Back to back arrests of three accused who had been absconding for 13 years brings one of India’s most volatile datelines back into focus. Strangely, they seem to have been right under the noses of the police all this while
Omkar Khandekar | 19 Aug, 2015
For 13 years now, when posted at a bandobast, some of the policemen of Godhra town in Gujarat have been a little wary of accepting cups of tea or chairs offered to them. The hospitality of local residents might have persisted, but they know it comes more as a force of habit. Behind the veneer of courtesy lies resentment and suspicion that they can’t seem to shake off.
It is especially evident when they go to investigate the frequent cases of illegal cow slaughter on tip-offs given by Hindutva affiliates like the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Such raids, though, only serve to exacerbate the alienation felt by the Muslim majority of the town, since most professional butchers belong to their community. The genesis can be traced to the chain of events that spiralled out of control when a coach of the Ahmedabad-bound Sabarmati Express was allegedly set on fire by some Muslims on the morning of 27 February 2002. It resulted in the deaths of 59 Hindu karsevaks (religious volunteers) returning from Ayodhya. In the following days, state wide riots resulted in over 1,000 deaths, at least 794 being of Muslims.
On a rain soaked evening in the third week of August, I sit with a few policemen at the local crime branch office in Godhra, the administrative area of Panchmahal district. Last month, the Gujarat Police had arrested three people accused of being part of the train carnage. Those arrested were among the 15 who were absconding for the past 13 years. “Their problem is with the police, not you (the media). It shouldn’t be too difficult to get them to talk,” a sub-inspector tells me, preferring to be interviewed on the condition that I don’t take names. “They will cry. They will say, ‘Humari suno (listen to us).’ They will all gather around you and then they will plead that they weren’t responsible.”
My four days in Godhra have lived up to what I had been given to expect. Everyone has a lot to say and all of it revolves around their innocence— that the incident and subsequent crackdown was part of a larger political conspiracy of the state’s ruling BJP government to steer the Hindutva agenda. Getting through to the families has taken effort, but the most difficult part was convincing the gatekeepers: community leaders, local journalists and at times even the neighbours of those absconding to help me reach my subjects. To them, as they peeped out of their windows, gathered in clumps at roadsides or stopped tending to their cattle while pointedly looking at me, I was the ‘other’, a camera-toting city fellow ready to echo their voices which will eventually be of no consequence.
“My father was thrown in jail for ten years for no fault of his,” a resident of the Signal Falia area tells me as he irons clothes at his shop on one such visit. I was searching for the family of Yakub Pataliya who has been absconding since the incident and was said to have lived in the area. He points at a man in his thirties sitting by his side. “He was released earlier this year. We’ve given countless interviews to the media before and after. Nothing made any difference.” I express suitable empathy and reiterate my cause. “They won’t talk to you,” he says. As I persist, he dismisses my questions, saying that the family doesn’t live in the area any more.
In the next few days, an observation made by Raghavendra Vatsa, SP of Godhra, keeps coming back to me. In our initial meeting, Vatsa had told me that Ghanchi Muslims, the dominant group in the town, are a close-knit community. This is buttressed by the families of Qadir Abdul Gani Pataliya, Hussain Suleiman Mohan and Kasam Ibrahim Bhameri who were arrested in the second half of July in quick succession.
They never left Godhra, for the most part, the family members chime. Indeed, they had hardlyever left their own colony, say the investigators. Instead, they sought refuge at the neighbours’ or the local mosque when tipped off about policemen on the prowl.
In 2002, under the rule of a BJP-led alliance at the Centre, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement at Ayodhya again gained momentum. The VHP declared that it will be hosting a religious ceremony at the disputed Babri Masjid site in February. Thousands of Hindu supporters, also known as karsevaks, swarmed into Ayodhya from across the country. On 25 February, around 2,000 karsevaks boarded the Sabarmati Express to return to their homes in Gujarat. At Godhra, the train that was supposed to arrive at 2.55 am, was delayed by nearly five hours and pulled in at the station by 7.42 am. According to many witnesses, the volunteers used to get off at every station and shout slogans of ‘Jai Shree Ram’. At Godhra, during the five-minute halt, three events happened in quick succession that reportedly angered Muslim vendors at the station. First, a karsevak got into a fight with a vendor and refused to pay for the tea he had just bought. Next, a few of the passengers accosted another vendor and forced him to chant the slogan with them. Things got out of hand, it is alleged, when one of them tried to abduct a Muslim girl from the platform.
