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|The hate train|
|03/19/02 at 20:17:54|
|The hate train|
Three weeks ago, a Muslim mob set fire to a train in western India,
killing 58. More than 700 others died in the orgy of reprisals and
counter-reprisals that followed. But the full, shocking truth about what
really happened that day is only just emerging
By Peter Popham
20 March 2002
If you want to see what happened in the town of Godhra on 27 February,
it's not difficult. Jump down from the platform of Godhra Junction
station and clamber across half a dozen tracks and take a look. The
maroon sleeping car, No S/6, has been shunted into the sidings now, away
from the view of the railway's regular customers. And it will not be
back in service any day soon.
The great heat of the fire inside has eaten away wide swirls of paint
around the windows and scorched the steel sheeting brown. Inside,
everything has been vaporised: flooring, ceiling, upholstery. Only the
bones of the car remain, the charred framework of seats and beds. Here
and there are reminders that human beings suffered in here: a few melted
flip-flops, blackened brass drinking mugs, a burst sack of rice. The
remains of the 58 who died were removed long ago.
The inferno at Godhra took place three weeks ago, but its horror shows
no signs of abating. The work of Muslims, it triggered an instant and
overwhelming backlash by Gujarat's Hindus. The people who died on the
train were Hindus on their way back home to Gujarat from the contested
temple at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, where they had been working as
"karsevaks" (religious volunteers), helping to make preparations for the
long-planned building of a huge temple dedicated to the god Ram, on the
former site of (until its demolition by Hindus 10 years ago) a large
The struggle over the Ayodhya site is the most emotive communal dispute
in the subcontinent, and in the days that followed the burning of the
train compartment, that emotion boiled over in Gujarat. The state's
Hindu majority exploded with a murderous yet systematic ferocity such as
India has never experienced before. Fifty-eight deaths by fire in Godhra
provoked more than 700 Muslim deaths throughout the state. And even now,
when relative calm has returned, the wounds remain. Life in Gujarat will
never be the same again. Hindu and Muslim in Gujarat will never look at
each other in the same way, never share the same living spaces, or rub
shoulders at work or school or in the shops without remembering these
So the exact nature of what happened at Godhra has become a matter of
intense interest. Theories abound: it was the work of Pakistan's
military intelligence, the ISI, India's all-purpose bogeyman; it was the
doing of mujahedin terrorists; it was a pre-planned conspiracy by the
local Muslim community, hence the arrest of practically all the
prominent Muslims in the town. The problem is that none of these
theories mesh with the evidence.
Official investigations are in under way, but the massacre has become a
political football and it is hard to imagine any conclusions untainted
by political calculation. Fortunately, conscientious local journalists
have been hard at work. The evidence they have amassed, together with
new witness accounts obtained by The Independent, paints a clear and
persuasive picture of an avoidable tragedy.
What happened in car S/6 was the hideous finale. The story began nearly
36 hours earlier.
On the evening of Monday 25 February, at 5.30pm, several hundred
karsevaks in the temple town of Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh, tramped to
the nearby station of Faisabad and boarded the Sabarmati Express. They
were Gujaratis, and they were going home. Gujarat, in western India, has
been the most fruitful breeding ground in the whole country for Hindu
nationalists. And the karsevaks are Hindu nationalists in the raw: young
men with modest educations and poor prospects inflamed, thanks to clever
propaganda, with a zeal to right India's historic wrongs and repair the
Hindus' wounded pride. The organisations that find, inspire and recruit
these suggestible young men are the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang
Dal – pseudo-religious paramilitary groups committed to building the Ram
temple, creating true Hindu rule in India and putting India's 150
million Muslims in their place.
The karsevaks from Gujarat were in Ayodhya because India's great D-Day
is fast approaching. The event, they claim, that will ring in the era of
true Hindu self-assertion is the building of a mighty temple on the
supposed site of the birth of the Hindu god Ram at Ayodhya. Until 6
December 1992, the site was occupied by a mosque, the Babri Masjid,
which they believe was erected on the rubble of the original Ram temple.
On that day, several thousand karsevaks tore the mosque to pieces. Now
the great consummation is at hand. For years, stonemasons in Rajasthan
and Ayodhya have been carving pillars for the majestic new temple. Their
work is almost complete. As soon as it becomes politically feasible,
karsevaks will begin hauling the carved pillars to the contested site,
and the construction of the temple will begin.
The Hindu groups would be much happier, they insist, if the process went
ahead peacefully. "The construction of a grand Rama temple," they write
in a new pamphlet, "offers a unique opportunity to the Muslims for
commencing an era of enormous love and understanding between the Hindus
and Muslims of this country." All the Muslims have to do is give the new
temple their blessing.
But as this appears highly unlikely, the karsevaks have been gathering
in Ayodhya to help bring this event about in the same way they brought
about the downfall of the Babri Masjid; by force.
