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Godhra case hits a dead-end

March 05, 2004 12:36 IST

Two years after the Godhra carnage, the Gujarat police still do not know who the brains behind the plan to set the Sabarmati Express alight were.

If you read the seven chargesheets filed so far by the police, you can understand how the incident took place. But why did it happen? Who planned it? Where? Answers to these questions are still being sought.

Rakesh Asthana, special inspector general of police (Baroda range) and head of the team investigating the incident, told, "We have international inputs provided by IB [the Intelligence Bureau] and RAW [the Research and Analysis Wing]. We have many telephone intercepts and strong indications suggesting the involvement of people across the border. But we don't yet have substantial evidence to prove our charge in court."

Asthana, who spent 10 years with the Central Bureau of Investigation and was also involved in the investigation of Bihar's fodder scandal, said of Godhra, "It was a very interesting and complicated case. We have been able to prove beyond doubt the local conspiracy charge. I am 100 percent sure that the accused will be convicted."

BUT WHO were the people behind men like Razzak Kurkur, who allegedly supplied the wherewithal to burn the train, and Maulvi Omerji, who is accused of being a co-conspirator?

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An officer, who is part of the operation to nab the absconding accused, admitted that they had not had much success in tracking the brains behind the crime because of the unity of Godhra's Ghanchi community. Even after intense interrogation, the police have failed to crack Omerji, who was a respected figure in Godhra until his arrest last year.

After the Godhra carnage, Omerji's telephones were taped. That was how police eventually got enough material to arrest him on February 6, 2003, almost a year after the carnage. The maulvi is currently lodged in Ahmedabad's Sabarmati Jail.

One of the policemen questioning the cleric said Omerji was on the verge of breaking his silence at one point. But a senior officer, in good faith, allowed a meeting between him and his wife at that stage. That was a bad error of judgement. After the meeting, Omerji's resolve was strengthened and he refused to cooperate with the police.

"His wife and nine children have access to crores of rupees," the police officer claimed. "The maulvi was running a camp for riot victims and from all over the world money was pouring into Godhra. He was the biggest recipient of cash from abroad after the riots. He is unlikely to speak because he knows he can afford to buy time."

A source in the Gujarat home ministry said, "Two years after the historic event in Godhra, 48 accused are still absconding. The railway police case of burning of the Sabarmati Express contains 30,000 papers of investigation. Seven chargesheets have been filed, which have 450 witnesses. But out of 135 accused only 87 have been arrested. The rest are probably hiding safely in Godhra."

THERE IS another grievous problem with the police case. They do not as yet have a single witness who saw any of the accused pour inflammable chemicals in the S-6 compartment.


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All the same, they have produced an impressive amount of work. Eight eye-witnesses/accused (Youth's testimony throws new light on Godhra attack) have given statements (admissible in court) before a competent authority which prove that the accused (all residents of Godhra, mostly of the Muslim-dominated Signal Falia slum adjoining the railway station) had planned the attack on the Sabarmati Express a day before.

Zabir bin Yamin, one of the important witnesses, retracted his statement later. Yamin was allegedly part of the team that boarded the S-6 compartment to pour chemicals. He is also an accused in a rape case registered before 2002. Ajay, the lone Hindu accused in the case, is also a criminal involved in petty crimes on railway property.

According to sources, in police custody Zabir was shown an album of photographs of the charred bodies of children who were aboard the Sabarmati Express. A team of officers worked on him, gave him good food, won his confidence, and instilled a sense of guilt in him.

But as soon as news of Zabir's confession spread in Signal Falia, people got scared. When visited the slum, people complained that the police were using black magic! Ishar Pathan, a resident of the Sat Pul area, said, "People are afraid to cooperate with the police because they are giving some water treated with black magic to Ghanchis in custody."

ILLITERACY, poverty and religious fanaticism have made life hell for the women and children of Signal Falia. Almost all families have six to ten children. Recently one woman in the area delivered her 23rd baby! As photography, television, and other forms of entertaintment are prohibited by local maulvis, sexual intercourse is the only outlet left for couples, a police officer explained.