By the time word spread, the train had begun chugging out of the station. According to the sub- inspector Ramesh Patel from Vadodara railway police, who has been a part of the SIT since its inception, Salim Panwala, who exercised quite some influence over the vendors at the station, screamed at his colleagues, “Don’t let the train go.” They obliged and turned the discs outside four coaches to stop the train. Then they started pelting stones at the karsevaks who retaliated by the same means. Around 8 am, the train began moving again and halted 500 metres away after more chains were pulled. The mob had sizeably grown by then and there was more stone pelting. It was during this time that Panwala and his cronies allegedly got the 140 litres of petrol they had procured the previous evening and set the train’s S6 coach on fire.
The police had arrived within minutes as flames started erupting out of the bogie. As they opened fire to disperse the mob, 15 people were arrested on the spot. Officials now claim that those named in the FIR are as per ‘confessions’ by those arrested. In the subsequent years, there were a series of media exposés conducted that revealed how a few BJP and Bajrang Dal functionaries were planted as eyewitnesses and custodial torture was used to implicate influential Muslims as conspirators. The absence of documentary evidence like CCTV footage, rampant tampering of witness lists and the arbitrary arrests led to Godhra locals feeling increasingly victimised.
In 2008, the Supreme Court constituted a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to look into these allegations and conduct fresh investigation of the Sabarmati incident along with eight other riot cases across the state. The team, led by the Mehsana district Superintendent of Police JR Muthaliya, consists of personnel from across the state who meet at an office at Gandhinagar once or twice every month. For the last three years, they have had a list of 15 absconding people from among those who had been named in the FIR at the Godhra railway police station on the day of the incident. Five of them were accused of being a part of the ‘core team’ that met at Aman Guest House on 26 February 2002 to plan an attack on karsevaks returning on the train the next day. These included Salim Panwala, Razak Kurkur, Bilal Haji, Farooq Bhana and Rafiq Bhatuk. Of them, Panwala and Kurkur worked as vendors at the station, whereas Haji and Bhana were local corporators.
According to a senior official of the Ahmedabad Anti-Terrorist Squad, these five are believed to be in Karachi district of Pakistan as of date. “This is according to what our informers have told us. But we have no way of knowing for sure,” says the officer. The coastal city, he explains, has had a connection to Godhra since pre-independence. “In Karachi, there is a colony called ‘Godhra mohalla’ which [is settled with] people who have migrated to the town from its Indian counterpart.” Hundreds of people, he says, travel to Karachi to meet their relatives across the border every year.
The FIR registered with the Godhra Railway Police charged as many as 1,540 people with the attack, of which only 98 were named in the first chargesheet. Some of those listed as absconders are simply first names like Mushtaq and Sikander. Two others, Razak Chikni and Imran Kalandar, continue to fox the police since any details about them beyond their names are hard to come by. These four are charged for being part of the mob that was pelting stones at the train. With no photographs of any of the accused to refer to, the cops could do little more than rely on their network of informants.
The first successful breakthrough came on 16 July with the arrest of Qadir Abdul Gani Pataliya, 53, a tea-seller who was among those accused of stone-pelting. Three of his family members have already been behind bars, including his son Babu who was a juvenile at the time of the incident. While Babu has now finished serving his sentence, Qadir’s brothers Irfan and Ayub have been sentenced to death and life imprisonment, respectively. “We had information about the movements of Qadir for over a month, but we weren’t successful in catching him,” says the Godhra LCB officer. What taxed them the most was making sure they attract minimum attention while arresting him, or things could get unpleasant. Qadir had given up on work ever since the incident but had taken to gambling over the past few years. On 16 July, they got a tip-off on Qadir’s location in a room across Misri river. The cops in plainclothes called for a few skullcaps, and in this disguise, made a swift catch.
