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This is where it all started that February morning

india Updated: Feb 23, 2009 23:05 IST
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Saeed Umarji's father, Maulana Husen Umarji was the chief cleric of Godhra.

Today, Saeed's only link with his faith is the five-minute namaaz he offers on Fridays just to keep his mother happy.

"After my father's arrest, I have distanced myself from my religion," said then 30-year-old timber trader, seated in his two-storey home in Godhra, a town of timber traders 85 kms from Ahmedabad.

Unlike in most Muslim homes, the walls of the room do not have a single Islamic symbol neither framed pictures of Mecca nor holy Arabic inscriptions on velvet. "If being a Muslim makes me wrong and makes my father suffer I don't want to have anything to do with my faith." Maulana Umarji, like many Muslims from Godhra, were associated with the Tablighi jamaat.

Maulana Umarji was those arrested for conspiring to torch the S6 coach of the Sabarmati Express in which 59 kar sevaks were killed. Umarji has been in jail for seven years because he was arrested under the Prevention Of Terrorism Act (POTA). It is only last week that the Gujarat High Court upheld the decision of the POTA review committee that POTA cannot be applied to this case.

The Umarji family now hopes Maulana Umarji will be released on bail soon but the allegations are something Umarji and his family with have to fight for a long time to come. After all, this is where it all started, in the backyard of one of Godhra towns most respected people.

Godhra is a municipality and the administrative headquarters of the Panchmahal district. It has English medium schools and degree colleges and boasts a literacy level of over 70 per cent.

The S6 coach was set on fire after an alleged altercation between kar sevaks travelling in it and tea vendors on Godhra station. The prosecution's case is that tea vendors and hawkers who lived in a slum along the railway track stopped the train near Signal Falia, a little further down Godhra station, and torched the coach.

"My father did not even know what had happened until we heard the chaos that morning," said Saeed, clad in a navy blue T-shirt and trousers.

Maulana Umarji met with members of the Hindu community in the town and condemned the incident. "He even announced that funds be collected for the victims during prayers in the mosque," said Saeed.

However, while clashes were averted in Godhra, the rest of Gujarat burned. Over the next few days, mobs attacked Muslims settlements across the state, killing people and buring their houses. "When the riots broke out, my father made his unhappiness with the administration very clear," said Saeed. "The Gujarat government wanted to break Muslim leadership which spoke against what was wrong."

Maulana Umarji was arrested in February 2003, after one of the accused arrested after the incident allegedly confessed that Umarji was part of the conspiracy to burn the coach. Saeed, who was only 23 then, took up the fight against these allegations. "For a year I ran from the police for fear of being victimised," said Saeed. "Then I returned and decided to fight this legally."

For a man who had never even seen the sessions court, Saeed's life became all about court dates. Now, as Saeed tries to get his father out on bail, the SIT is investigating the Godhra incident. But he is not very hopeful. "Since the beginning the intentions of the Gujarat police were bad," he said. "We don't think the SIT can do anything for us as long as the Gujarat police are involved in the investigations."

The S6 coach still stands in a yard near Godhra railway station with policemen guarding it. A wall more than ten feet high cordons the station off from the rest of the town. The wall came up after the slum along the railway tracks where most of the accused lived was demolished.

Saeed divides his time between his business, his family and his legal battle. Apart from fighting his father's case, he also has to keep families of other accused informed on the progress the case has made. "I avoid meeting them because once I do I lose sleep," he said, leading the HT team up a beaten path leading to the houses of some of the accused. He opened the door to a large, dark room where Nafisa Ansari lives. Seated on a cot, Ansari awaits the return of her sons Sabir and Allahuddin who were picked up during a combing operation on the night of February 27. "They were baking biscuits right here when the police came and said saheb wanted to see them," she said. The brothers have not returned since that day, leaving behind their wives and children. Ansari has since lost her eyesight. "Ab sirf Allah se ummeed hai (Now we have hopes only from Allah)," she said.

A visibly disturbed Saeed assured her that things would change soon. But he knows he has more than one battle to fight. He is concerned about the different ways in which Hindus and Muslims are indulging in a show of faith__through more temples and mosques and even cellphone ringtones. The Hindu and Muslim community coexists without much friction but even today the slaughter of cows here creates communal tension. "We are going 1,400 years back," said Saeed.

Anatomy of a massacre

When: February 27, 2002

What happened: The S6 coach of the Sabarmati Express was torched near Godhra junction early in the morning on February 27, 2002 following an altercation between tea vendors at the station and kar sevaks travelling on the train. Fifty-nine people were killed in the coach.

The night of the incident, the local police conducted combing operations in Godhra and arrested 116 people for conspiracy.

The prosecution has claimed that the torching of the coach was a conspiracy by local Muslims and the state claimed that the riots were a reaction to that.

Toll: 59

Bail: 19

Absconding: 17

Discharged: 13

Four of the accused are dead and 80 are still in jail