Godhra (Gujarat), March 26 (IANS): The man who spent eight years in jail on charges of burning the Sabarmati Express in Godhra and killing 59 people has now been declared innocent and walks free. But Saeed Umarji is a bitter man and says he is a social worker who had never even seen the train.
Maulana Hussain Ibrahim Umarji, popularly known as Saeed Umarji, said that the only reason authorities had punished him was because he spoke on behalf of innocent fellow Muslims.
“I have never seen the Sabarmati Express because it passes from Godhra only at night,” the 65-year-old Umarji told IANS in an exclusive interview.
Umarji said he was a social worker who was at the forefront of relief efforts when a devastating earthquake ravaged Latur in Maharashtra in 1993 and Kutch in Gujarat in 2001.
“I also ran several relief camps after the Gujarat riots of 2002. A total of 3,500 people took shelter. We also took care of people who got arrested in the Godhra case,” said Umarji, who runs educational institutions in the town of Godhra, about 115 km from Gujarat’s main city Ahmedabad.
A mob targeted the Sabarmati Express’s Coach S6 Feb 27, 2002, near the Godhra station burning to death 59 people, mostly Hindu activists who were returning home from Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.
The incident, later dubbed a conspiracy, triggered one of the worst communal riots in Gujarat leaving over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead. Thousands were injured, and thousands of others uprooted from homes.
Umarji was one of the many arrested for the train burning. After eight years in jail, a judge last month acquitted Umarji and many others of the charges.
A graduate from Darul Uloom, Deoband, Umarji is a bitter man today.
“Jail is a graveyard of living people,” Umarji said.
“I lost eight years of my precious life. No one can return it now. I and my family were mentally tortured.
“Our ladies normally never stepped out of home. But after my arrest, for several days my wife couldn’t stay at home. My sons lived in fear,” Umarji told IANS, referring to fears of reprisals from Hindu radicals.
While he was in prison, and with no sign when — if at all — he would be released, four of his sons and two daughters got married.
But there was an unusual spin-off because of his stay in the Sabarmati Central Jail at Ahmadabad.
“Before my arrest, I could walk only to the nearby mosque. But I exercised in jail. Now I walk around 10 km daily.”
The social worker says he was implicated in a false case because he tried to blame the state government of Narendra Modi for the 2002 violence.
“My biggest sin was that that I gave a memorandum to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayeei and explained in detail the role of the state machinery during the riots. That was when he visited Godhra.
“I mentioned the problems we (Muslims) faced after the Godhra incident, but they (authorities) wanted us to keep quiet and not to complain.”
Later, he was asked to meet Vajpayee at Gandhinagar. “I refused. I didn’t want to meet him because it was of no use.”
Umarji recalled how police treated him in captivity. One question he was repeatedly asked was why he gave a statement against the Gujarat Police on the human rights situation.
Even as he laments over his fate, Umarji is sympathetic to those who died in the Sabarmati Express.
“I condemn that incident and I express my sympathy to them and their families.”
(Abu Zafar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Related story: Justice delayed is justice denied: Kins of Godhra carnage Accused)