The single-bench Gujarat High Court judgment that set aside the Centre’s notification appointing the Justice U.C. Banerjee Committee to probe the February 27, 2002, Godhra train fire incident has ruled that the committee was ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘illegal’. But one thing it cannot do is wish away several important facts that came to light in the probe’s final conclusions. The matter is now likely to go to a division bench or even to the Supreme Court. Justice Banerjee’s findings were startling. On the basis of meticulous documentation, the committee had established that the fire in Coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express was accidental and the Gujarat government’s theory that a mob had set it on fire had no basis.
The Nanavati Commission that was appointed to probe the aftermath of the incident — a good seven days after the Sabarmati Express tragedy — by the then government is yet to submit its report despite more than half-a-dozen extensions given to it. The commission may apply for a further extension after its present tenure gets over by the year-end, as very little progress seems to have been made by it. But Justice Nanavati may eventually find it extremely difficult to rubbish the findings of the Banerjee Committee as the latter had recorded evidence from a large number of important functionaries, including sworn affidavits from senior IPS officers.
Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, accused of twisting the facts of the Godhra tragedy to give it a communal spin, was the first to react. He described the High Court order as evidence of a political plot hatched by the UPA government. Other BJP leaders have, in the past, alleged that the Banerjee Committee was appointed so that Lalu Prasad Yadav could exploit the Muslim vote bank on the eve of Bihar elections. But no NDA or BJP leader has till date been able to say why the mandatory inquiry by the Safety Commissioner of the Railways was not ordered after the incident and why rumours were allowed to float leading to possibly the worst riots in the history of Gujarat.
Was this done to ensure that the Sangh parivar, which had turned Gujarat into its electoral laboratory, could derive benefits from the half truths? Atal Bihari Vajpayee had pulled up Modi for not observing the tenets of governance at that time. But even Vajpayee turned around and gave Modi a clean chit during the BJP’s Goa National Executive immediately afterwards.
The High Court order on the Banerjee report cannot invalidate a lot of documents that have been put on record for the first time and which substantiate the cover-up theory. It also cannot disprove that the Godhra fire was accidental and not a premeditated attack on kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya by the ill-fated train. For instance, three affidavits by senior IPS officers have not only corroborated Banerjee’s findings but have also provided enough evidence to suggest that if there was a conspiracy, it was one hatched by the state of Gujarat. Their statements caused a major embarrassment to the Gujarat government, so it is not at all surprising that fresh attempts by Modi and his supporters are being made to debunk the Banerjee panel.
What is significant is that two of the senior IPS officers had stated in their affidavits that the Gujarat police, the district administration and the CID had no information about the return of the kar sevaks from Ayodhya that fateful February 27 morning. This is in sharp contrast to the fact that when the kar sevaks had left for Ayodhya, their departure plans were recorded by the district police and the CID. If the state government and the CID did not know of their return plans, how could the Muslims of Godhra have known that the pilgrims were travelling by Sabarmati Express?
Then there is the question of a ‘mob’, which was apparently in touch with ‘Pakistani elements’, having set the train on fire. Rahul Sharma, who was DCP in February 2002 and was asked to assist the probe by the then police chief, had studied the cellphone numbers provided by the VHP activists who had made these allegations. His findings were that no call was either made or received from the numbers provided. Attention was also drawn to the fact that Gujarat Home Secretary G.C. Murmu had unsuccessfully tried to influence the testimony of R.V. Sreekumar, the additional DGP of the state Intelligence Bureau.
The contents of the Banerjee Committee findings have credibility because the Railways keep records meticulously. This helped the panel a great deal. Banerjee had no difficulty in establishing that the police theory of the fire breaking out at 8.20 a.m. was false and that, in fact, the fire had broken out at 7.55 a.m. He quotes from the testimony of Raju Bhargava, the then SSP, Panchmahal district, to state that the Muslims had not only permitted the district administration to use their community well, but had also provided water to douse the flames. This is the opposite of what the Gujarat government had said.
The point that remains despite the High Court terming the Banerjee Committee ‘illegal’ is that mere technicalities cannot change what actually happened. The acceptance of the report could also have led to the prosecution of a number of politicians who, by creating a wrong perception about ‘Godhra’, fanned communal riots.
Assuming that the Centre had erred in setting up the Banerjee Committee, the elements of truth that it has revealed cannot be pushed under the carpet. Justice Nanavati must hurry up with his report and not seek any further extension. The credibility of our judicial system and constitutional provisions are at stake. Between us.