In his first media interview after he submitted an interim report on the fire in the Sabarmati Express in Godhra, Justice U.C. Banerjee spells out why he is convinced that the fire inside the train was an accident. The report, made public on January 17, just before the Bihar elections, has led to accusations that the retired Supreme Court judge was furthering Laloo Prasad Yadav's electoral ambitions. But Justice Banerjee, who had consistently refused bail to the RJD leader in the fodder case, is not perturbed. He has neither challenged any accusation nor bothered to justify his conclusions. Excerpts from an interview to Poornima Joshi:
How do you react to allegations that you deliberately submitted the report on the eve of the Bihar elections so that Laloo Yadav could derive political mileage?
I am not a politician. I do not analyse events and circumstances on the basis of who will draw political mileage out of them. I am not concerned. The terms of reference of the committee clearly say that a report is to be submitted within three months. A request was made for an extension of the term which was granted. But since I was asked for a report by January 15, I submitted an interim report on January 17. I did what I'm expected to do. Nothing more, nothing less. I'm not bothered by what people say.
Why is it necessary for you to probe the Godhra train incident when there is a full-fledged commission of inquiry for the very same purpose?
The government (the railway ministry) had a statutory obligation to probe the Godhra incident within 48 hours of the fire in the Sabarmati Express. This probe should have been ordered within two days from February 27, 2002. But the Commissioner of Railway Safety deemed it fit not to conduct a separate inquiry on Godhra because an inquiry commission had already been set up. What is strange is that the inquiry commission was set up on March 6, 2002, almost eight days after the incident in Godhra. The Railways should have ordered an inquiry within two days, which they did not do. On February 27, when the Godhra accident happened, did the Railways know in advance that the inquiry commission was going to be set up on March 6? How can that be cited as a reason not to order a probe which is a statutory obligation?
Are you saying the Railways had a motive in deliberately not ordering an inquiry within 48 hours of the Godhra incident?
That cannot be ruled out. What I am telling you is even more serious. The Railways acted in a callous manner. What they did was a clear breach of statutory obligation. There is no explanation for their conduct, let alone an acceptable one.
Justice K.G. Shah of the Nanavati Commission probing the Godhra incident and the riots that followed has recently alleged that you did not examine officers of the Gujarat police or forensic science experts. What stopped you from calling them to depose?
I sent four letters to the police officers in Gujarat. I've recently sent a fifth letter to which they have not replied. What has been communicated to me is that they cannot come unless there is a clearance from the government. I presume their deposition has not been cleared.
Justice Shah has also rubbished your conclusion that it was an accident. He says that 60 litres of inflammable material was used to set the train ablaze.
From the evidence that I have on record, it is quite impossible that 60 litres of inflammable material could have been thrown into a coach full of kar sevaks with trishuls who did not react at all! I not only have witnesses and material evidence but also tested the theory myself. I tried to throw water inside a coach from the windows. Only 10 per cent goes inside. The sequence of events if the fire was caused by an inflammable liquid, as per experts' opinion, is—first there would be fire, then smoke and then there would be a burning smell all over. Almost every witness who testified says he sensed a burning smell, smoke and then there was fire. It does not add up to prove the inflammable liquid theory.
But there is a suggestion that the canvas in the vestibule between coaches S-6 and S-7 was cut open and 60 litres of petrol was thrown inside.
I gather that the canvas that was supposed to have been "slashed open" to throw inflammable material has been sold as scrap. There is no trace of it. But I tested this theory again with a piece of really old canvas. I tried to cut it open. The canvas can be slashed but there are iron bars stitched within this material. How does one slash those? Are you telling me that the spontaneous crowd that had gathered there came so extensively equipped that they could cut through iron bars to throw petrol inside the coach? It is an implausible theory.
But Justice Shah says he has witnesses who have testified. He seems to be sticking to the theory of inflammable liquid.
Please go through the interim report that I submitted. There is a statement by a passenger witness who was sitting on the floor and people told him: "Chacha, why are you sitting there? Stand up and see what is happening." At this juncture, he stood up and noticed heavy smoke from the top left side of the coach. He came out of the train on the yard side through the rear door. Another witness, Hari Prasad Joshi, said that he crawled to safety towards the rear door on the yard side. He was crawling but he did not feel any heat or burning sensation. All this negates the 'petrol theory'.
Did a railway official actually give a report that said that the passengers could not alight from the S-6 coach because the door was bolted from outside? Isn't it technically impossible to bolt the coach from outside?
That is quite right. I've dealt with this issue in my report. The mechanical expert assisting the committee has explained that it is not possible to lock the four main doors of the coach from outside without using the special keys available only with the railways staff. There is no arrangement to lock the doors from outside.
Justice Shah has accused you of tarnishing the image of Gujarat. What would you say to that?
I'd better not go to Gujarat in that case (laughs). I have no time for such things. I am doing a job which I think is important. That is all.
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