Godhra fire was not a pre-planned conspiracy: Shubhradeep Chakravorty

Delhi-based freelance journalist Shubhradeep Chakravorty is the director of ‘Godhra Tak’, a documentary film on the burning of the train coach in February 2002 at Godhra, that set of a wave of murderous attacks on Muslims in Gujarat. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about his film and the reactions that it has evoked.

YS: What made you decide to make ‘Godhra Tak’?

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SC: When the Godhra incident in February 2002 happened what struck me was the contradictory theories that Hindutva leaders and government officials were putting out. Some said it was a conspiracy hatched by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Some others said the Students’ Islamic Movement of India or a Kashmiri militant group was behind it. Yet others said it was a result of a conspiracy of local Muslims in Godhra. These contradictory theories puzzled me and so I decided to investigate the incident for myself.

So, I began visiting Godhra in May 2002. It was not possible for me to go there earlier as the whole town was under a sort of siege. I had to visit Godhra seventeen times before I could start using my camera because it was obviously difficult to gain the confidence of the people for them to talk to me. The local Muslims were naturally too scared to speak out, fearing that they might be harassed for whatever they said. Many Hindus and Muslims were also suspicious of my intentions. But finally I got down to filming in December 2002, and after months of work finished the documentary.

YS: Basically, what exactly is your film all about?

SC: The film focuses only on the burning of coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra, which was then used by Hindutva groups to launch murderous riots against Muslims in Gujarat. Piecing together evidence from local people, survivors of the incident, social activists and forensic experts I have tried to show that, in all probability, the coach was not set on fire from the outside by a Muslim mob, as the Hindutva-walas claim, an argument that they deployed to justify the mass killings of Muslims in Gujarat. Rather, it seems, given the evidence that the film highlights, that in all likelihood the fire started from inside the train itself. Hence, to claim that it was the handiwork of the Muslims seems to me to be completely false.

YS: If, as you say, the fire started from inside, what could have set it off?

SC: We can only speculate on this, of course. One possibility is that there was petrol or some other inflammable substance being carried by the Hindutva activists in the compartment. Some say that that maybe they were carrying stoves to cook food, and these may have caused the fire. A forensic expert I interviewed in Gujarat said that he had seen a television programme in which a girl who was travelling in S-6 revealed that when she was crossing into S-7 she felt a cold liquid on the floor of the compartment. This may have been petrol, which may have been carried inside the train, rather than having been thrown from the outside. Another theory, which, again, is only speculative, is that the coach may have been deliberately set on fire by someone travelling in the coach, who might thereafter have escaped or else died in the fire, in order to set off a wave of attacks on Muslims. Who knows?

YS: But your film does not explore the possibility of this theory.

SC: No, it doesn’t. I deliberately left that out as I did not want to be seen as biased or be branded as an ‘anti-Hindu’ communist or a ‘pseudo-secularist’ or whatever. I did not want to step into the realm of the speculative. I wanted to highlight only the confirmed evidence that I could gather, because otherwise ‘soft’ Hindus whom I wanted to reach out to would have dismissed the film as ‘propagandistic’ and ‘anti-Hindu’. After all, I didn’t want to preach to the already converted, to those Hindus and others who are already opposed to Hindutva or communalism.

YS: Your film has been used as evidence before the Banerjee Committee that is investigating the Godhra incident. What are your views about the Committee?

SC: Yes, the film has been used as evidence before the Committee, and the members of the Committee have watched it. I myself deposed before the Committee in December 2004. Although the Committee has its merits, I feel that it is toothless. Being a Committee, and not a Commission, it has no judicial powers to call people to depose before it. I am also pained at the way the interim report of the Committee has been politicised. It was used by Laloo Prasad Yadav in his election campaigns to garner Muslim votes. This is as bad as the BJP using the Godhra incident to get Hindu votes in Gujarat and elsewhere. I really am opposed to this use of dead people, whether the Hindu victims in Godhra or of the Muslims killed elsewhere in Gujarat, for political purposes.

YS: What has been the response to your film?

SC: The film has been screened in different places in India and abroad, and the response, on the whole, has been very encouraging. As a friend of mine put it, if a neutral or a ‘soft’ Hindu sees the film he would probably be convinced that the fire was not pre-planned or engineered by a Muslim mob outside, and if a hardcore Hindutva-wala watches it he would be confused. This is because, as I said, I deliberately focussed on the available evidence that seems to be difficult to refute.

I have been travelling across the country to screen the film and to organise press conferences to discuss it. We organised two such screenings in Gujarat as well, one with NGOs and the other with the press. As you can imagine, it was really difficult to do this, and I was even attacked by some VHP activists in Ahmedabad for this. NGOs in other parts of the country have invited me to show the film and address press conferences, and so far I have visited seventeen state capitals to do this. The purpose of the press conferences is to get the press to send out the message that the Godhra fire was not a pre-planned conspiracy. If they can do at least this, it’s enough for me, as that is really what the film is all about.

The film has also been screened by NRI activist groups in Europe and America in different universities. It was also screened at the South Asian Film Festival in Kathmandu and will be taken by them to various countries.

YS: Do you have any other films in the pipeline?

SC: Having worked to promote this film for the last almost two years, I think I am ready to do another one. My next film would seek to explore the rise of right-wing groups in India and the multiple ways in which people from different classes, castes and communities are seeking, in their own ways, to challenge the politics of communalism and fascism.