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  • Writer's picturePritika Chowdhry

20 years after Godhra Train Burning, the Gujarat Pogrom, and Specters of the Partition

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the infamous Gujarat riots of February-March 2002, subsequently termed the Gujarat Pogrom. This event was a key influence in shaping my art practice, because as I processed the Gujarat riots in 2002, I had two heart-breaking realizations. First, that the country I proudly believed to be secular and tolerant of all religions was no longer that, and second, the Partition of 1947 haunts the present-day lived realities of India. I created an anti-memorial to the Gujarat Pogrom that traces the cycle of communal riots back to the Partition of India in 1947, titled "Memory Leaks: Specters of the Partition."

Godhra train-burning incident

The Sabarmati express train caught fire on the morning of February 27, 2002, in Godhra railway station, in Gujarat, and 59 Hindu pilgrims, returning kar sevaks from Ayodhya, were killed in the fire.

Later that day, statewide religious riots between Hindus and Muslims began in Gujarat and continued for 3 days, which resulted in over 2000 Muslim deaths. The Gujarat riots are now recognized as a pogrom, Muslim women were raped and brutalized in the riots, Muslim homes and shops were burnt, and thousands of Muslims lost their lives.

The Sabarmati Express train burning in Godhra, on February 27, 2002.
The Sabarmati Express train burning in Godhra, on February 27, 2002.

The Ayodhya Connection

Ayodhya is a decades long site of communal violence where the Babri Mosque was demolished by Hindu right groups in 1992. I, like many other Indians, had watched our television sets in disbelief, as the Hindu right demolished the centuries old Babri mosque on December 6, 1992.

In February 2002, thousands of devotees of Lord Rama known as Ram sevaks or Kar sevaks, had gone from Gujarat to Ayodhya at the behest of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a right-wing Hindu supremacist organization to take part in a ceremony called the Purnahuti Maha Yagna. On 25 February, 1,700 people, a mix of pilgrims and kar sevaks boarded the Sabarmati Express in Ayodhya which was bound for Ahmedabad.

On 26 February 2002 the Sabarmati Express entered Godhra's railway station to make its scheduled stop. According to a report by India Today news, the kar sevaks and local muslims clashed at Godhra station which came to be called the Godhra riots. The blaze in S6 coach of Sabarmati express in which the kar sevaks were traveling killed 59 Hindus, mostly kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya.

The findings of the forensic investigation

The report of Mohinder Singh Dahiya of the Forensic Studies Laboratory (FSL) at Gandhinagar, Gujarat, put the scenario of the coach being set on fire by an irate crowd of Muslims that had gathered outside the Godhra railway station, as arguably the closest to the truth.

As per the state enquiry commission, a mob of Muslims set fire to the train, but the central enquiry commission found that the fire was an accident that happened in the coach of Sabarmati express, thus the origins of the fire are disputed.

Who was responsible for the Godhra riots?

Maulvi Husain Haji Ibrahim Umaraji, a cleric in Godhra, was portrayed by the Godhra police as being behind the attack, and he was the prime accused for the riots. Following an investigation extension requested by Gujarat police, the commission submitted a final report by the end of 2002 to the Gujarat government.

What caused the Godhra train fire?

The question of who started the fire has never been fully answered. Numerous people have been suspected of it, several have been convicted by the Gujarat high court and some have even been imprisoned. Like many other incidents in India, it is popularly assumed that the innocent have been sentenced for the Godhra train burning case, while the true offenders remain at large.

However, in 2002, Haaji Bilal was convicted in the Godhra case and he got a life sentence in prison. The Godhra police also arrested Rafik Bhatuk, an alleged key conspirator of the prime accused in the Godhra train burning case in February 2002. He had been on the run for at least 19 years before being arrested in Godhra and presented before the Godhra high court regarding the Godhra incident and imprisoned to serve a life sentence.

As per the findings of the Gujarat police, the 51 years old Rafik was a member of the group that developed the conspiracy of the Godhra train burning incident near the Godhra railway station.

A commission set up by the Gujarat government to investigate the Godhra train burning case found thatit was arson by a Muslim mob. According to the Gujarat FSL investigation, while petrol-soaked handkerchiefs were tossed at the Godhra train coach, it would not have been sufficient to start the fire that devoured the coach compared to spilled petrol.

Since the fire was created from the inside, the scorch marks were only on the coach's floorboards, the outside was not as charred. In brief, the findings revealed that somebody within the coach started the fire.

Politicization of the Godhra train burning report

The Congress and BJP cherry-picked the report to fit their political and ideological agendas. The study was interpreted by the Congress commissioned by the Gujarat government as confirmation that the Sabarmati Express fire was staged by the Hindutva brigade to cause unrest, while the BJP said the FSL report revealed that the attack on the kar sevaks was the act of Muslim extremists.

Gujarat high court judgement

The Gujarat high court, accepted the prosecution's claim that the conspiracy was conceived in Razak Kurkur's Aman hotel, and that the petrol used to destroy the railway had been stored a day earlier. Kurkur and another key defendant, Haji Billa, were proven guilty. Ayub Pataliya, Irfan Kalandar, Mehboob Popa, Shaukat Pataliya, and Siddiqui Vora were identified as the five individuals who reportedly got inside the train to spill the petrol.

On October 9, 2017, the Gujarat High Court convicted 11 defendants to death sentence, while another 20 Muslims were sentenced to life in jail.

