Bannerjee Committee Deemed “Illegal”

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

NEW DELHI – Politics, constitutional ethics and every grain of morality stand subject to scrutiny following the Gujarat High Court’s decision finding the U.C. Bannerjee Committee (organized by the Railway Ministry to probe the Godhra train carnage) as illegal and unconstitutional.

The Bannerjee Committee was set up almost as soon as Laloo Prasad Yadav assumed office as Railway Minister in 2004, and found the burning of the train containing Hindu pilgrims to have been accidental.

Justice D.N. Patel held last week (Ahmedabad, October 13) that the constitution of the committee was “unconstitutional, illegal and null and void.” The decision was taken following the allowance of a petition filed on March 28, 2005 by Neelkanth Tulsidas Bhatia, one of those injured in the February 27, 2002 carnage on the outskirts of the Godhra railway station. The court said that neither the railway ministry nor the center had any jurisdiction to issue the September 2, 2004 notification appointing the Bannerjee Committee. As the G.T. Nanavati and K.G. Shah judicial inquiry commission had already been appointed earlier to go into the Godhra-carnage and the subsequent communal riots in Gujarat, the court said that neither the center nor the railway ministry were authorized under either the Commission of Inquiry Act or the Indian Railways Act to appoint a committee to probe the same matter. Nanavati-Shah Commission has yet to submit its report.

The Godhra-carnage in which 59 karsevaks (Hindu pilgrims) returning from Ayodhya, traveling in the S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express, were burnt alive, was followed by communal violence targeting Muslim areas, claiming at least 2,000 lives and rendering thousands homeless. Describing the burned train as a “conspiracy” by Muslims of the area, the Godhra-fire was used to justify subsequent communal violence targeting Muslims by extremist Hindu groups.

However, the Bannerjee Committee held that the fire in the S-6 coach was purely “accidental.” There was a preponderance of evidence that the fire originated in the coach S-6 itself, without any external input, its report said.

“Moreover, the possibility of an inflammable liquid having been used is completely ruled out as there was first a smell of burning, followed by dense smoke and flames thereafter. This sequence is not possible in case the fire is caused by an inflammable liquid thrown on the floor of the coach or an inflammable object thrown from outside the coach. The ‘inflammable liquid theory’ also gets negated by the statements of some of the passengers who suffered injuries on the upper portion of the body and not the lower body and who crawled towards the door on elbows and could get out without much injury,” the Committee concluded.

With the Gujarat government led by extremist Chief Minister Narendra Modi (Bharatiya Janata Party) having earned worldwide criticism for carnage that followed targeting Muslims, the Bannerjee Committee report was obviously not welcomed by BJP leaders including Modi.

Not surprisingly, the declaration of the Bannerjee Committee being “unconstitutional” by the Gujarat High Court has been viewed as a “victory” by the BJP. Soon after this verdict, the BJP leaders demanded the dismissal of Laloo Prasad Yadav as railway minister if he did not resign. Cashing in on the political opportunity, Modi said: “The UPA government should apologize to the nation for this.”

Turning down the BJP’s demand, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said: “The Gujarat High Court order should be challenged.” The Railway Ministry is planning to challenge the verdict.

Refusing to be drawn into a debate on the issue, Bannerjee, who prepared the report, said: “I have nothing to say on the HC order. I was appointed by the central government, did the probe and submitted my final report.”

In the coming days, politics on the issue is likely to dominate both Congress and BJP circles. The issue will certainly take a crucial twist if the Gujarat HC verdict is challenged before the Supreme Court. However, irrespective of what the apex court says about the “constitutional” or “legal” nature of the Bannerjee Committee, it is not the only committee/body that has labeled the Godhra-incident as an “accident,” which occurred from inside the train compartment and was not caused by Muslims from outside the train.

Dated May 15, 2002, a report of the Forensic Science Laboratory (Gujarat) said: “By taking into consideration the fact that no effect of the fire was found on the bottom side of the coach and also the burning pattern, a conclusion can be drawn that no inflammable fluid had been thrown inside from outside the coach.” The report also made the points: “By observing the flames of the windows of the coach, it appears that all the windows of the coach were closed during the time of the fire;” “No sign was observed of the use of any corrosive fluid like acid in the said fire;” and “With the help of different types of containers, experimental demonstrations were also carried out by using liquids inside the said coach and conclusion drawn.”

Besides, according to a report of the Delhi-based People’s Union for Democratic Rights- “Maaro, Kaapo, Baaro: State, Society and Communalism in Gujarat,” dated May 2002, the anti-Muslim Gujarat-carnage had been organized before the Godhra-incident. In other words, whatever be the “legal” status of Bannerjee Committee and its report, the communal card exercised by right-wing forces in Gujarat stands defeated by the scrutiny of Indian secularism!


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