Media Focus:  Investigating Godhra

BY ninan| IN Media Practice | 16/12/2002


Media Focus:  Investigating Godhra


One of the insights Punwani offers is the fact that anger that lead to the carnage against Muslims in other parts of the state did not have the sanction of the relatives of the victims.  



Sevanti Ninan



The Penguin Books volume  edited by Siddharth  Vardarajan, Gujarat---the Making of a Tragedy has a chapter devoted to the media  titled ‘The Truth Hurts—Gujarat and the Role of the Media.’  But that is not the chapter that offers much value addition---- it goes over stated facts and known ground. From a media point of view it is Jyoti Punwani’s  chapter, "The Carnage at Godhra"  that is valuable, not the least because at last a journalist is investigating an incident that was as under-investigated as its outcome was catastrophic.


Punwani is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist who specialises in investigating communal violence.  She spent 5 and a half days in the state in April, mostly in Godhra itself, digging away, and then pieced together what she could gather with what came out of other people’s investigations, including that of the National Human Rights Commission. The result is 25 pages of reconstruction and analysis that does not  entirely solve the mystery of how the fire on the train happened, but provides a number of new insights. Given the demonization of a community that the incident led to, the media owed it to the country to investigate Godhra more fully than they did. The lapse was perhaps largely because the retaliation--being widespread and vicious---became the  story. But whatever the reason, Punwani’s value addition is very welcome.


The incident at Godhra is first of all recreated within context. You are told why trainloads of VHP volunteers were going up and down from Ayodhya during this period (because of a Ram Naam Jap programme) and the first lapse that led to the later tragedy—the failure of the railway administration at Faizabad  to alert stations down the line that this train was carrying VHP volunteers. Until then whenever the station staff at Godhra were alerted the police had apparently ensured that the Muslim vendors’ stalls were closed when the saffron crowd returned, or DIVerted the train to a platform on which there were no stalls. They did this because "Godhra’s vendors are not new to hooliganism by mobs."  Not necessarily Vishwa Hindu Parishad mobs. She cites an earlier example of those  travelling for Mahendra Tikait’s kisan rally.  But the stalls were open early that morning, and many activists proceeded to disembark and promptly run amuck.


You are also told with accounts from both Gujarat and Faizabad  sources of how the Muslims on the train were treated during the journey.  Attacks on Muslims with trishuls and  iron rods took place, and Muslims waiting at stations along the way were also attacked.  The numbers of attackers were not small, she quotes a Hindu journalist writing in a newspaper called Jan Morcha as saying that they numbered around 2000 at Dariabad station.  Many Muslims here and later at Godhra station were being asked to shout Jai Shri Ram.


 As for events after reaching Godhra, some of the inDIVidual incidents reported until now are gone into in detail with the accounts checked and cross-checked with a number of different sources. Punwani traced the Muslim girl Sophiya whom the goons allegedly pulled into the compartment, back to her home in Baroda, and gives us the full story. She was not dragged into the compartment, they let her go as soon as she screamed.  Punwani tracked down eyewitnesses present that morning and feeds their accounts into a blow by blow reconstruction with the unexplained bits clearly recorded. Many of the accounts of how the VHP passengers behaved are from Hindu eyewitnesses. She explains how and why Muslims began stoning the train, and how the violence built up from there with the VHP passengers retaliating immediately.  The chain pulling is also gone into, done by the latter to allow fellow travellers left behind to get on the train. 


At the same time the chapter goes into the relevant details about the Ghanchi Muslims who live in the Signal Falia area around the station. An aggressive, impulsive,  community, descendants of Afghan soldiers and Bhil women, with a long history of violent conflicts with Godhra’s Hindus, pre and post independence. The Hindu Mahasabha was in forefront of such conflicts before Independence. After Independence most of the riots have been between them and the Sindhis who settled in the area after Partition. Most of the accused in the Sabarmati Express case are Ghanchi Muslims, and surprisingly they also stand accused of the violence to Muslim property in the wake of the train’s burning, valued as Rs 20 crore.


The author says that apart from this large scale destruction of Muslim property no Muslim was killed in Godhra town where have the local population must have seen the charred bodies of the passengers. How come she asks,  that Godhra the flashpoint of  Gujarat violence, escaped the "natural upsurge of Hindu anger" that Mr Modi and his national level bosses like to cite? The main reason, she says, is the reluctance of the Sindhis to retaliate.  It had taken the community years after the 1980-81 riots to rebuild themselves and they did not want to risk another major disruption in their business. Besides, it was the Sindhi wholesalers who supplied the Bohras with grain on credit and they knew that they couldn’t ask the Bohras to pay up. They decided not to risk retaliation, they told Punwani.


One of the insights Punwani offers is the fact that anger that lead to the carnage against Muslims in other parts of the state did not have the sanction of the relatives of the victims. She recounts conversations with these families, including some who did business with Muslims and said they had no quarrel with the community as a whole. None condoned the violence.


The broad conclusion she reaches after talking to investigating agencies and on the basis of her own interviews is that the attacks on the train were spontaneous, not pre-planned. There simply isn’t enough evidence to support the alleged ISI plot. Journalists are not primarily responsible for furnishing  answers to why an accident or crime  happens,  they are supposed to ask for these from those responsible for investigating. And Punwani narrates, matter-of-factly, a number of questions that the investigating agencies just did not seem to be asking. Why did the railway police at stations along the Sabarmati’s route not try to control the kar sevaks harassing Muslims? If  there were no  incidents at the immediately preceding station, why did the VHP passengers suddenly run amok at Godhra?  As for the blood thirsty mob of Muslims that allegedly set the train on fire, they were not blood thirsty enough to attack those jumping off the train once it caught fire. If they wanted revenge so badly, why did they let the remaining passengers flee? 


Gujarat----the Making of a Tragedy

Edited by Siddharth Varadarajan,

Penguin Books India, 2002  



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