January 31, 2005

Accidental Fire, Planned Carnage - The truth about Godhra

Praful Bidwai Column
January 31, 2005

Accidental Fire, Planned Carnage
The truth about Godhra

By Praful Bidwai

There was always something morally and politically repugnant about Mr Narendra Milosevic Modi’s claim that the killing of 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat after the Godhra train fire was a “natural reaction”—much like Newton’s Third Law of Motion. This was a diabolical defence of the indefensible—a systematic, planned, well-orchestrated carnage, during which mobs of Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bharatiya Janata Party supporters indulged in arson, loot, rape and killing even as the police watched, or at times, participated. The justification? Fiftynine karsevaks were roasted alive at Godhra in an Islamic-extremist “conspiracy”.

Reason tells us that no amount of devilish conspiracy at Godhra can possibly justify the planned pogrom of innocents all over Gujarat. Worse, the Gujarat government was deeply involved in its planning and execution—a fact amply established by media reports, the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal chaired by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat, etc. Gujarat witnessed total subversion of the Constitution and destruction of the idea of democratic citizenship. It descended into barbarism.

That’s why millions were shocked when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee justified the pogrom in Goa on April 12. He chided Muslims for their “separateness” and asked: “But who lit the fire?” The BJP cynically exploited Godhra in its state election campaign. “Action,” the image of the burning coach, eclipsed the far ghastlier “reaction”.

Several accounts have emerged of what happened in Godhra—including depositions by S-6 survivors before the Nanavati-Shah Commission, police versions of the “conspiracy”, for which they have named 131 accused, and many independent reconstructions of events. Most of these suggest that the fire was accidental, not caused deliberately. Now, the Interim Report of the High-Powered Committee headed by former Supreme Court judge U.C. Banerjee doubly confirms this. Its principal findings are corroborated by an independent expert inquiry by four engineers under the aegis of the Delhi-based Hazards Centre.

The findings show there was no premeditated attempt to set Coach S-6 on fire; the fire began 20-30 minutes after the generation of highly toxic smoke, itself probably caused by the burning of latex foam on the seats; the ignition probably originated under a bench due to a half-burnt matchstick or cigarette, or a kerosene stove.  

The 156-page Banerjee report and the Hazards Centre study blow a huge hole through the fanciful theories woven by the BJP and the Modi government. They tear up the last figleaf in the BJP’s defence and shows it’s incapable of shedding its hatred of Muslims. The BJP has tried to discredit Mr Banerjee’s report by politically linking him with Railway Minister Laloo Prasad, and claiming that its timing was determined by the elections in Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana. But the same Mr Banerjee had refused Mr Prasad’s bail application in the fodder case in the Supreme Court! As for the timing, the Railway Board, a professional-run body, itself requested an Interim Report.

These issues are diversionary. It’s of central importance that the public knows the truth about Independent India’s worst state-sponsored communal pogrom. The Banerjee Report will naturally figure in campaigns in the election-bound states. It’s absurd to ban a reference to it. The Election Commission would exceed its jurisdiction if it did so. The two processes, of inquiry into communal crimes, and holding elections (which are, increasingly, staggered), must run in parallel. One should not be subordinated to the other.

While dismissing the “petrol theory” and the “miscreant activity story”, the Banerjee Committee notes that the Sabarmati Express was pelted with stones by mobs enraged by altercations with trishul-bearing militant karsevaks returning from Ayodhya. Under the circumstances, it’s extremely unlikely that an outsider could have got into the train, either through the door of Coach S-6 or by breaking into the vestibule joining it with S-7. There were 140 people aboard the coach with 72 berths, dominated by VHP karsevaks. Its doors had been locked from the inside.

