Godhra: fact and fiction

RIGHT-WING movements concoct enemies to consolidate their hold on the masses. Hitler used the Reichstag fire, for example, by portraying the mysterious incident as a communist and Jewish plot, which became a ruse to witch-hunt both the communists and the Jews.

There are no limits to the imagination in this. It is routine among a growing number of Indians to blame emperor Babar for setting off a chain of events in the 16th century that led to the officially encouraged destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992.

The Newtonian law was applied to the lynching of thousands of innocent Sikhs for the assassination of Indira Gandhi. It is used equally vigorously to explain what was otherwise a state-supported massacre of 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. The horrific pogrom is thus neatly referred to, including by many unsuspecting liberals, as `post-Godhra riots`.

A special court last month awarded the death sentence to 11 Muslims and life imprisonment to 20 others after they were charged with conspiracy to murder 59 Hindus by setting fire to a train coach on Feb 27, 2002. Another 63 including an alleged mastermind in the so-called conspiracy were set free. Tehelka

The verdict went against key facts established by painstaking research by a section of the Indian media led by a sting operation by , a serious and outspoken investigative magazine.

Its correspondent Ashish Khetan has pieced together a strong rebuttal of the court`s verdict. He has concluded that far from a conspiracy hatched by Muslims, it was the Narendra Modi government that conspired to frame the Muslims in the tragedy, which was otherwise an accident.

The case largely rested on the testimonies of nine members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with a complex political backdrop. It relates to Godhra`s 12 administrative wards, each with three corporator seats. In the December 1999 municipal council elections, the BJP won 11 seats, independent Muslim candidates 16, the Congress five, and four seats were bagged by pro-BJP independents.

Murli Mulchandani, one of the nine BJP men, had been the president of the municipal council. In 1999, he had contested but lost.

To form the house in the council, a party needs 19 seats. The BJP had formed the house, supported by five Congress and three Muslim corporators. Raju Darji, a BJP corporator (who claims to be a witness to the fire) was elected president. Deepak Soni, another BJP corporator (also one of the nine witnesses), was appointed president of the education board formed under the council.

But a year after the elections, 24 corporators — 16 Muslim, five Congress and three Hindu independents — joined ranks against the BJP and moved a no-confidence motion. The BJP lost the house. These 24 now elected Kalota as president of the municipal council.

During a no-confidence motion debate, Muslim corporator Bilal Haji had beaten up BJP corporator Raju Darji, and a criminal complaint had been lodged against him. In 2002, after the Sabarmati Express carnage, Raju Darji, Deepak Soni and Murli Mulchandani, along with six other BJP members, claimed they saw Kalota, Bilal Haji and three other Muslim corporators `attack the train`.

What didn`t seem to get noticed by the court was that these nine BJP men claimed they could identify the 41 Muslims they had named — including sundry pickpockets and truck drivers — because they were all Godhra residents. However, when cross-examined, they admitted to their pre-existing enmity with Kalota and others.

Khetan has shown how the prosecution`s conspiracy theory against Godhra Muslims rested primarily on five sets of witnesses. They were: Tehelka

— Nine BJP men who claimed to be eyewitnesses to the carnage. However, a sting caught two of these BJP men admitting on camera they were actually at home that day and the police fabricated their statements. They went along to “serve the cause of Hindutva”. The judge has now discarded all nine testimonies

— Ajay Baria, a Hindu vendor, forced into the plot, saw it all. Judge Patel has relied hugely on Baria`s account. But why would Muslim conspirators pick a Hindu man at the last minute to help load the petrol and burn the train? His mother said he had been coerced into becoming a police witness and lived under constant police surveillance. Tehelka

— Two petrol pump attendants who claim they sold 140 litres of fuel to some Muslims on Feb 26. Ranjitsinh and Pratapsinh Patel had first told the police that they had not sold any loose petrol that crucial night. In a shocking turnaround, six months later, they changed their version. However, caught Ranjitsinh admitting on camera that he and Pratap had been bribed Rs50,000 by police officer Noel Parmar to do that. He also tutored them to identify particular Muslims in court as being the buyers.

— Jabir Bahera, a petty criminal, who first named Maulvi Umarji as a mastermind Bahera claimed it was Umarji who picked coach S-6 as the target, but also said Umarji was not at any conspiracy meetings. He later retracted everything.

— Sikandar Siddique, another petty criminal, said he had pulled the chain the second time to stop the train. Siddique is an obvious unreliable witness. Besides Umarji, he had said Maulvi Punjabi had incited the mob. But Punjabi was not even in the country that day. Tehelka

Two of these — Murli Mulchandani and Kakul Pathak — were caught on camera telling the reporter that both of them were actually sleeping at home when the incident occurred. However, they said not only they but the other seven BJP `eyewitnesses` had also not been present at Godhra station. karseva

Pathak also confessed that though all nine were from the BJP, the police had passed them off as Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) members to justify their presence at the railway station. (The call for the Ayodhya or Hindutva volunteers work had been given by the VHP).

Khetan`s statement about Pathak and Mulchandani was recorded by the special probe team set up by the Supreme Court, in which they admitted on camera that they had fudged their statements. Neither his testimony nor the damning sting footage was produced in the court, for it would have interfered with Newton`s law applied to politically-expedient massacres.

The writer is s correspondent in Delhi.