The Godhra train incident is what most reports about the violence in Gujurat, India point to as the starting point for the barbarism and massacre of Muslims that followed. This is why it is critical to understand exactly what happened there.
About 60 people died in the train attack. Most of them were Hindu. Later on Hindu militants burned and looted Muslim properties for several days, resulting in about 5,000 deaths, according to Muslim sources.
Initial reports on February 27 presented the incident as a pre-planned Muslim mob attack on the Sabarmati Express train against "innocent" Hindu activists who had begun traveling from the city of Ayodhya. However, as the facts began to trickle out, a different picture has emerged.
While it is true that many of the passengers were women and children, others were militant Hindu activists who were involved in various forms of hooliganism. From the time these activists boarded the train on February 25 in Ayodhya until they reached Godhra on February 27, they unleashed a wave of mischief, terror and fear on their passengers, some of whom were also Muslim.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, reporting in the March 6, 2002 edition of the Washington Post, details some of the "hooliganism" that took place: the militant activists exposed themselves to other passengers, pulled headscarves off Muslim women on the train, evicted a family of four in the middle of the night for refusing to join in chants glorifying the Hindu god Ram and refused to pay for tea and snacks they consumed at each train station.
These details are corroborated by eyewitness accounts. One of these comes from a group led by a few members of the Indian parliament who are trying to get the facts straight about the issue. It is headed by Dr. Amar Singh, a member of parliament from Samajwadi Party, who spoke with two of the Hindu victims of the train-burning incident in Godhra. They revealed that, "all along the journey these Ramsevaks (the Hindu militants) were behaving like Gundas (thugs). They wouldn't pay for what they had bought from the vendors. On stations they would chant anti-Muslim rhymes and slogans, insulting Muslim Holy places. There was teasing as well of both fellow passengers and women on the platforms." This fact-finding delegation, comprised of Rajbabbar (M.P. Samajwadi), Shabana Azmi (M.P.) and Aziz Burni (Editor of a leading Urdu news paper, Rashtriya Sahara), was one of the first groups to arrive in the strife-torn area. They visited the hospital and there they found these two victims (from a Hindu family) of the Godhra incident.
By the time the train reached Godhra, vendors at the town's station had already heard about the activists' antics and were prepared not to be victimized. Events played out as expected. "When the train reached Godhra, they behaved with the same bad manners. They refused to pay one tea vendor and even after beating him up, they threw him off the train," noted the Hindu eyewitnesses.
But in response to this behavior, the Hindu militants did not find passive tolerance. Instead, a number of young Muslims got on the train as it was pulling out of the station and pulled the emergency brake half a mile away from Godhra's station, right in the midst of a Muslim neighborhood. The fight began with rock throwing from both sides. The compartment carrying the militants was found stockpiled with stones.
While the stone-throwing was going on, apparently some Muslims threw a burning mattress below the compartment of these militants. But the fire spread quickly, not allowing the passengers to run since the compartment was filled with kerosene and cooking gas carried by the passengers.
The above description is based upon several reports in the Indian press. However, Muslims in the area add another point to this sad story. They say things got out of hand when the daughter of an old Muslim man with a small tea stall at the train station was kidnapped. The Hindu militants argued with this old man, beat him up and pulled his beard. The 16-year-old daughter who was also present at the station came forward as her father was being beaten and tried to save him from the Hindu militants. She kept pleading and begging to them to stop beating her father and leave him alone. But instead of listening to her woes, the Hindu militants lifted the young girl, took her inside their compartment and closed its door.
When the train started to move out of the platform of Godhra's railway station while the old man was banging on the compartment doors, pleading for his daughter to be left alone, two other vendors jumped into the last bogey and pulled the emergency break to stop the train. By the time the train halted completely, it was about one kilometer away from the railway station.
These two men then came to the bogey in which the girl was and started to bang at the door asking the militants to release the girl. Hearing the chaos, people in the vicinity near the tracks started to gather near the train. The boys and the mob (which included women) that had now gathered near the compartment requested the Hindu militants to return the girl. But instead of doing this, they started closing their windows. This infuriated the mob and they retaliated by pelting stones at the compartment.
The sections beside compartment S-6 on both sides contained VHP militants. They started attacking the mob which had gathered to save the girl, with long bamboo sticks attached to them. This is when the anger became uncontrollable and some people in the crowd started using diesel and petrol from trucks and rickshaws standing nearby and burned down the compartment.
This story of the girl's kidnapping has not been reported by any newspaper, although most of the other elements were widely reported by the media despite the BJP government's effort to tie the incident to Pakistan. Even the government-owned All India Radio reported that the whole incident was provoked by the traveling Hindu militants. The Radio staff however was reprimanded by the BJP government.
"Both sides were at fault," said a police official here, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The provocation was there and the reaction was strong. But no one had imagined all this would turn into such a big tragedy." B.K. Nanavati, the deputy police superintendent in Godhra, said the investigation does not support the contention by Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi, that the assault on the train was a "terrorist attack."
India is, after all ruled by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), a militant Hindu nationalist party which subscribes to many of the same views as the Ramsevaks on the train. Minorities, Muslims and Christians in particular, have already been told that they do not belong to this country which calls itself the world's largest democracy. It remains to be seen how the BJP will handle the fallout of this horrific violence.
Photo Attribution: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Godhra_jn_railway_station.JPG