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Godhra’s judgment day

Two public servants. One Hindu. One Muslim. One burned to death, the other accused of starting the fire. As India prepares to hear the verdict this Tuesday on a riot that inflamed a decade of hate, terror and divisiveness, Samar Halarnkar finds common paragraphs in two opposing stories.

columns Updated: Feb 19, 2011 22:04 IST
Samar Halarnkar

Two public servants. One Hindu. One Muslim. One burned to death, the other accused of starting the fire. As India prepares to hear the verdict this Tuesday on a riot that inflamed a decade of hate, terror and divisiveness, Samar Halarnkar finds common paragraphs in two opposing stories.

“The VHP men took me to Godhra. They touched my feet before filling election forms”: Prafulaben Soni, Janata Nagar colony, Ahmedabad.

Prafulaben Soni (57) holds up both her hands, as if holding an imaginary baby. “They were this big when they reached me,” she says, her voice flat, looking ahead at nothing in particular. “They had been burnt, you see.”

She pauses. “Are you sure you won’t have some tea?”

It’s been nine years, since Prafulaben’s husband and son returned as cloth-wrapped bundles, their bodies charred and reduced. She has narrated often enough the February 28, 2002, macabre homecoming of the men in her life, Mansukhbhai Soni (62) and Jessalbhai Soni (25).

Prafulaben has a weak heart. She’s had two major heart attacks and six minor ones. So, no one told her that her husband and son, both ram sewaks (servants of Ram) returning from the holy Hindu city of Ayodhya, had been burnt alive when coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express had been set afire the previous day at Godhra, 150 km southeast of their home in Ahmedabad.

The Sonis are a caste of traditional gold workers, which is what Jessalbhai was. His father was a worker with the Ahmedabad city health department. Like everyone else in the working class neighbourhood of Krishna Nagar Society, they were devout Hindus, conservative and peaceable but fired by the political movement spearheaded by the BJP and its more radical cousin, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The Soni men were VHP volunteers.

Krishna Nagar Society is an untidy jumble of single-storey houses stuck to each other along a narrow unpaved lane. When the locals proudly say “all communities live here”, they mean Hindu castes and sub-castes, Dalits excluded. There are painters, gold smiths, drivers and municipal workers. Every boy and girl is in school, though it wasn’t always so.

Prafulaben studied till 7th standard, before being married. Her daughter-in-law was “very young” when Jessalbhai died.

“She was a child,” says Prafulaben, “I could barely look after myself, how could I look after her? So I had to send her back to her parents.”

She stops her deadpan narrative, pauses again and stands up slowly, her arthritis causing her obvious pain. She looks at me again. “Are you sure you won't have tea?”

Prafulaben’s daughter-in-law remarried.

“My daughter, who is married, opposed the idea,” she says. “She doesn’t talk to me much, calls me about once in a month.”

So, Prafulaben is alone. She cooks for herself, cleans her two-room home every day and lives on her husband’s pension of Rs 2,400, of which Rs 1,200 is spent on medicines for her arthritis and heart condition.

“I get by,” she says. “The VHP people call once in a while, and I have neighbours — one very good neighbour. Woh Parmeshwar hai na? Woh mera padosi hai (There’s that God, no? He’s my neighbour).”

She looks at me. “Will you at least have water?” When I say yes, she hobbles inside and returns with a small, steel tumbler.

“Whatever happened to me is fate,” says Prafulaben, lowering herself slowly to the wooden bench in the verandah facing the unpaved street. Outside, children play, women wash clothes and a couple of cows roam. There are scooters, motorcycles and a sole Maruti 800.

What does she expect from the judgement now slated for February 22, 2011? “The killers must get the strictest sentence,” she says. “If needed, they should be hanged.” Prafulaben knows no Muslims, and she has no prejudices. “People who do things like this have nothing to do with religion. Aise log to keval khooni hain (Such people are just murderers).”

What of the temple that drew her men to Ayodhya? Is that important to her? Prafulaben smiles for the only time. “You see beta (my son), we are Hindus. If the temple can be built, it will be nice.”

Has she ever been to Godhra? “Oh yes, I have. The VHP took me there during elections. We went to this office where they put a garland around me and touched my feet before filling up (election nomination) forms.”

She did not see where her husband and son died. That would have been too painful. She looks up at their garlanded photos, then glances a painting of a saintly man in a white beard, and mutters a brief prayer. That’s the family’s patron saint, Baba Sitaram.

