New Delhi/Ahmedabad: A special court on Tuesday ruled that a criminal conspiracy led to the train fire at Godhra station, causing the death of 59 Hindu devotees on 27 February 2002.
The court convicted 31 people for murder and conspiracy, but acquitted 63 others due to lack of evidence, which notably included prime accused Maulana Umarji.
The special court at the Sabarmati central Jail will deliver the quantum of punishment on Friday.
Politically, the Godhra ruling is a boost to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has maintained that the entire incident was the outcome of a conspiracy.
It comes at a time when the Congress, the BJP’s principal rival, is on the defensive through a series of missteps, which eventually forced the Union government to concede a parliamentary investigation into the alleged scam in the allocation of second-generation telecom licences.
The incident triggered the worst communal riots in Gujarat that had claimed the lives of more than 1,200 people, mainly Muslims.
The riots case is currently under investigation and is being monitored by the aSupreme Court.
“Special court judge P.R. Patel has convicted 31 accused while acquitting 63 others,” public prosecutor J.M. Panchal said after the verdict inside Sabarmati jail.
Scientific evidence, statements of witnesses, and circumstantial and documentary evidence placed on record formed the basis of the judgement.
The trial began in June 2009 with the framing of charges against 94 accused for burning coach S6 of the Sabarmati Express in which the devotees were travelling.
M.K. Raghavan, who headed the special investigation team (SIT) on the case, said in a telephonic interview: “The judgement?has?vindicated SIT’s investigation. Overall it looks to be a welcome judgement.”
According to a 2002 report, SIT accused Umarji of ordering four aides to mobilize a mob to target and burn the S6 coach.
SIT had identified and arrested the 31 people convicted on Tuesday as the core team that planned the attack.
“I’ll have to look at the judgement before commenting on Umarji’s acquittal. At present it is too premature to make any comment on it,” Raghavan said.
As many as 253 witnesses were examined during the trial and more than 1,500 pieces of documentary evidence were presented before the court by the Gujarat police.
There were a total of 134 accused in the case, out of which 14 were released due to lack of evidence, five were juvenile, five died during proceedings of over nine years and 16 are absconding.
Of the remaining 94 accused, 80 are in jail and 14 are out on bail.
Two different panels appointed to inquire into the case had given different views on the train burning incident.
The Nanavati Commission, appointed by the Gujarat government to probe the carnage, had in the first part of the report concluded that the coach fire was not an accident, but caused by throwing petrol inside it.
The one-man U.C. Banerjee commission appointed by the railway ministry under Lalu Prasad had said that the fire was “accidental”.
The BJP government in Gujarat was quick to seize political advantage from the ruling. Gujarat’s health and tourism minister Jaynarayan Vyas said the judgement had “vindicated” the state government.
BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad said: “Certainly, there has been a degree of assurance that law and justice has prevailed. There were elements who were trying to belittle it.”
However, experts differed on the political fallout of the verdict.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, said: “One can’t really jump to a political conclusion from this verdict at this stage. From the BJP’s point of view, other cases like the CBI’s (Central Bureau of Investigation) appeal against (L.K.) Advani in the Supreme Court and the Gujarat riot case against (Narendra) Modi are more politically consequential.”
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a BJP member and psephologist, said the party would continue to take a moderate tone despite this judgement.
“Just like the Ayodhya verdict, the Godhra verdict also vindicates the BJP’s stance. However, despite these, the party does not want to take a strident Hindutva stance. All this will not be used by the BJP to further sharpen its Hindutva agenda. On the contrary, this will help the party to toe the moderate line that it has been keen on now doing for a while. This is an opportunity for the party to liberalize its agenda and politics,” he said.
Pravin Togadia, international secretary general of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, said he believes the conviction of the 31 accused is welcome, but the state government should appeal against the acquittal of the remaining 64 accused, including Umarji.
Togadia also demanded that all the convicts be sentenced to death.
Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan said she was not aware of the judgement, but the communal violence that followed the train carnage was “a blot on democracy”.
“In a political sense, whatever the judgement with regard to Godhra incident, the communal violence that erupted in Gujarat (after the train carnage) remained a blot on democracy... It is a blot on the record of Narendra Modi, for which he will always have to answer the people of the nation,” she said.
Soumitra Trivedi in Ahmedabad and PTI contributed to this story.