On 23 July, the cops got lucky again with the arrest of Hussain Suleiman Mohan, 35, also a tea- seller, accused of turning the disc that made the train halt the first time. They had managed to procure his mobile number and traced him to Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh, around 120 km east of Godhra. “You could easily identify him. Think of Aamir Khan with a goat’s beard,” says the officer. After Mohan was arrested, the cops realised that he had changed his surname and had acquired some identification documents: a driver’s licence as well as an Aadhaar card under the name ‘Hussain Suleiman Shaikh’. Hussain had shifted to Jhabua somewhere in the last five years and drove an auto-rickshaw in the town. He had also married a local and fathered a couple of kids.
The third arrest was by the ATS squad at Ahmedabad which traced Kasam Ibrahim Ismail Bhameri, 53, to Dahod railway station. Kasam, whose father was a licensed stall holder at the station, had an old association with the vendors at Godhra. On the day of the incident, he was on his way to work across the railway tracks when he heard about the confrontation and joined the mob in attacking the karsevaks. “He, too, had quit work after the incident,” says Patel. The ATS had managed to trace his cell phone to Dahod railway station while he was on his way back to his residence in Godhra. On being arrested, Kasam told investigators that he had been touring various places in Madhya Pradesh for the past three months as part of a jamaat, a troupe of religious preachers. Other than the initial denials on their involvement in the carnage, adds Patel, none of the three offered any resistance.
It is interesting to note that not only did the three accused not venture out of their residential colony, their families claim they stayed outdoors for a better part of the day. They belonged to areas like Signal Falia, Vachla Odha and Mohammadi mohalla, which are within the radius of a kilometre from the station. These are the same parts that were systematically combed by the cops in the days and months following the incident. However, except on a couple of occasions when the cops were inches away from nailing two of the 15 absconders, the rest seemed to have no difficulty eluding the cops.
At her ramshackle house at Vachla Odha, even as she blames the cops for framing her brother, Sara, the sister of the recently arrested accused Hussain Suleiman, tells me about the relative ease with which he managed to throw the cops off their trail. “For the first few months, they (the accused) used to sleep at mosques, a kabristan (cemetery) and even outside houses. The latter was so that the police would mistake them for homeless people,” she says. As the matter cooled with the passage of time, Hussain was back at his house until he migrated to Jhabua for work after one particularly close shave with the cops.
Of course, there were precautions to be taken. At such times, the neighbours were ready to help. “My husband would come home almost every day for his meals. We used to make sure that there were three-four people outside the house, keeping an eye out for cops,” says Shafiya, wife of the arrested accused Qadir Abdul Pataliya.
In each family I speak to, there are some common refrains. “He was sleeping at the time of the train incident,” nearly all of them say. Their denials are sweeping and they speak for the entire community when they stake claims of individual innocence. After the arrests, the women of the house were forced to take up the mantle to provide for the family, and have started working as domestic help. It is a sharp departure for an orthodox community, one that rarely sees women doubling up as breadwinners.
When I ask him about the possibility of them hiding in plain sight, the officer of the Godhra LCB offers his theory on the antecedents of the accused. “That’s simply not possible. But if I am an accused and I say that ‘I wasn’t in town after the incident’, the first question that arises is, where were you then? And then more questions follow—which part of the town you stayed in, who sheltered you, etcetera.” In order to shield those who offer them refuge, adds the officer, the accused often claims to have stayed put.
The locals, however, offer another perspective. Iqbal Ibrahim Shaikh, a resident of Mohammadi mohalla who was also jailed for a brief period after the incident, rubbishes allegations that the accused are lying. “Like Qadir, many of those caught later stayed here for years on end with full knowledge of the police,” he says.
