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Indian court finds 31 guilty of fire attack on Hindu pilgrim train

Atrocity in 2002 killed 59 and sparked riots that saw 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, killed in attacks across Gujarat.

A policeman stands near the burnt-out train carriage in which 59 passengers died in 2002. Yesterday, a court convicted 31 Muslims who were charged with setting the fire.
A policeman stands near the burnt-out train carriage in which 59 passengers died in 2002. Yesterday, a court convicted 31 Muslims who were charged with setting the fire.

NEW DELHI // A special court yesterday convicted 31 people for being part of a group that started a fire in a train car that killed 59 people, mostly Hindu pilgrims, nine years ago.

Sixty-three people were acquitted of taking part in the attack in 2002 on the Sabarmati Express in the Indian state of Gujarat; the incident sparked some of the worst communal riots in India's history. About 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in attacks across Gujarat after the train attack.

The riots remain the biggest stain on the record of Narendra Modi, the Gujarat chief minister. Mr Modi, a leader in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been accused of anti-Muslim sentiments and even of abetting the Hindu rioters in identifying Muslim targets during the 2002 riots.

Mr Modi has often called the train attack a "pre-planned conspiracy", but some disagree.

One report, by Umesh Banerjee, a former judge, suggested that the fire began inside the carriage. "There was first a smell of burning, followed by dense smoke and flames thereafter," his report read. "This sequence is not possible if the fire is caused by an inflammable liquid thrown on the floor of the coach or an inflammable object thrown from outside the coach."

Another report, prepared by the Forensic Science Laboratory in the city of Ahmedabad, argued that inflammable liquids could not have been poured into the carriage from outside the train because the windows were too high off of the ground. Initial police reports also speculated that the attack was part of a "spontaneous" riot.

But two special investigation teams concluded that the attack was planned, and both teams named Maulvi Umarji, a Muslim cleric, as one of the leaders of the attack. Mr Umarji was one of those acquitted yesterday; the court said it found insufficient evidence to convict him. Both the BJP and the Congress parties interpreted the court's decision as vindication of their stands on the case. The BJP has long insisted on a theory of conspiracy behind the attack.

The Congress Party has claimed that Mr Modi's government has targeted innocent people as part of a larger, divisive strategy. The Congress' general secretary in Gujarat, BK Hariprasad, told the news channel NDTV that the court's acquittal of 63 people proved "that innocent people were put behind bars for nine years."

Such a large number of acquittals highlights the now-defunct Prevention of Terrorism Act, which had permitted detention without charge. All 94 detainees had been arrested during the past nine years under this act, a piece of legislation that the Supreme Court has since ordered to be withdrawn for being too draconian.

Harsh Mander, a former civil-service officer who resigned in protest at the Gujarat government's inaction during the 2002 riots, said: "The standards of proof in a case conducted under terror laws are different from those under normal laws.".

Mr Mander has worked since 2002 with many survivors of the riots, as well as the families of those killed or charged in the arson case. "I know the desperation they've had for nine years," he says.

He is concerned that people who condoned the the riots will now say that it was an "understandable reaction" to the arson conspiracy. "The burning of the train was treated by a lot of people as moral justification for the subsequent massacres of Muslims," he says.

Mr Mander drew a parallel with the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, which occurred after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, who was then the prime minister.

"We know that Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards, but I don't think that's a justification for touching even a single hair on the head of any other Sikh. It's the same here," he said.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae