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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 January, 2005, 15:14 GMT
Gujarat train fire: The elusive truth

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Delhi

Three years after a fire on a train in India killed 59 Hindus and sparked off religious riots, the country is no closer to an answer to the critical question: What exactly happened?

Godhra train
Fifty-nine Hindu activists were killed in the attack
It is a vital question, given that the incident in Godhra in the western state of Gujarat led one of the worst bouts of communal rioting in India since it gained independence.

More than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, lost their lives according to official figures. Human rights groups put the number of dead much higher.

So how did the train in Godhra catch fire?

Was it deliberately set on fire by a Muslim mob, as India's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been insisting for the past three years?

After all, this was the rationale that some party members offered to explain the violent backlash by the majority Hindu community in Gujarat.

The BJP led the federal government at the time and is still in power in Gujarat state.

'Terrorist controversy'

Or did the train go up in flames because of an accidental fire in a coach, as a new investigation by a retired judge - commissioned by the present federal government - says?

Unfortunately, there are no still no final, definitive answers to the dispute.

There are two separate investigations commissioned by the BJP government in Gujarat still going on. One is led by two retired judges, the other by the state police.

The Gujarat police say they have sufficient evidence to show the "act was pre-planned and executed by local criminals" - six young men with 60 litres of gasoline who entered a coach and doused it with petrol.

Then, say the police, a mob at the scene took over and hurled burning rags through the windows setting the coach afire.

One police officer even talks about a "terrorist conspiracy" behind the fire.

Wrong, says the new investigation report ordered by India's controversial railway minister Laloo Prasad Yadav. He ordered the inquiry shortly after the Congress-led government came into power last year.

There was no dousing of petrol, no "miscreant activity" and no "electrical fire" in the train, says the report.

It is perhaps unsurprising that this new investigation has also got mired in political partisanship.

The BJP says Laloo Prasad Yadav's timing of the release of the report is "politically motivated."

Mr Yadav, who is from Bihar, heads a regional party, and is a key ally of the ruling Congress-led government.

More questions

BJP members says Mr Yadav will try to use the report's findings to polarise Hindus and Muslims and pick up Muslim votes for his party in Bihar state elections in February.

The Congress party has welcomed the report and said the incident was used by the BJP to organise pre-meditated violence.

Monday's investigation report has put the BJP on the back foot - the party has already called it a "disgrace".

The report is particularly uncomfortable for the party as India's Supreme Court has already been scathing about the justice system in BJP-ruled Gujarat following the riots.

The report raises difficult questions for the authorities in Gujarat.

What happens to the 75 people who are behind bars accused of involvement in the alleged torching of the train?

What about the charges that have been filed against 10 suspects in the case?

What about the pending criminal trial into the incident, in which India's Supreme Court has already intervened?

Godhra train
Violence engulfed Gujarat for weeks
Nobody quite knows what the answers to these questions are. Mr Yadav says only that he will seek legal opinion on the report.

On the other hand, the BJP has decided to take the retired judge who led the new investigation head on and has posed 10 questions related to his investigation.

The party asks Justice Umesh Chandra Banerjee why he did not consider the available "evidence" of a conspiracy.

It also asks whether he considered the "fact" that burning rags were thrown into the train to set it on fire.

"If there was... accidental fire why did the passengers not get out of the bogey (carriage) and save their lives?" the party asked the retired judge.

"You were the choice of the railway minister... you have merely stamped the Laloo theory," the BJP tells Justice Banerjee.

Elusive truth

If this was not enough, an independent panel of engineers probing the "technical aspects" of the incident has said that it was highly unlikely that the fire was started by an inflammable liquid.

This more or less supports Justice Banerjee's findings.

The truth eventually continues to be elusive in this cynical cycle of political partisanship and dodgy, controversial and multiple investigations

At the heart of the matter is the efficacy and independence of India's criminal justice system and investigative agencies.

They all seem to be tainted by politics from time to time.

And the worst sufferer is the ordinary Indian citizen who may never know the real truth.

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