Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Godhra: Judiciary under cloud

by Sandhya Jain

This very month, three years ago, Hindu pilgrims returning to Gujarat from Ayodhya were burnt alive in a bogey of the Sabarmati Express, in what was widely perceived as an act of communal aggression. Secular apologists of Islamic fundamentalism were quick to explain to a shocked nation that there were good (that is, legitimate) reasons for that gory action.

The Muslim mob at the Godhra station, they said, had been "provoked" by Hindu acts of commission. To begin with, the kar sevaks wanted to rebuild the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya. Now, that may be a heinous crime, but I fail to understand how pilgrims returning home without having done anything to erect the mandir in Ayodhya, could be considered guilty of a crime that warranted roasting alive.

For the sake of communal amity, however, we may let that pass. A second reason advanced was that an unidentified kar sevak got into a squabble with a tea vendor at Godhra station. Another version said that many pilgrims had tea at the stall and returned to the train without settling their dues. Hence the irate vendor rounded up members of his community; they managed to catch up with the train and set it on fire.

A third version was that some kar sevaks forced a Muslim girl at Godhra station into the train and made off with her. No family member of the alleged victim ever came forward to validate the story, nor was a police report filed. Yet this was repeated ad nauseum as if repetition can transform lies into truths.

To his credit, Justice UC Banerjee - though handpicked by Union Railway Minister Lalu Yadav to serve a political agenda - did not waste energy trying to prove these puerile excuses. As a former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Banerjee realised that the first reason exposed Muslim intolerance; while the second and third reasons were both difficult to prove and impossible to justify. What is more, they seriously incriminated the Muslim community as they showed planning and motivation to commit a grave offence.

So, notwithstanding his defective report, the judge was wise enough to avoid the most obvious pitfalls on his route. This is why he went for the "safe" option of accidental fire: He showed sympathy for the victims (since he could not say the fire never took place); shifted the blame away from the accused; and kept the burden of responsibility for the subsequent Gujarat riots on the shoulders of the Hindu community.

This is by no means a poor achievement for a judge whose appointment failed to attract confidence because he was not nominated by the Supreme Court, but handpicked by Mr Yadav. Mr Banerjee submitted his interim conclusions exclusively to Mr Yadav in the form of a double-edged boon, useful for indicting community-minded Hindus and for consolidating "secular" Muslim voters.

Examining the press reports, what most upsets me is Mr Banerjee's failure to produce the remains of a gas or kerosene stove from the embers of S-6, to back his claim that the apocalyptic fire that consumed 59 persons within seven minutes was caused by passenger fault. Prima facie, it is difficult to believe that anyone could have the luxury of cooking in a bogey with a capacity of 72 passengers, but actually packed with 150 persons. Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with Gujarati culture could have told the learned judge that Gujarati women are notoriously gifted in the art of making dry snacks; the women in that ill-fated bogey would have been well-stocked for the journey and would certainly not cook on the train.

Justice Banerjee lacks credibility because he is perceived to have walked a path staked out by others, instead of scrupulously following the evidence. He did not even glance at the evidence collected by Gujarat's special investigation team (SIT), and disregarded the findings of forensic laboratories that opined that nearly 60 litres of petrol was used to start the conflagration. His decision to submit an interim report the day before he was scheduled to meet the SIT has already attracted adverse attention; his contention that he was unaware that elections were scheduled in the home state of the Minister who appointed him is shameful.

Justice Nanavati has wisely suggested that the nation await his findings. But since the Banerjee report was obviously intended to preempt and discredit the Nanavati-Shah probe, it deserves careful examination. Banerjee suggests that the fateful fire began somewhere in the middle of bogey S-6, and was probably triggered by a cooking stove, or a match or lighter. If the fire did start off accidentally, why didn't the passengers extinguish it, and why wasn't it contained in the section where it started? Since the train was a sleeper, only six persons could have been sitting in that section, since persons occupying the side berths would hardly cook in the passageway. Even if more people were seated in the section, it does not explain the failure to cry for help or warn other passengers about the danger.

The SIT claims the coach was built in 1993 with fire-retardant and self-extinguishing materials. This means that only a very volatile and highly inflammable substance (like petrol) could have caused the kind of inferno that enveloped the entire coach and took 59 lives in seven minutes. Neither a matchstick nor a portable kerosene stove could explain this kind of fire.

The judge has completely evaded the issue of why the passengers failed to open the doors at both ends of the compartment and either escape into the adjoining bogeys S-7 or S-5, or jump off the train once smoke spread in the compartment. Who or what impeded these obvious escape routes when the train was at a standstill? This issue will seriously erode Banerjee's credibility if he does not address it in his final report.

I am equally anxious for the results of the Supreme Court probe into Zaheera Sheikh's contention that despite the verbose activism of Begum Teesta Setalvad, she (Zaheera) had not filed any affidavit seeking transfer of the Best Bakery trial outside Gujarat. I shall briefly recapitulate facts for readers who have not understood the importance of this disclosure.

When Zaheera's testimony in the Vadodara Fast Track court led to the acquittal of 21 accused persons, a bunch of well-connected activists landed in Gujarat, dragged her to Mumbai and sponsored the sensational press conference in which she said the Vadodara testimony was inspired by fear. The publicity-conscious National Human Rights Commission rushed in; accepted voluminous documentation furnished on behalf of Zaheera without any scrutiny; and urged the Supreme Court to transfer the trial to another state (currently going on in Mumbai) as a fair trial was not possible in Gujarat.

To its eternal embarrassment, the Supreme Court has since discovered that Zaheera had not signed a single page presented to the NHRC or the apex court! In other words, there is no legal basis for taking the trial outside Gujarat. The learned judges cannot escape their share of this ignominy, for it is clear that they responded to the hype generated by an ideologically-committed media, rather than perusing the legal record before them. Public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary is at stake; the judges must examine their contribution to this crisis.


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