as one would like to believe former Justice U C Bannerjee's
finding, in his interim report, that the fire in the Sabarmati
Express at Godhra on February 28, 2002, was 'most probably
an accident', the regrettable fact is that neither the
reasoning he has produced, nor the procedure he has followed
leads unambiguously to this conclusion. As a result, what
the report has done is to turn the Godhra tragedy into
a political football, that anyone can kick in any direction.
The fact that 59 people died a gruesome death, of whom
more than half were women and children, and this triggered
a mini-holocaust that has claimed at least a thousand
lives, and destroyed twenty times that number, has receded
into the background.
Justice Bannerjee's finding is not convincing for two
reasons. First, he comes to it after dismissing every
other explanation that has been put forward so far. But
to reject all other theories, he needed to make a truly
exhaustive study of the evidence produced in their favour
first. How could he possibly have done that without even
giving a hearing to either the 'special investigation
team (SIT)' of the Gujarat police that has been plodding
through the investigation, or the forensic laboratories
that concluded that somewhere around 60 litres of petrol
had been used? In fact, Justice Bannerjee issued his interim
report one day before a scheduled meeting with the SIT!
What on earth made him do that?
Regrettably, one does not have to look very far for a
possible answer. Justice Bannerjee's one-man commission
was set up in August by the railways minister Laloo Yadav
and Laloo Yadav faces an election in Bihar in a few days.
Bihar does not only have a large Muslim population, but
much of it is so heavily concentrated in a few constituencies
that it is impossible to win in them without their support.
Laloo's purpose in setting up the commission could not
therefore have been more obvious. Laloo gave the commission
an initial term of three months.
Justice Bannerjee did not complete his report, it's term
was extended by another three months. The most probable
explanation for Justice Bannerjee presenting his interim
report a day before he met the SIT, was that Laloo Yadav
was running out of patience. But this raises the disturbing
possibility that Laloo knew what the report would say
even before it was written. It is hardly surprising therefore
that the BJP has accused the railway minister of manipulating
the inquiry for political purposes.
The second weakness of Justice Bannerjee's report is that
it does not provide answers to the many questions that
the Godhra train conflagration has raised. By denying
all other theories he leaves us to conclude that the fire
began somewhere in the middle of the rake, S-6, and not
at one or both of the two ends. This conclusion is also
supported by an independent panel of engineers whose report,
confirming that the fire was an accident, appeared a few
days after Bannerjee's report. But if the fire started
in the middle, and if it was set off by a match or a lighter,
as the engineers surmise, then when volumes of smoke began
to fill the compartment why did not a singe person open
the doors and jump off the train. Why did even those sitting
or sleeping at the ends of the coach not go into the adjoining
compartments, S-5 and S-7, through the interconnecting
The engineers' report does attempt an answer. It says
that there must have been 150 people in the coach, which
had been described as overcrowded when it left Ujjain
the previous day. When the fire started, a huge number
of people rushed to the two exits. This jammed them for
long enough to allow the smoke to render many of them
unconscious. There are two flaws in this theory.
we do not know how many people got off the train between
Ujjain and Godhra. The fact is that it was a sleeper and
contained no more than 72 berths. This theory also does
not explain why almost no one escaped. There were, after
all, not one but three exits at each end of the coach,
and the train was at a standstill. Last but not least,
if there were 150 aboard and 59 were burnt to death, what
happened to the remaining 90 passengers? Why were there
not scores of interviews with the survivors after the
train reached Ahmedabad.
theory that the fire began at the centre gets further
weakened by the SIT's disclosure that the coach was built
in 1993 and used fire retardant and self-extinguishing
materials. The engineers' report depends heavily upon
the belief that the berths were filled with latex and
built of plywood both of which are highly inflammable.
Since I do not know what fire retardant materials are
I cannot comment on this assumption. But its main weakness
is that it cannot explain how a fire that started spontaneously
at a single source, and created a huge volume of smoke,
could have consumed the entire coach in just seven minutes.
theory that the heat grew within the compartment till
it reached the 'flash point' of the materials of which
the berths were made is not credible at the best of times,
and becomes even less so if the coach was furnished with
genuinely fire retardant materials. Smoke is emitted by
partial combustion, and partial combustion by definition
takes place at a lower temperature than the flash point
needed for full combustion.
Bannerjee's report has performed valuable service by pointing
the sloppiness of the railways' follow-up to the fire.
This may well prejudice any future trial of the alleged
conspirators. But one should be wary of reading more than
that into it.
The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former
editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic
Times and The Financial Express,
and a former information adviser to the prime minister
of India. He is the author of several books including,
The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy
of Reform in Russia, India and China, and
Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a
regular columnist with several leading publications.