These were the sort of people who joined the train that Monday evening:
young men, heads wrapped in saffron headbands, happy and elated after
their stint at the holy site. Think football supporters on the move in
one of the old supporters' specials. Many were also drunk or stoned, or
equipped to get that way: flexible, tolerant Hinduism has no hard and
fast rules about such things. And they were coming back to Gujarat, the
only state in the Indian union that is still "dry". All the more reason
to have a bottle or two tucked away.
The train shuffled through the night, crossing Uttar Pradesh and
emerging into the broad, empty vistas of central India. The train was
late: after a day and a half, it was running four and a half hours
behind schedule. That's why it arrived in Godhra not at 2.55am, as
scheduled, but at 7.15am. By this time, the karsevaks were much the
worse for wear.
Trouble had started at Dahod station, nearly one hour and 75km up the
tracks. The train had reached Dahod around 6am, and a number of
karsevaks got out of compartment S/6 to have tea and snacks at a stall
on the platform. Already they were drunk and unruly. An argument broke
out between the Hindus and the Muslim man running the tea stall –
according to one account, they refused to pay unless he chanted "Jai
Shri Ram", the chant of Lord Ram's devotees. He refused to oblige, and
they started to smash up his stall, before climbing back into the
carriage. The stallholder filed a complaint with the railway police.
At Godhra, a similar scene ensued. The karsevaks, now noisily drunk,
poured on to the platform, ordered more tea and snacks, consumed them,
and then made difficulties. Exactly what transpired between the bearded
Muslim stallholder and the travellers varies from one account to
another. But all witness accounts seen by The Independent agree that
there was a row. "They argued with the old man on purpose," one witness
said, on condition of anonymity. "They pulled his beard and beat him
up... They kept repeating the slogan 'mandir ki nirmaan karo, Babar ki
aulad ko bahar karo'." ("Build the temple and throw out the Muslims...")
Suddenly the row took a dangerous new turn: the karsevaks grabbed hold
of a Muslim woman. Her identity, and how she became involved, remain
ambiguous, but four different witnesses mention this event. One says it
was the 16-year-old daughter of the abused tea-seller. She "came forward
and tried to save her father". Another mentions a woman washing clothes
by the railway line being hauled away. A third describes how a Muslim
girl wearing a burqa and taking a shortcut to school through the station
platform was pounced on and dragged into the carriage. All agree that a
Muslim woman was hauled into the carriage by the karsevaks, who slammed
the door and would not let her go. Refusing to be quoted by name, a
local policeman confirms the story.
And suddenly, what had been just an ugly little fracas, a drunken
pantomime of power and subjugation, became something far more explosive.
The karsevaks were too drunk for their own good, or they would have
chosen a different station at which to pull such a stunt. Because now
the social geography of Godhra came into play.
Godhra is unusual in Gujarat because its population is pretty well
exactly half Hindu and half Muslim. Three hours east of Ahmadabad, a
market for the dusty farms round about, Godhra has many temples and
mosques, but it has no other amenities except for a Catholic school and
a Sikh restaurant. Time was, as in most of the subcontinent, when the
Hindu and Muslim traders lived crammed in upon each other in the old
town. But, in 1981, Godhra was racked by the worst civil riots in its
history. Curfew was clamped on the place for an entire year. When it was
finally lifted, the Muslims fled the old town, building themselves crude
cement villas on wasteland behind the bazaar. Since then, the two
communities have lived as separately as possible.
Godhra station, to the regret of the Hindus, is located in an area that
is now entirely Muslim. And a huddle of Muslim-owned businesses sprang
up in shacks alongside the tracks, many of them motor-repair yards. This
little slum, known as Signal Fadia, has all the material a riot could
require: stacks of bricks, petrol, and paraffin and calor gas cylinders.
But it also had the necessary human material: a community impoverished
and bitter and surviving on the margins of criminality.
The woman seized by the karsevaks was dragged into compartment S/6, and
word of what had happened began to spread. "The girl began screaming for
help," said Ahmed, a wood dealer who was waiting for a train going the
other way. "Muslims who were travelling on the train got off. People
began pouring on to the platform to try to rescue her. I ran home – I
could see trouble was brewing..."
The train moved off, and the gathering crowd began pelting the carriage
with bricks. Inside the train, someone pulled the emergency cord; the
train stopped, then moved off again; the cord was pulled again 1km out
of the station, and this time the train stopped and stayed stopped.
"People in the vicinity... started to gather near the train," says one
witness. "The mob... requested that the karsevaks return the girl. But
instead of returning the girl, they started closing their windows. This
infuriated the mob..."
The brawl had become a battle, with the karsevaks piling in with their
swords and sticks, and a crowd now said to be 1,000-strong streaming in
from the slum, bringing petrol, gas, rags – anything that would burn.
Their gas cylinders broke the bars on the windows and exploded inside;
the petrol bombs flew through and set the upholstery and the people
trapped inside on fire. By the time that the police arrived in strength
one hour later, there was nothing to be saved.
Local members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad quickly sought revenge,
burning down the slum by the tracks and a mosque in the town. But that
was only the beginning.
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