Arson ruling reopens train deaths conflict

By Andrew Buncombe

The dispute surrounding one of the most controversial incidents in recent Indian history has been reopened after a court ruled that a fire that tore through a railway carriage and killed dozens of Hindu pilgrims was started by a Muslim mob and was not the result of an accident.

The blaze on the train nine years ago was the trigger for rampaging communal violence in which hundreds of Muslims were subsequently attacked and killed.

A special court in the western state of Gujarat yesterday found 31 people guilty of being part of a conspiracy to set fire to a carriage of the Sabarmati Express as it was waiting in the town of Godhra in February 2002.

Most of the 60 people who died were Hindu activists. As news of the deaths spread, Hindu mobs embarked on revenge attacks on Muslims in locations across Gujarat that resulted in the death of more than 1000 people. The state's chief minister, Narendra Modi, was accused of allowing the attacks to take place and of stoking religious hatred.

In the aftermath of the train fire, about 100 Muslims were arrested and charged. But the case was stalled as a result of a series of separate inquiries, at least one of which concluded that the blaze was started by a cooking fire.

The court in yesterday's hearing, which also found more than 60 of the accused not guilty, including the alleged ringleader, will deliver its sentence tomorrow.

After the verdict was announced, special public prosecutor JM Panchal claimed the ruling would put an end to the dispute over the cause of the fire. "The motive of conspiracy was to set the train on fire," he said. "There can be no debate on the judicial verdict. The verdict is based on oral evidence and eyewitness accounts."

But that is unlikely. While a 2008 inquiry by the state authorities also concluded the fire had been started deliberately, an earlier federal inquiry into the blaze ruled that it was most likely the result of an accident in the train's kitchen. Other unofficial investigations into the fire suggested that while it was started deliberately, there had been no pre-planning.

"This controversy is not going to go away," said Mujibur Rehman, a professor of political science at Delhi's Jamia Millia University.

"The 31 people who have been convicted will appeal against the verdict while the authorities will probably appeal against the decision to acquit the 60 who walked away."

The arson attack on the train was inextricably linked with two other deeply controversial incidents of inter-religious violence. Most of the activists who were killed aboard the Sabarmati Express had been returning from a ceremony at the Ayodhya temple in the state of Bihar, where a Muslim mosque had been torn down by Hindus in 1992.

In the weeks following the Sabarmati blaze, Muslims were assaulted and killed in revenge attacks that marked perhaps the worst religious violence in India since Partition.


1992: The Babri mosque in Ayodhya is destroyed by radical Hindus who want a temple in its place. The destruction triggers Hindu-Muslim riots in which more than 2000 people die.

2002: Dozens of Hindu pilgrims are killed on a train while returning from Ayodhya. News of the death sparks riots which see 1000 Muslims killed.

2005: An inquiry concludes the fire was accidental. Three years later, a state inquiry says it was started deliberately.

2011: Thirty-one Muslims are convicted of conspiracy to set fire to a carriage of the train.


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