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A major obstacle for the investigators is the closely knit society of Signal Falia. Like the tribals of the Panchmahals district around Godhra, the Ghanchis too are a closed community. An outsider can never tell when they are speaking the truth and when they are concocting a tale. Moreover, their informal channels of communication allow them to quickly gain common understanding and consistency in response during questioning. As a result, even police informants have a difficult time.

Ghanchi men wear a small cap, kurta, and short pyjamas, almost two-thirds the size of normal pyjamas. Beards without moustaches are compulsory. All the women in Signal Falia wear burkhas. The area smells like a sewer and looks like a huge garbage dump.

Since Independence no women have graduated from this area, says a social worker. No one has even heard of girls going to college. When I asked my local guide about this, he claimed, "In Arabic aurat means 'a thing to hide'! Islam tells us to keep our women within our homes."

ASTHANA and his team accuse the residents of Signal Falia of harbouring criminals. Though the accusation comes from the police, it is not an unfair one. A prominent lawyer in the area told, "Residents of Signal Falia believe it is one of the worst crimes to be a mukhbir (informer)."

Ramzani, a college student, said, "We don't inform police even if criminals are hiding here. Why should we take a risk and commit a sin too?"

The risk is not fanciful. Ramzani narrated an incident to buttress his argument. Karim Badam is among the Godhra accused who are absconding. In the first week of February Badam's two-wheeler was hit by the car of a man named Ilyas Dadi. Badam and a few other community leaders had been keeping a watch on Dadi for a while. They suspected him of being an informer.

Just outside the police post in the bazaar, Badam started beating Dadi. A crowd quickly gathered and almost thrashed Dadi to death. But then Badam himself intervened and saved Dadi by driving him away on his own two-wheeler.

Badam is still absconding, but Dadi is tight-lipped. He has even refused to file a complaint against Badam.

Noel Parmar, deputy superintendent of police and a member of the team investigating the Godhra case, confirmed the incident.

On hearing of it, Parmar and Piyush Patel, superintendent of police of the Panchmahals district, planned an operation to capture Badam and his associate Salim Panwala. The stakes were high for the police because Panwala is currently the most wanted man in the Godhra case.

Only on February 18, at the very last moment, were the local police, who are believed to be corrupt, asked to join in. But the operation became a fiasco after a show of strength by Panwala. When one of the police officers, J S Yadav, was hit by Panwala's guard, his juniors rushed to his help and Panwala escaped in the ensuing melee.

It was a psychological blow for the police. The police had done their homework well and for a change they were sure of their intelligence. But it all came to naught. Several days of planning had gone down the drain.

The investigating team was so frustrated by this incident that it raided the homes of innocent people, beat them up mercilessly, and, according to some women residents, even looted jewellery and cash.

Off the record, one officer admitted to these atrocities. "They have never been beaten like this before," he said. "But why should they attack us whenever we go there to arrest criminals?"

"Because we know Panwala is innocent," countered the residents. "We will defend the innocent people of our area. Ghanchis are being framed in the Godhra train carnage."

It is this sort of community pressure and antipathy to the police that has made their task more difficult.

THE BHARATIYA Janata Party has a majority in the local municipality, but it also has the full support of the elected Muslim members, including those from Signal Falia. In all committees of the civic body, the BJP and Muslims share power. This is perhaps why local politicians are not interested in pursuing the Godhra case. Even senior BJP leaders are not taking a strident stand against the criminals or the community.

The Congress, of course, has far more vested interests than the BJP to take a position on the issue of governance in Signal Falia. Congressmen have probably benefitted the most from the rotten situation in the slum.

In Gandhinagar and New Delhi too, interest in the Godhra carnage investigation appears to be waning, a senior police officer claimed. "Nobody is interested in the case now, not even Chief Minister Narendra Modi," he said. "His queries on the investigations are part of a routine. Why are you writing on it?"

A senior BJP official in the town agreed that the country is unlikely to ever learn of the real brains behind the crime. "The rulers in Gandhinagar and Delhi have lost political interest in the Godhra investigations," he admitted, "specially after the successful peace moves with Pakistan."

Indeed, on the second anniversary of Godhra, when local Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders wanted to perform a puja at the railway yard where the charred S-6 compartment has been dumped, they could gather only 40 people. That should tell you something about the kind of apathy about the case today.

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