Ordeal by Fire in the Killing Fields of Gujarat
Editors Guild of India Fact-Finding Mission Report
The Godhra Episode
The Sabarmati Express, running some hours behind schedule, was torched in Godhra just before 8 a.m. on February 27. Local reporters soon reached the spot and filed the news. Aaj Tak was probably the first news channel to flash the breaking news. Zee TV’s local cameraman in Godhra rushed his footage to Ahmedabad. This was aired soon after 2 p.m. Others, including Doordarshan, followed, deputing camera crew from Ahmedabad, Baroda and Delhi.
An anonymous email message was widely circulated attributing what purported to be an eyewitness account obtained by two local correspondents, Anil and Neelam Soni, whose designations and telephone numbers were given. This spoke of an altercation at the station between karsevaks, who alighted from the train for tea and snacks, and local hawkers of the minority community. (See Annexure 1).
There is more than one version of what followed. The “molestation” and “abduction” of a girl is alleged. The train began moving out of the station when incensed hawkers pulled the alarm chain to stop it within a few hundred metres, beside the Godhra Railway outer signal cabin adjacent to the Ghanchi bustee to which the vendors belong. The train was mobbed and stoned and Coach No. S-6 was set on fire.
When exactly this email message was actually sent is not clear. However, on being queried, the Sonis denied having filed the story. They disclaimed it as a fabrication. Nevertheless, others purportedly gave out somewhat similar versions, embellished by reports of earlier misbehaviour along the entire route as reported by a Faizabad newspaper, Jan Morcha. (See Annexure 1A).
First official reports of the Godhra incident spoke of a terrorist plot with cross-border connivance. The Railway Police has conducted preliminary investigations and the one-man Commission of Inquiry appointed by the Gujarat Government is now seized of this matter and its fallout. The facts are yet to be established.
Two points need to be kept in mind about the Godhra incident. As some people were known to have escaped from the ill-fated S-6 coach, the number that had perished was officially assumed to be relatively moderate until quite some hours later when the charred remains of all those trapped inside were finally extricated. The first press release issued from Gandhinagar on February 27 quoted the Minister of State for Home Affairs, Gordhanbhai Zadaphia as stating that “as per preliminary report, six people were killed, 38 injured and out of them 18 were discharged from the local hospital after necessary treatment. He said that the number of deaths could be on the higher side also”. The Government Press Note is at Annexure 2.
The magnitude of the horror only unfolded several hours after the tragedy. The evening TV bulletins and the next day’s papers told the grim story. Even then, most national and possibly several regional channels remained fascinated by the presentation and analysis of the Union Budget through much of February 28. Crawlers at the bottom of TV screens and occasional news updates developed the Gujarat story.