By Shyam Khosla
Pre-meditated interim report made public by Justice U.C. Banerjee on the eve of Bihar Assembly elections is nothing but a “made to order” fiction to serve partisan interests of his master. No right thinking and independent person expected the judge, who was appointed by the Railway Minister without consulting the Supreme Court of India, to conduct an impartial and in-depth enquiry into one of the most gruesome tragedies in recent history. Their worst apprehensions have come true. If Laloo Yadav’s motivation in holding an enquiry into the Godhra tragedy was to get a report of sorts to malign the Hindus and to weaken the case against Islamists who had indulged in the horrendous crime of roasting alive 59 Hindu pilgrims, the judge has done his job well. Ordering a railway enquiry by a committee (discerning citizens may have noted that it is a committee and not a judicial commission) three years after the incident raises questions of propriety and legality. More so when a judicial enquiry is in progress and the accused in the case are being prosecuted in courts. The interim report parrots the allegations the Railway Minister has been voicing all these months. The inescapable conclusion is that the judge signed on the dotted line to oblige the politician who put him on the job in utter disregard to facts of the case and judicial objectivity and impartiality.
The judge is so naive that he maintains that he didn’t know that Assembly elections in three states were round the corner. He is, however, fully informed and convinced that the pilgrims travelling in the Sabarmati Express were armed with trishuls. Look at his logic to negate the conspiracy theory! Pilgrims armed with trishuls, he holds, wouldn’t have allowed outsiders to set the train ablaze. How could they have prevented the mob from indulging in arson and stoning, is no concern of the judge. He chooses to completely ignore clinching evidence available to any unprejudiced person that a mob of Islamists had surrounded the train after forcing it to stop 700 metres from Godhra railway station, at a place called Signal Faliya by pulling the chain and cutting the vacuum pipe between coaches S-6 and S-7. Those interested in truth had also discovered that the miscreants had entered the coach S-6 by tearing the vestibule. The judge had no time to listen to independent and objective professionals that had conducted an enquiry and published its well-documented report in April 2002.
The Council of International Affairs and Human Rights served the cause of truth by sending a five-member team of professionals, headed by Justice D.S. Tewatia, a former Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court, to Godhra and other parts of the state within weeks of the tragedy. The team conducted an on-the-spot scientific study into the circumstances leading to the tragedy and its aftermath. The Tewatia Committee report was widely acclaimed in India and abroad as an objective and judicious study. But the judge had no use for it because its findings went against his pre-meditated conclusions.
Former Law Minister, Arun Jaitley’s ten questions to Banerjee on his ‘accident theory’ are pertinent. Let the retired judge respond to the issues raised by the legal luminary. The people have a right to know whether the committee considered the evidence collected by the police in the case and why it didn’t consider it necessary to ask the local administration and police to produce evidence in their possession. Had the judge bothered to find out the truth from the fire brigade personnel, they would have told him, as they told the Tewatia Committee, that someone had damaged the fire engine a night before the tragedy that delayed their departure from the fire station on that fateful morning of February 26, 2002.
They were further delayed on the way as a mob led by Haji Balal, a Congress member of the Godhra nagarpalika, had blocked the road to the site of the burning train. The mob pelted stones on their vehicle damaging its windowpanes. The fire brigade personnel maintain that they could have saved several lives if they had managed to reach the site of the tragedy half an hour earlier. Will it be wrong to say that since the judge had already made up his mind on the ‘accident theory’, he didn’t care to find out the truth? He miserably failed to unearth the dastardly conspiracy hatched by Islamists and blindly described the arson as an ‘accident’. It is, however, no accident that Banerjee was the choice of the Railway Minister who is not known for his commitment to truth and probity in public life.
Although the findings of the Banerjee Committee have met with ridicule from large sections of public opinion, the wily Railway Minister is using the report probably scripted by his trusted ghost writer as an instrument to malign the Hindus and to project him (Lalu Yadav) as a protector of the Muslims. Will such machinations enable him to stop the drift of his Muslim votes to other parties? Only time will tell. But his attempt to needle his arch rival senior JD (U) leader, Nitish Kumar, for not ordering an enquiry when the latter was the Railway Minister and not visiting the site is unlikely to have any electoral consequence. Incidentally, the honourable judge didn’t forget the unwritten instructions to malign Nitish Kumar for his ‘failure’ to visit Godhra after the tragedy. How was the then minister’s visit relevant to the enquiry and bringing the guilty to book?
It was no railway accident. It was a gruesome crime. Law and order is a state subject and it was for the state government to enquire into the matter and prosecute the criminals behind he crime. Did it behove the judge, howsoever keen he may be to appease his benefactor, to go to such lengths (deploring the then Railway Minister for not visiting the site) to prove his loyalty to the Railway Minister?
An English language daily known for its anti-Hindu stance has nothing but praise for the interim report of the Banerjee Committee for shedding some light on what it describes as the “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. The editor has only scorn for the state police and blames it thus: “Depositions of passengers and witnesses were not collected in a systematic way, the post-mortem of the victims was conducted hastily and the site of the tragedy was not quarantined. Finally, forensic samples were not lifted in a timely or schematically rational fashion.” So, the police had miserably failed to take forensic samples! And it is on the basis of these samples that the Banerjee Committee concluded to the great satisfaction of the secular-liberal brigade that it was an accident. This is what happens when prejudice takes precedence over objectivity and fair play.