At around 1.30 am on July 16, 55-year-old Kadir Abdul Gani Pataliya came out of his house in Vachla Oda locality near Abu Bakr Mosque here to have a cup of tea at Rosy Hotel when sleuths of the Local Crime Branch (LCB) arrested him in connection with the burning of Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002.
Pataliya, who evaded police for over 13 years, claimed that he lived in the locality all these years. On the night when he was arrested, the market was bustling with Ramzan festivities and he was one in the crowd.
Six of his family members have been accused in the same case. His cousin Shaukat Bhano Pataliya, who was sentenced to life imprisonment, died in 2012 in jail. Kadir’s uncle Ayub Abdul Gani Pataliya and cousin Irfan Hanif Patadiya were among the 11 convicts sentenced to death, while his brother Yakub Abdul Gani Patadiya has been evading police for 13 years. His son Shakir, then a juvenile, was kept in a remand home for six years in connection with the case.
According to police, Kadir, like the other members of his family named in the FIR, was in the mob that threw petrol and burnt down S-6 coach of the train, killing 59 passengers, mostly kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya. The incident had triggered widespread communal violence in Gujarat during which more than 1,000 people lost their lives.
In July alone, police traced and arrested three of the 16 absconders in the case.
Shakir, now 28-year-old, told The Indian Express: “Police had tried to track him down during the initial years of the incident, but they had nearly given up. Sometimes, when a police van would appear outside our house during those days, my father would shift to another location nearby to evade arrest. But, in the last five years, police did not come to our house to ask about his whereabouts. Initially, after giving up his paan shop business, he rarely left the house. However, as time passed and police appeared to show no interest, he gradually started coming out and mingling with people from the community.”
Shakir said he has never seen, nor even heard of his absconding uncle, Yakub, ever since February 27, 2002.
Besides Kadir, absconders Hussain Suleiman Mohan and Kasam Ibrahim Bhameri were also arrested jointly by the Local Crime Branch, Godhra, and Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), Ahmedabad, in July. ATS DCP Himanshu Shukla is a member of the Supreme Court-appointed special investigation team (SIT) tasked with investigating the Godhra case.
Hussain Suleiman Mohan (35) used to live in Godhra and shifted base to Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh only in 2010 after his marriage. He, however, continued to visit his family members, said people close to him.
Mohan, whose wedding was held at Kevadiya in Narmada district and attended by his several family members and friends, used to work as an autorickshaw driver in Jhabua to raise his two children, they said. He was arrested by a Godhra LCB team on July 22 from Jhabua.
Bhameri, who lived at Maida Plot in Signal Falia, a Muslim locality near the crime scene, had shifted base to Madhya Pradesh and used to frequently change his location doing sundry jobs, ATS officials said. He was planning to visit his son Zahir Bhameri, who lives in Godhra and works at a stone quarry unit, during Ramzan, but was arrested by ATS sleuths from Dahod railway station on July 28.
The Panchmahals superintendent of police, Raghvendra Vats, said police have constantly been looking for the absconders ever since the SIT took charge of the investigation in 2009. “We have been looking for them ever since the court issued warrant against them,” Vats said.
About their links in Madhya Pradesh, he said, it is closer to Dahod from where they find it easier to escape to the neighbouring state.
These arrests came more than four years after one Ismail Yusuf Chunga was nabbed from his house in Godhra in March 2011 for alleged role in the train burning. He was held a month after a special court in Godhra sentenced 11 accused to death and 20 to life imprisonment.
Before him, the last arrest was of Ibrahim Dhantiya in 2009. While Dhantiya was acquitted by the special court in February 2011, Chunga was acquitted by the same court in February 2014. A total 64 people, so far, have been acquitted in the case. The judgment of the sessions court has been challenged in the Gujarat High Court.
LCB police inspector D J Chawda refused to comment on the arrests, saying that the matter was being investigated by the SIT. However, ATS inspector B M Desai said Bhameri was being tracked for at least a month.
While police have succeeded in arresting three absconders, as many as 13 were still at large, including “key conspirators” Farukh Bhana and Salim Panwala.
The Interpol had issued red corner notices against accused— Saukat Lalu and Salim Panwala — after their location was confirmed in Pakistan, said officials of the SIT in Gandhinagar. They said the location of Faruk Bhana was not known, but it’s believed that he also fled to Pakistan.
Bhana’s son Imran (31) said the name of his father, a former corporator of the Godhra municipality, as a key conspirator, turned his life upside down. The eldest of seven siblings, Imran had to quit his diploma in electrical engineering mid-way to support his family.
He said police last came to their house at Gondhra Salamat locality around a year ago, looking for his father. “My father was in Gandhinagar a day before the incident, and had returned on February 27, the morning of which the train coach was set on fire. We have never seen our father ever since the morning of February 27. During initial years after the incident, police would come to our house regularly, asking for him. We were harassed for two years initially,” said Imran, who now runs a mobile repairing shop.
The Godhra special court that delivered its verdict on February 22, 2011, said in its judgment that “the conspiracy came to be hatched on the previous day, that is, February 26, 2002, during the meeting held in Aman Guest House, between the conspirators Haji Bilal, Faruk Bhana, Abdul Rajak and Salim Panwala”.
Among other accused who are absconding are Rafiq Bhatuk, Imran Ahmed Bhatuk, Sikankar, Musthaq Bhoba, Abdul Mitha, Razzak Chakini, Imran Kalandar, Farukh Dhantiya and Yaqub Pataliya.
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