The final report issued by the UC Banerjee Committee probing the fire on 9166 Sabarmati Express at Godhra on February 27, 2002, has concluded that the fire was "accidental" and not "deliberate", as claimed by the Gujarat police.
The UC Banerjee Committee was constituted at the instance of the railways minister Lalu Yadav vide Notification No. ERB-I/2004/23/29 dated 04/09/2004, to enquire into 'certain aspects of the incident of fire on 9166 Sabarmati Express at Godhra on 27.2.2002' in which as many as 59 persons - mostly claimed to be Kar Sevaks returning from Ayodhya - were killed, sparking off the most horrific communal violence across Gujarat in 2002.
The interim report issued by the committee in January 2005 had claimed that it was an accidental fire, but the report had been clouded in controversy because of its timing as it had been released in the thick of campaigning for Bihar elections.
"The final report also contains the same finding which I have stated in my interim report that the fire in S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express was accidental and not not deliberate", retired Supreme Court Justice U C Banerjee told reporters after submitting the final report to Railway Board Chairman J P Batra.
"There is no scrap of paper to prove that there was a conspiracy and there was no evidence to prove that petrol was thrown from outside," Justice Banerjee said. Repeatedly asked whether the final report was consistent with the interim report, he said, "Absolutely. It is consistent. I have no reason to change it".
Asked about the basis of his confirmation on the causes of fire, he said in the light of further evidences available to him, which his committee scanned, "I reached the conclusion that it was accidental and not deliberate".
Were the doors locked or open? Unlike what was widely claimed in the aftermath of the tragedy, that the doors were locked and Kar Sewaks failed to get out of the ill-fated coach, Justice Banerjee concluded that the doors of coach No S-6 were open which is why other passengers managed to escape the tragedy. 'How come only 59 persons (Kar Sewaks) remained inside the coach and the rest (between 200-250) escaped?' he asks.
The report also refers to an Income Tax Inspector travelling in the coach and said there was a mêlée and the inspector fell down in the coach but managed to get out after getting enough oxygen in the coach itself. "If intoxicity element was so much, then half of the people should have had died inside the coach, which has not happened," he said and denied toxicity as the factor behind the fire.
To a specific question on Justice G T Nanawati, also probing Godhra riots at the instance of Gujarat Government, who had contested his interim report, Justice Banerjee said, "What should I say if somebody has a different mind set? I don't know what he will say about the final report".
As in the Interim report, the final report rules out the possibility of any inflammable liquid thrown from outside into the coach ("petrol theory and miscreant activity theory") as well as the possibility of electrical fire as the cause of fire in the coach. He found it "unbelievable that kar sevaks (to the extent of 90 per cent of the total occupants) armed with trishuls, would allow themselves to get burnt without a murmur by persons from outside setting the coach on fire.
Asked how much cooperation he got from the state government headed by Narendra Modi, Justice Banerjee said initially he faced difficulty in getting certain police personnel for questioning, but later they cooperated.
"If the report says that the fire in the S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express train was accidental, then why does it not explain the presence of an armed and rioting mob next to the train?" asks Gujarat government advocate, Arvind Pandya, who is handling the Sabarmati train carnage inquiry at Nanavati Commission
Justice Bannerjee, though, had pointed out that as per the statements by two police personnel, Raju Bhargav, SP, and Srikumar, Additional Director General of Gujarat Police, there was no crowd as such at the Godhra Station when the tragedy occurred. "Only onlookers were there, besides women and children. In fact the nearby mosque was attacked." He said that SP Raju Bhargav had claimed that he had rushed and imposed curfew immediately.
More than 100 people are still in jail under POTA, in connection with the Godhra incident that had left 59 people dead. The Muslim conspiracy theory had also been challenged by the testimony of DSP K.C. Bawa, who investigated the Godhra incident in the first crucial months, before Justice Nanavati. He had also said that he found no evidence of a conspiracy to burn the train nor any involvement of outside or foreign agencies.
But this is where the narrative remains as Rashomon-like as ever. Gayatri Panchal, a resident of Ahmedabad, who survived the incident on February 27, 2002, but lost both her parents in her reaction to the report has said, "The report of the Banerjee Commission is absolutely wrong. I have seen everything with my own eyes and barely escaped myself but lost both my parents."
Panchal, who has three sisters, said the Banerjee Commission report was not correct as the fire could not have been accidental as no one was cooking in the S-6 coach and it was packed with passengers. "Mobs pelted stones at the coach for long and then threw in burning rags and also poured some inflammable material so that the coach was on fire. I will maintain the same whereever I am called to depose on the matter," Panchal said.
Justice Banerjee also takes the railway authorities to task for "total lack of discipline and professionalism," saying there had been failure on their part and the Commissioner Railway Safety to conduct a statutory inquiry into the accident. "This was in breach of the Railway Act as well as the Accident Manual of the zonal Railways, which made it mandatory for such an inquiry by Commissioner Safety", Justice Banerjee had observed in his interim report.
Railway Minister Lalu Prasad has this time around refused to comment, saying he would make his comment only after studying the report, and the Congress Congress has demanded the immediate resignation of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. AICC spokesman Abhishek Singhvi said the findings gave "a lie to the entire campaign of disinformation and insinuations launched by Modi after the incident for petty political gains".
BJP, on its part, has dismissed the report. "This report is absurd and is devoid of any logic," BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar "Even if it is assumed for a moment that the fire was accidental, as the report says, then kar sewaks in that case could have fled the coach," he added.
"The committee was constituted with political motives by Lalu Prasad whose party used the Gujarat incidents as its main election plank. The results of the report are too therefore politically motivated," Javadekar said.
And therein lies the rub. Even those who would otherwise perhaps have not been so cynical, readily concede that the railway minister Lalu Yadav may well have done a disservice to the credibility of the U.C. Banerjee Committee by blatantly extracting political mileage from its interim report.
The fact that 59 people died a gruesome death, of whom more than half were women and children, and that this triggered a horrific communal violence that claimed at least a thousand lives, and destroyed many times that number, has receded into the background in the political football that this tragedy has been reduced to.
(with inputs from agencies)