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Provocation Helped Set India Train Fire

6 Mar 2002

Official Faults Hindu Actions, Muslim Reactions for Incident That Led to Carnage

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 6, 2002; Page A10

GODHRA, India, March 5 - For two days, as the Sabarmati Express snaked across northern India, some Hindu activists in cars S-5 and S-6 carried on like hooligans. They exposed themselves to other passengers. They pulled headscarves off Muslim women. They evicted a family of four in the middle of the night for refusing to join in chants glorifying the Hindu god Ram. They failed to pay for the tea and snacks they consumed at each stop. When the train pulled into this hardscrabble town in western India on the morning of Feb. 27, the reputation of its rowdiest passengers preceded it. When they refused to pay for their food, Muslim boys among the vendors at Godhra station stormed the train. When the confrontation was over, 58 Hindu passengers - mostly women and children - were dead, incinerated by a fire that consumed cars S-5 and S-6. In retaliation, mobs of enraged Hindus descended on Muslim communities across Gujarat state, igniting riots that killed more than 500 people, India's worst religious violence in a decade. Indian officials have characterized the riots as Hindu rage for an attack on innocent activists. However, interviews with passengers on the train, witnesses to the incident and police and railway officials suggest that the train fire was not a premeditated ambush by young Muslims, but rather a spontaneous argument, provoked by the Hindu activists, that went out of control. "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." "It was not preplanned," Nanavati said. "It was a sudden, provocative incident."
The confrontation illustrates the volatile mixture of religion, history and extremist politics that plague India, a Hindu-dominated but officially secular nation of 1 billion people. In 1947, when India achieved independence and was partitioned to create the Muslim nation of Pakistan, thousands of Hindus fleeing Pakistan settled in Godhra. Enraged that Muslims in Pakistan had evicted them, they vented their anger at Godhra's Muslims, burning their homes and businesses with truckloads of gasoline. Since then, government officials have deemed the city one of the country's most "communally sensitive" places. In the 1980s and again in 1992, it was wracked by riots, some started by Muslims and others by Hindus.
Today, the population of 150,000 is almost evenly split between Hindus and Muslims, who live in segregated communities separated in places by the train tracks. There is little interaction between the groups, which regard each other with suspicion. Hindus, who question the depth of the Muslims' loyalty to India, refer to the other side of town as Pakistan. The Muslims contend they are mistreated by the local Hindu-dominated government.
Enter the World Hindu Council, whose cadres want to transform India into a Hindu nation with limited minority rights. The group, part of a coalition of Hindu-nationalist organizations that includes the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, favors a confrontational approach to push its agenda. At council rallies, members brandish tridents and swords - symbols from Hindu mythology - and shout Hindu slogans. And in 1992, the group led a mob of Hindus who destroyed a 16th-century mosque in the eastern town of Ayodhya. Since then, the council's followers have made pilgrimages to Ayodhya, where they hope to build a temple to Ram on the site of the razed mosque. Activists from Gujarat state, where the Hindu council has a strong base, often made the trip on the Sabarmati Express. Along the way, witnesses say, they frequently would scream out "Victory to Lord Ram" and "Victory to Hindus" as the train passed through Muslim neighborhoods.
"There was a history of provocation," said Syed Umarji, a wood trader who lives in a Muslim neighborhood near the tracks here. "They would say these things all the time." On the train that left Ayodhya on Feb. 25, members of the Hindu council were particularly boisterous because of a government order that they vacate the Ayodhya grounds. Muslims who were on the same train say the activists walked through the cars shouting taunts such as "Wipe out every Muslim.
"The train was full of them," said Fateh Mohammad, a Muslim passenger who was traveling with his daughter and son-in-law. "They were shouting and dancing all the time. All the Muslims were very scared." Savita Darbar, a member of the Hindu council who was on the train, insisted that her group was not confrontational. "We were just singing prayer songs to Lord Ram," she said. "We did not bother the Muslims." As the train came to a stop in Godhra, however, all the elements were in place for a fight.
The train was five hours late, largely because the activists' behavior had forced the conductor to make several emergency stops. Instead of arriving quietly in the middle of the night, the Sabarmati arrived at 7:43 a.m., just as word of the group's behavior had trickled in from vendors at other stations. The vendors in Godhra were resolved not to be victimized. The Hindu council members, too, were ready for action: Rocks collected from near the tracks were piled near the doors of their cars. When the Hindus refused to pay for their tea and snacks, several young Muslims jumped on the train as it started to leave the station and pulled the emergency brake chain. With a piercing squeal, the Sabarmati ground to a halt a half-mile from the station, in the middle of a Muslim neighborhood. An argument ensued, drawing hundreds of residents. Police and railway officials said they do not know who began throwing stones first. But the officials said they believe that after about 10 minutes, one or more Muslims poured a flammable substance on a mattress and ignited it between the S-5 and S-6 cars. A few minutes later, a fire broke out at the other end of the S-5. Within moments, the car was engulfed by flames.
Police officials said they are not sure how that second fire began. Nanavati said the Muslims could have set another fire, or the Hindus, trying to respond in kind, might have accidentally sparked a blaze in their own car, which was filled with kerosene and cooking gas. "It could have been an accident," Nanavati said.
Thus far, the railway police have arrested only Muslims - 41 of them - in connection with the fire, a fact that galls Muslim leaders here. "They should arrest the Hindus, too," said Shoail Sadamas, an accounting student who witnessed the incident. "They were not innocent victims." Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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