Pseudo-Secularism

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.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The truth about Godhra?

Tumhara khoon khoon, hamara khoon pani? — Sohrab Modi, playing the persecuted Jew in Bimal Roy’s Yahudi, 1958.

This past Saturday, 75 members of India’s intelligentsia wrote a letter to the prime minister. Under the aegis of Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (ANHAD), they demanded the immediate release of those arrested by the Gujarat police for allegedly setting fire to coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra station on February 27, 2002.

Besides the freeing of ‘‘200 Muslims’’ — in reality, the police initially arrested 105 people, of whom 75 are still in Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Central Jail — ANHAD’s adherents demanded ‘‘compensation for the torture and humiliation’’ the accused had suffered.

The letter was inspired by the Justice U.C. Banerjee Committee interim report, which has decided that the Godhra fire was an accident. As such, the letter-writers concluded, the whole conspiracy was ‘‘manufactured’’ and, actually, no crime was committed at all.

What began as farce is now threatening to get downright dangerous. When Justice Banerjee was appointed by Railway Minister Laloo Yadav to look into the Godhra incident, the buzz in Delhi was clear: one, the report will be out just before the Bihar election; two, it will probably say the kar sevaks committed suicide. In the event, Justice Banerjee stopped short at calling it an accidental fire.

The strange thing is, scarcely anybody in the political class is taking this report seriously. After all, if it were established that a state government and its police had fabricated a criminal case, passed off mishap as murder, framed over 100 people and lied, as they say in India, from top to bottom, alpha to omega, the Union government would be duty-bound to dismiss it.

Yet nobody in the Congress is even suggesting using Article 356 and removing Narendra Modi from the chief ministry. There is fear of political backlash, of course; more than that, there is recognition the Banerjee report is bunkum.

Justice Banerjee seems to have convinced only Laloo and his pet hangers-on. The railway minister has emerged as, in the words of a gushing magazine article, ‘‘the king of secularism’’: ‘‘The report’s release has come as a bit of a breather for Muslims across the country. The overwhelming sentiment is that a huge taint has been removed.’’

Are such sentiments grounded in reality? As a political card, Godhra is dead. It is unlikely that either Hindus or Muslims can be electorally mobilised on this issue. Neither can Godhra be used to justify the riots that followed. Whatever its imperfections and built-in delays, the criminal justice system needs to punish those responsible for the violence that followed February 27, 2002.

None of this, however, takes away from the horror of what happened at Godhra that dark morning. Justice Banerjee pretends the crime did not take place. He creates a myth and then presents it as evidence of truth. He says there was no mob attack on coach S-6, ignoring eyewitness accounts of 1,000 people with stones and Molotov cocktails.

He ignores the Railway Protection Force firing at the time — firing in the air, to disperse rather than wound. He ignores the testimony of the RPF commandant who arrived after S-6 was set ablaze and ordered his men to fire at a mob that launched a second attack at about noon. Can Justice Banerjee account for these bullets?

He ignores the 15 arrests made at the station itself, 14 of those arrested are still in prison. He ignores reports of an attempt to set fire to coach S-2, also crowded with Hindu activists. Does he believe coach S-2 too saw an accidental fire, occurring simultaneously in some cosmic coincidence?

Like his conclusions, Justice Banerjee’s methods are also questionable. On November 9, 2004, after a visit to Godhra, he landed up unannounced at Gandhinagar railway station. Railway officials seemed to know about his arrival. The state government was not told.

Justice Banerjee now inspected coach S-3 of the Gandhinagar-Indore Shanti Express, which had caught fire on November 1. This seems an accident, he said, and wondered if ‘‘parallels could be drawn’’ with Godhra.

In the next month, three reports — by the Gujarat forensic lab, by the local rail authorities, by a Western Railway team from Mumbai — established the Shanti Express fire was sabotage, traces of hydrocarbons/petrol were found. Yet, as The Indian Express reported on January 21, Justice Banerjee never saw these reports. He went by his earlier hunch; or by his preconceived notions.

On the basis of his kangaroo court-type findings, is India willing to release those accused of cold-blooded murder? The precedent this will set is too risky to even contemplate.

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