“It was Baba who let me recognise my son’s body.” Prafulaben hobbles inside again and returns with a cheap, round, plastic box, the type takeaways use to pack salads or chutneys. As she opens it, her hand trembles and for the first time, so does her lower lip.

She removes a charred psalm of Baba Sitaram, an unburnt passport-size photo of her son and a blackened, brittle piece of what looks like a lump of coal. “This was my son’s wallet,” Prafulaben explains. “See, both sides were burnt. Baba’s psalm and the photo were inside, they survived.” Then, she holds up a charred, metal watch, its hands frozen at 8:40 am. This, too, was Jessalbhai’s. Prafulaben’s husband was identified only by his dentures.

Prafulaben has stopped talking. She places the remains of her family back in the box and stares ahead, at nothing in particular. “It’s good you came,” she says, her voice flat again. Then, she starts to cry.

Ten minutes later, she is still crying.

“Father says pray for me. Whatever happens in court, his time has gone": Shoaib Inayat Jujara, Limbi Falya, Godhra

Inayat Abdul Sattar Jujara (67) wants his family to stop visiting him in jail. It’s hard for his son, Shoaib, a tailor, to find the money to make the 160-km trip from Godhra city to Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Jail, and in any case, Jujara senior’s faith is failing.

“He says, ‘pray for me, what else is there to do now’?” says Shoaib, his voice emotionless. He pauses, stares at the floor and looks up. “Will you have some tea?”

Shoaib’s father had 13 months to retire when on February 27, 2002, he hopped on to his cycle and went to work at the Gujarat government’s Public Works Department in Godhra.

He returned home three years later, under police guard, as he did four more times for the weddings of his five daughters.

A town of 180,000 people, more than 40% Muslim, Godhra was known to the world beyond because it was a major halt for long-distance trains and because it was ravaged by frequent communal riots. Godhra is a working-class town dominated by a poorly educated lower middle class.

The Jujara home has a toilet block as you enter from the unpaved street, and two rooms, one of which doubles as a living room and Shoaib’s work area. There are scooters and motorcycles parked outside other houses and one Maruti Zen.

As a 12th-class fail, Shoaib’s options were limited. As a tailor, he keeps his family going. He is determined to make sure his two daughters, one 16 months, the other four years old, get a good education. It is a desire shared by Muslim families across Godhra. Women still play second fiddle, but in every family of train-burning suspects, I saw girls going to school.

“All my sisters, their education was shot to pieces after father’s arrest,” says Shoaib, who agrees with chief minister Narendra Modi’s contention that Gujarat is shining. “The atmosphere is good, there are opportunities for many. Gujarat made good use of Godhra, it has benefitted from that day.”

On that day, when Shoaib’s father did not return by evening, he did not have the courage to ask the police. “They were arresting anyone who came to them, and I was scared.” Shoaib found his father five days later in a police lockup. The police said Jujara senior, then 58, was caught at the station that morning, part of the mob that attacked the Sabarmati Express.

“But he was at work,” says Shoaib, his voice as flat as ever. He stares at me. “At least have some water.”

As we talk, one of Shoaib’s sisters walks in, glares at us and beckons to him. As he walks over, she proceeds to give him a tongue-lashing in Gujarati, mostly to the effect that he should not have brought me home. When he returns, his face is as emotionless as ever. “She is upset,” he says with a shrug, “But we all are.”

Shoaib’s father was charged under POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), a draconian law that allows detention without charge, as the police announced a pre-planned conspiracy with Pakistani connections.

On March 2005, a POTA review committee said the state had no case under POTA. Three years after that, the Supreme Court finally ordered the withdrawal of POTA.

“POTA is used for terrorists,” says Shoaib, his voice becoming agitated and rising several pitches. “Terrorists! What can be worse than being called traitors? Even if this state believes we are criminals, are we terrorists?”

Jujara senior had eyewitnesses, his office colleagues, all Hindus, who testified that he was at work at the time the police said he was picked up loitering at the station, 3 km from his office. Shoaib filed a right-to-information application and extracted his father’s signature on bills and salary cheque receipts, proof, he says, that his father was at work.

Now suspended from service, Shoaib’s father’s hopes have dimmed over nine years. “Whatever happens in court,” says Shoaib, “Father says my time has gone. No one can give that back.”

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