living along Signal Falia. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and many others had then provokingly suggested that since Muslims had not criticized the incident forcefully, this had enraged Hindus. It was a clever spin by a wily politician that tries to use pop psychology to first establish Muslim guilt in the crime and later explain the Hindu reaction.

With time, memories fade about the violence that engulfed Gujarat, allowing many of those trapped in a moral penumbra to step out in the sunlight. That could be the reason for the likes of Nitish Kumar to suddenly rediscover a secular language. Truly, guilt plays out in a myriad forms.  

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2013