The Aftermath of the Godhra riots

Following the Godhra riots, false rumours were spread by a senior Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader that Muslims had kidnapped three Hindu girls during the incident. Retaliatory attacks on Muslims began the same evening; a number of incidents in which Muslims were attacked and killed were reported in various cities in Gujarat.

The first attacks on the Muslim community occurred at Ahmedabad, where Hindu mobs began throwing stones and later burnt Gulbarg Society, a Muslim housing complex. The communal violence spread to the largely rural districts of Panchmahal, Mehsana, Kheda, Junagadh, Banaskantha, Patan, Anand and Narmada the next day.

The Gujarat Pogrom

At the time of the riots Naroda Patiya and Naroda Gam, located in Gujarat's largest city, Ahmedabad, had around 2,000 daily wage-earning Muslim inhabitants, and many immigrants from Karnataka and Maharashtra. On the evening of 27 February 2002, Vishwa Hindu Parishad declared a statewide strike in response to the Godhra train burning incident, starting from 28 February.

On the first day of the strike, a mob of approximately 5,000 people, allegedly led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Bajrang Dal, attacked and attempted to burn the entire Muslim community of Naroda Patiya. The rioting began at 9 am when the Noorani Mosque was destroyed by exploding liquified petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders.

An image of the Gujarat Pogrom of 2002.
An image of the Gujarat Pogrom of 2002.

Rapes, killings, and burning

Cases of hacking, looting, stabbing and sexual assaults including public gang-rapes in which the victims were burnt, were reported. Many people were burnt alive, individually or in groups by "chasing them into huge pits" and setting fire to them using LPG cylinders. Burnt bodies were also thrown in a dry well. Women and girls were sexually assaulted, raped and killed by burning or by stabbing. Maya Kodnani, Babu Bajrangi and a few others supplied weapons to the crowd, and Suresh Chara and others raped and killed women. LPG cylinders were used to destroy a number of buildings in the residential and working areas. The massacre lasted for over 10 hours and finally a curfew was imposed in 27 towns and cities across Gujarat.

Most of the homes of Muslims in Naroda were burnt while Hindu homes remained undamaged. As the riots ended, it was estimated that around 125 people had been killed in the violence. The incident is considered to be the "most gruesome of all post-Godhra violent incidents" and "the largest single case of mass murders", and claimed the highest number of lives of all the events during the Gujarat riots.

Narendra Modi 'allowed' Gujarat 2002 anti-Muslim riots

A senior police officer's sworn statement to India's Supreme Court alleges that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi deliberately allowed anti-Muslim riots in the state.

Sanjiv Bhatt says he attended a meeting at which Mr Modi is alleged to have said that the Hindus should be allowed to vent their anger. Sanjiv Bhatt was a senior police officer in the Gujarat intelligence bureau during the 2002 riots.

In a sworn statement to the Supreme Court, he said that his position allowed him to come across large amounts of information and intelligence both before and during the violence, including the actions of senior administrative officials.

He also alleges that, in a meeting in the night before the riots, Mr Modi told officials that the Muslim community needed to be taught a lesson following the Godhra train burning incident.


An anti-memorial for the Gujarat Pogrom

The most recent occurrence of violence against Muslims in the country occurred in late February 2020, when anti-Muslim rioting erupted in New Delhi, India. To put these episodes of communal violence in context, artist Pritika Chowdhry has created an anti-memorial to the Gujarat Riots, titled "Memory Leaks: Specters of the Partition" and other communal riots since the Partition of India along religious lines, in 1947.

Pritika Chowdhry. Memory Leaks: Specters of the Partition, anti-memorial to the Gujarat Pogrom of 2002.
Pritika Chowdhry. Memory Leaks: Specters of the Partition, 2013. Etched copper pots, burnt newspapers and books, water, prayer mat. 120 in. x 120 in. x 120 in. installed dimensions.

Memory Leaks: Drips and Traces

The Memory Leaks anti-memorial analyzes the eerie frequency with which communal riots have erupted in India ever few years, since the Partition of 1947 and the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971.

In the aftermath of the Godhra riots, the Hindu right appeared to be baying for the blood of the Muslim minority group. The scope and ferocity of the Gujarat Pogrom strongly recalled the Partition violence of 1947, as well as the Liberation War of 1971.

Hindu-Muslim Communal Riots

Gujarat's riots follow a regular pattern of riots in India. A new time-series on Hindu-Muslim conflict showed Gujarat as the worst state, far worse than the regions of North India commonly associated with acrimonious Hindu-Muslim group relations. It also named three Gujarat towns—Ahmedabad, Vadodara, and Godhra—as the most violent, and these three were the biggest hotspots of violence in February, March, and April 2002.

What connects the Gujarat Riots and the Partition of India?

The systemic use of rape to humiliate and wound the Muslim community, is probably the strongest connection to the Partition violence. As also the targeted violence on Muslim houses, shops, places of worship, and schools. The unstated goal being to decimate the Muslim population and destroy the resources that would enable them to flourish.

The Hindu Right appropriates narratives of the Partition violence to interpellate and galvanize their Hindu right base into participating in the riots with such brutality. So, the memory of the Partition violence is continually being harnessed in the present day, to instil fear-based aggression in the minds of Hindus and to demonize the Muslim minority population. I believe this is a key component to understanding the continuing cycles of communal riots in India.


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