Abu Zafar of BeyondHeadlines travels to Godhra to meet and talk with alleged “masterminds” of the Godhra Train carnage and their family members.
Godhra, Gujarat: Walking through the narrow lanes of Godhra, one could not ever imagine that this used to be a prosperous happy and well off Muslim locality. Used to be! The post Godhra communal frenzy pogrom of 2002 was watershed moment in the lives of people who lived here. What is left now is just a memory of loss. One will only find women waiting for the return of their sons and husbands. One would find it very difficult to accept that a blind person who cannot see the world around was implicated on “baseless” charges.
Terrible thoughts engulfed me as I was walking through those lanes of this town. Various past moments of Godhra and rest of Gujarat were in my eyes. I recollected the Godhra of February, 27, 2002, when S6 coach of Sabarmati Express was burned. A total of 59 passengers, mostly Hindu karsevaks, returning from Ayodhya, were charred to death. In the following days and weeks, the world witnessed the worst ever anti-Muslim riot in the history of India to what state Chief Minister Narednra Modi dubbed as “reactions” to the “pre planned” conspiracy even before investigative authorities had properly started looking into the matter.
As I was leaving Godhra, I could not move my eyes from the sorrow-stricken eyes of Maulana Ibrahim Saeed Umarji, an eminent social worker before he became a “mastermind.” He had mobilized and led a voluntary group of citizens to help the earthquake-affected in Latur, Maharashtra, in 1993 and later in Kutch in 2001. But his services to humanity were not enough to protect him from the cruel hands of the Gujarat Police. He spent about eight years in the Sabarmati Central Jail of Ahmadabad with other co-accused.
I spent more than one hour with him. One can only imagine the pain of this old man whose four sons and two daughters got married while he was in jail. He was branded the “mastermind” of an incident that claimed 59 lives in the S6 compartment.
He was arrested on February 6, 2003, after around one year of the Sabarmati express incident. According to Umarji, he was implicated in “false” case because he tried to raise voice against the state government, which, he said, “sponsored the Gujarat pogrom.”
“My biggest sin was that I handed over the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee a memorandum and explained in detail the role of the state machinery during the riot when he visited Godhra. Later, I was asked to meet him at Gandhi Nagar, the state capital of Gujarat, but I refused to meet. I don’t want to meet him because it was of no use,” Umarji explained.
Umarji further said: “In that memorandum, I mentioned the problems we were facing after the Godhra incident, but they wanted us not to raise voice against the cruelties. I had also tried to catch his attention on the preparations of Hindu extremist before the riot.”
When I asked him about the burning of Sabarmati Express, I saw pain on his face. “I have never seen the Sabarmati Express because it passes from Godhra at night,” sobbing Umarji said.
Sixty-five-year-old Umarji, a graduate from Darul Uloom, Deoband, had run several relief camps during massacres of Muslim post Sabarmati incident. In his camp, nearly 3,500 people took shelter. He recalled the days he had spent in jail and said: “I lost eight years of my precious life, and no one can return it now.”
After meeting Umarji, I realised that I underestimated the pain of victims of the state terror in this state. Most people who are acquitted by special court hail from Godhra, and their crime was that they did not commit crimes. There are stories, stories and stories.
Apart from these 63 acquitted, there are families whose relatives got death penalty or life term. Now they set their eyes on the “Temple of Justice.”
Seventy-five-year-old Sughra Abdullah Badam still even does not know that why her four sons have been behind bar for the past nine years. When she came to know that her all four sons got life term, she almost lost her life.
When I asked her “what next,” “Only Allah (God) is my hope,” she sobbed. Living in a broken house in west Godhra, Soghra has no one to take care of her except her only grandson Irfan Abdullah Badam who has also spent one and a half month behind bar in the same case. Bilal has a small shop of biscuits and chocolates outside his home and this is only source of income of his family.
Meet Hasan Ahmad Lalu, who is now 32, was 23-year-old when he was arrested. He was a rag picker. The police was in search of his elder brother Shaukat but after four months of the incident, they arrested Hasan.
According to Hasan’s wife Afshan Bano (27), the police had picked up Hasan and kept him in illegal custody for 12 days and later, produced him at Dohad court, a city 50 kilometer away from Godhra. Hasan got death penalty on the charges of stone pelting at the Sabarmati Express. Afsha still thinks that she will get justice from the “Almighty.”
Ishaq Muhammad Mamdooh, 40, is a unique character of this “drama”. Blind from birth, Ishaq was accused of carrying out terror activity and waging war against the country. When he came to know that I am a journalist and want to interview him, he said in Gujarati language, “ Mediano dhandho chhe, atla mate hun aaya shu.” (It is the business of media persons, that is why you have come here.)
Recalling the past, Ishaq said that “I asked police officials that why they were arresting me. In response, they told me that I would get free soon.”
“How can I set a train ablaze when I cannot see anything,” asked Ishaq. “I spent nine years in jail. Only I know that how these days have ended,” he added.
Mohammad Mamdooh, father of Ishaq, could not control his emotion and said with tearful eyes that several innocents are booked on baseless charges and worst kind of brutalities are being carried out against them. “They did not even leave handicapped people,” he said.
After spending nine years in jail, now Ishaq is compelled to say the phrase “justice delayed is justice denied.”
From the 27 Feb of 2002 Godhra has been continuously in the headline of newspapers and TV channels. On 22th of February, 2011 when the special court of the Sabarmati carnage delivered its judgment – acquitting 63 and convicted 31 out of 111 accused – once again Godhra came on spot lights of national and international media. Out of 33 convicted, 11 have been sentenced to death and 22 others got life term from the same court and now the matter is in the Gujarat High Court.
The sorrow of Muslims in Gujarat, particularly in Godhra continues. Travelling from one home to other in Godhra, I asked my guide, if he has made any journalist meet these victims. He replied that last year, when he was escorting a Delhi based journalist, he was detained for around 10 hours the very next day. I was sitting as pillion on his motorbike, while he was describing this event. Suddenly, a police jeep stopped before us and he was so afraid that he asked me to hide my notebook.
Maulana Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi, vice chancellor, Darul Uloom Deoband, who hails from Gujarat and was embroiled in controversy recently for praising the Modi’s governance, purportedly said in the media: “I believe that most of the Muslims in Gujarat are prospering. Excluding a few, who are embroiled in one case or the other, most of them are happy with their work. Their financial condition is also good.” Perhaps, he needs to meet this guide at least!
I have three hours left for my train to leave and there were still more stories to be unearthed. But I could not gather the courage to cover them and meet more victims as this was a dreadful experience for me. I finally boarded my train. All through the journey and even now, the anguish on Umarji’s face, tears in Soghra’s eyes and wait for justice for hundreds and thousands hounded me.
(Abu Zafar is a Delhi based Journalist and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)