The Gujarat High Court on Monday commuted the death sentence awarded to 11 convicts to life term in the Godhra train burning case of 2002. The court, has, however, upheld the life sentence awarded to 20 others by the special SIT court. The court’s verdict came on appeals filed by the convicts and the prosecuting agency.
Fifty-nine kar sevaks were killed after a coach of the Sabarmati Express was set ablaze in February 2002, triggering one of the worst communal riots witnessed in the country.
Here’s all you need to know about the 2002 Godhra train burning case:
On the morning of February 27, 2002, a coach of the the Sabarmati Express — Coach S6 — was set ablaze and 59 passengers travelling in that coach were charred to death. The train had arrived at Godhra station in Gujarat just then. The victims included 27 women and 10 children. Injuries were suffered by another 48 passengers in the train.
A Commission of Inquiry was constituted by the Gujarat government headed by then Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The Commission consisted Justice G T Nanavati and Justice KG Shah. The Commission in its report submitted that most of the 59 people killed were kar sevaks who were returning from Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.
The Sabarmati Express had begun its journey from Muzaffarpur and was on its way to Ahmedabad. At least 2,000 kar sevaks, who had gone to attend the Purnahuti Maha Yagna at the instance of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, had boarded the train from Ayodhya. The yagna was part of Ram Temple building programme.
The train burning incident had within hours triggered violent riots across the state. The riots broke out on the evening of February 2 and continued for 2-3 months across the state. The Centre in 2005 informed Rajya Sabha that the riots claimed the lives of 254 Hindus and 790 Muslims. A total 223 people were reported missing. Tens of thousands were rendered homeless as well. The details were later published at the recommendation of the National Human Rights Commission.
The Congress-led UPA government set up a separate inquiry commission headed by Justice UC Banerjee, who in his report submitted in March 2006, called the incident to be an accident. The Supreme Court rejected the report as unconstitutional and invalid. Afterwards, the Supreme Court constituted a Special Investigation Team. Justice KG Shah died in March 2008 before the commission could complete its inquiry. His position was taken over by Justice Akshay H Mehta. Justice Nanavati and Justice Akshay Mehta submitted the final report of the Nanavati-Shah Commission that same year describing the train burning as a conspiracy.
Trials in the case started over eight years after the incident on June 1, 2009. A special SIT court convicted 31 people on March 1, 2011,out of whom 11 were awarded death sentences and 20 life imprisonment. The court also acquitted 63 people in the case. The SIT court concurred with the charges of the prosecution that this was not an incident of unplanned mob outrage and rather it involved conspiracy. The 31 convicts were convicted under the Indian Penal Code sections related to criminal conspiracy, murder and attempt to murder.
The Gujarat government later raised questions on the acquittals, a series of appeals were filed in the Gujarat High Court challenging the convictions.
The 63 people acquitted also include the prime accused in the case Maulana Umarji, Mohammad Hussain Kalota, Mohammad Ansari and Nanumiya Chaudhary.