Abeda, the wife of the arrested accused Kasam Ibrahim Bhameri, underlines that observation. After the first few months, the police had stopped coming to their residence to inquire about her husband. Soon, he took up a job as a supervisor of woodcutters and maintained a fixed work-to-home routine. After 12 years of a relatively uneventful life, cops of the Ahmedabad ATS swooped in and arrested him from the neighbouring district Dahod when he was on his way back home.
For the most part, Godhra town is untouched by the development pitch that the BJP was hard- selling in last year’s election season. The roads look like they have been ploughed up by the rains. Though its literacy rate is in high 80s, the Muslim majority consists largely of conservative blue-collared workers engaged in sectors like transport, small time businesses and manual labour.
In 2011, Special Trial Court Judge PR Patel held 31 people guilty and acquitted 69 others after they had spent nearly nine years in jail. This lent further credence to the allegations that people were bundled into jail without due procedure or evidence. Eleven of those convicted were given the death penalty, while 20 others were sentenced to life imprisonment. The verdict was challenged by both quarters: those convicted and the government. A few days before the Gujarat High Court adjourned for the summer, the hearings were completed and a judgment reserved. The bench stated that it will notify the judgment after the break. It has been nearly two months since the courts are back in session, but the verdict dates haven’t yet been declared.
An advocate from Godhra, who had represented at least 25 of those accused in the initial hearings at the special court, opines that the timing of the present arrests was conspicuous. “It might be an attempt to create an atmosphere of sorts, to bring the case back into the limelight [with a judgment pending],” he says. Advocate AA Hasan, who has been an integral part of the defence, alleges that most of the accused were jailed broadly on four grounds: political rivalry, statements of tutored eyewitnesses that have been used by the police in several criminal cases over the years, identification as history sheeters, and those arrested during combing operations.
Notably, however, the SIT had submitted a report to the Supreme Court in 2009 stating that it had ‘thoroughly reviewed’ the Gujarat Police investigation and found it to be ‘on correct lines’.
When their arrest seemed imminent, some of the accused went underground. Some, like Abdul Majid Mitha, went completely off the radar, leaving the cops as well as his family clueless and fumbling in the dark for all these years. In 2008, a news daily managed to get in touch with the prime accused Salim Panwala and Ibrahim Dhantiya in Karachi. According to the report, Panwala said that he had nothing to do with the burning, ‘and that he fled because the police were “making anybody forcibly say anything in the affidavit.”’
I meet his wife Safura, 42, at her bare-walled residence near Pollon Bazaar. Seeing an acquaintance of hers accompanying me, she eases up and recalls how the police used to visit her place at least twice every month for the first three years. It was the time Salim was still in Godhra and in hiding. “On one occasion, I told them in a fit of rage that they’d better put up a tent and stay across my doorstep,” she says, “After that, the frequency of their visits went down.”
With four kids to tend to, Safura now washes clothes and utensils of neighbours for a living. She doesn’t get a fixed salary and tries to chip in by ironing their clothes in her spare time. Even though she takes exception to the see-nothing- hear-nothing claims of her counterparts, she insists that he got to know of the incident only when he reached the marketplace around 8 am on the fateful day.
“His day used to start at 10 am with the arrival of the Firozpur Janata Express. Before that, he used to pay a visit to his ammi as he did on that day too,” she says. But in the next few weeks, along with the police, the neighbours started visiting their house to tell her that Salim has been featuring as the ‘main accused’ in news- papers. Not that it stopped the neighbours from offering him shelter in times of need.
Towards the latter half of the 2000s, her husband had a narrow escape from the clutches of the police. The cops had been tipped off that he was praying at a local mosque. As they tried to enter, they were accosted by namaazis for wearing shoes inside the mosque. In the resulting melee, Salim fled from the city. Safura, however, claims that he continues to visit her on festivals like Eid.
Ibrahim was arrested in 2009 after he tried to cross the border back to India along with his wife. Safura doesn’t indicate any knowledge of these developments, nor of her husband’s purported life in Karachi.
“He doesn’t carry a mobile phone, nor does he call me,” Safura says. “For the rest of the year, it is the electricity bill addressed to him that reminds me of my husband.”