The survivors’ depositions provide no evidence of intrusion, or of flames rising from a pool of petrol from the floor. The damage marks on Coach S-6 point to a fire at the upper level, not the floor. This pattern also holds with the victims, who typically sustained burn injuries above the waist, not below. This is incompatible with the theory of a floor-level conflagration beginning with an inflammable liquid. Preceding the fire was highly poisonous “thick, black smoke” emanating from the rear of Coach S-6, which smelt like “burning rubber”. The Banerjee report quotes the testimonies of 14 key survivors-eyewitnesses, including Hari Prasad Joshi (berths 42-43), D.N. Dwivedi (sitting on the floor), Jamuna Prasad (berth 25), L.P. Choresia (berth 72) and others to show that they didn’t see anyone lighting a fire.

Besides testimonies, there’s strong evidence from the Hazards Centre report that the fire occurred accidentally. This report is a systematic analysis of the pattern of damage to Coach S-6, the type of fire and its likely causation, depositions of 41 surviving passengers to the police, a critique of 27 post-mortem reports, and correlation of injuries to 56 passengers with the spread of the smoke and fire. The emphasis is on a scientific analysis of the physical processes of causation of the fire. 

The report is authored by four engineers. Two of them are professors at IIT-Delhi—one with expertise in injuries, and the other in thermodynamics and fluidisation. The other two members are a Railway engineer with expertise in coaching, and the coordinator of Hazards Centre, who has a background in safety engineering. The experts methodically compared S-6 with six other damaged railway coaches, including one burnt in Delhi in 2003, with similar damage patterns.

The report reasons that had the fire started on the S-6 floor near the toilet, “inflammable plywood and foam in three tiers of seats would not be available for the fire to burn … If the fire was started by an inflammable fluid on the floor, the flames would have been noticed right away … precluding the possibility of a long-smouldering source”. How, then, did the fire start? In all probability, it started slowly, when combustible material placed below the lower berth, including clothing and plastic goods, caught fire. This ignited the plywood base of the seat and then the latex foam, and then spread to the rexine (vinyl) seat cover, the sun-mica partitions and linoleum flooring.

It is these synthetic materials that pose the greatest hazard. On combustion, they produce hydrogen cyanide, free isocyanates and carbon monoxide, along with dense smoke. Chlorine-containing plastics generate dioxin, the most poisonous substance known to science. In all probability, the gases proved far more lethal than the fire.

The probable location of the initial combustion was a berth between Cabins 8 & 9. The combustion process produced high-temperature smoke which spread along the ceiling and eventually resulted in a flash-over. People scrambled and ran to escape the dense and toxic fumes and radiative heat. Many were asphyxiated and died. Some escaped through the windows on the yard side and a few through the door next to Berth 72.

The Banerjee Report strongly indicts the Railways for being over one hour and 15 minutes too late in despatching a fire engine, and that with too little water. It holds them guilty of not ordering an inquiry as required under the safety rules, of not photographing critical evidence, and of running Coach S-7 and allowing the disposal of its burnt vestibule as scrap.

The two reports’ principal findings are further confirmed by a Survey of Indian study, which suggests that it’s fanciful to imagine that a crowd could have moved easily to Cabin A, near where which Coach S-6 was parked at the time. The topography was “inhospitable to a large assembly of people given the depth of (an intervening 27 metre-long) nallah and also the proliferation of closely packed thorny trees like Keekar. A person pelting stones would have to be standing either deep down the nallah which has about one metre of water, or beyond it, behind ‘A’ Cabin, which is 57 metres away …”

Mr Banerjee’s final report will hopefully factor in the Hazards Centre findings and produce yet more clinching evidence that the fire was accidental, and it was wrong to attribute it to a conspiracy. The Gujarat police have a disgraceful record on Godhra. They have arrested 104 persons on various charges of “conspiracy” and “terrorism”, mainly under POTA, but they have at least three versions of the crime, spread over 10 different chargesheets. This makes nonsense of the police case: the versions are mutually contradictory.

The conclusion is inescapable: no conspiracy occurred. There was no mob at Godhra waiting for the train which was running five hours late. The Modi government concocted theories to justify the ensuing pogrom. This terrible injustice must be redeemed—through several steps, including the release of POTA detainees and institution of a credible inquiry that will establish who was guilty for the butchery of 2,000 and rape of over 10,000 women. Without justice, there will be no redemption; no lessons will be learnt.—end—