The ghosts of Godhra

IN Opinion | 21/01/2005
The ghosts of Godhra




Predictably, the most influential newspapers went into hand-wringing mode. O dear, O dear, they said, this mixing of religion and politics is awful.




Starting this week The Hoot is pleased to introduce a new column on the editorial stances taken by the most influential newspapers in India. We will expose hypocrisy, idiocy, ignorance and other editorial virtues and vanities when we see it. We expect it to be often.




You don`t say!


Darius Nakhoonwala




There is no one like a good politician to open up a closing social wound and Laloo Prasad Yadav is nothing if not a good politician. So good indeed that he often leaves newspapers fuming and fulminating at his effrontery.


The latest instance of this has come with his deft use of the Bannerjee Committee’s preliminary finding that the fire in the Sabarmati Express bogey at Godhra on 27 February 2002, in which 57 Hindu political workers were killed, was an accident and not caused by petrol deliberately poured on the floor by Muslims.


No sooner than the report was made public than Mr Yadav sped off to Bihar where he told the Muslims that the Gujarat riots were a BJP conspiracy for which the burnt bogey was only a pretext. I have exposed those rascals, he said.


Predictably, the most influential newspapers went into hand-wringing mode. O dear, O dear, they said, this mixing of religion and politics is awful. They all also said that although the truth will never be known, an alternative theory to the one floated by the BJP is now there to be examined.


The exception, as might be expected, was The Pioneer. Its leader was called ‘Injustice Bannerjee’ and it let off a shrill shriek. Did the kar sevaks in that bogey "developed a collective suicidal urge and immolate themselves?" it asked. And what does this judge mean by going "public with his "findings" just 15 days before the first round of voting in Bihar?" It then wrote "Contrary to the mysterious accident theory propounded by the ex-judge, investigators on the ground told the Nanavati-Shah Commission that, in fact, confessional statements of the Godhra accused pointed to a major conspiracy involving terrorists."

The Hindu went to the other extreme. It said Justice Bannerjee’s report had for "the first time shed some light on the "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" that is the Godhra train tragedy." Accusing the BJP of never having considered the possibility of an accident, it said it was "shocking that virtually no attention was paid by the Railways to probing the cause of the fire and the dynamics of its spread." After all, if petrol had been poured on the floor and then lit, the victims should have had burns from the feet upwards whereas "none of the survivors had burn injuries below the waist."

The Indian Express and The Hindustan Times got caught in the middle. Their edits were classics of equivocation, but for entirely the opposite reasons. The Express said that while the findings were important, inasmuch as they raised doubts about the Muslim terrorist conspiracy theory, they had become suspect because of the timing of their being made public and the use that Mr Yadav was putting them to. Tch, tch, it said.

The Hindustan Times had a bigger problem because it supports the Congress but not Mr Yadav. It needed to criticize what had happened and did, saying that the timing of the findings being made public was "suspicious". But it also said that the finding was valuable as it had "firmly placed the possibility of an accident into the public debate." For this alone, it said, the report should be welcomed. Clearly, the HT editor`s heart was pulling in one direction and his mind in another, which left the reader confused as to what exactly was being said. 


By and large the leader-writers got it right but to what effect on the politicians?
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