Being the birthplace of Lord Shri Ram, Ayodhya has always been a very important pilgrimage centre for the Hindus. It is considered one of the abodes of an avatar of Shri Hari Vishnu. It is also an important historical and cultural city in the state of Uttar Pradesh with tourists from across the globe visiting the place.
Mughals used to demolish mandirs and construct mosques over them to subjugate Hindus. They did the same in Ayodhya by constructing Babri Masjid over Shri Ram Mandir. Yet, Hindus never left their claim on their Mandir and kept worshipping.
While Hindus kept fighting multiple cases in courts for years claiming the Mandir and finally winning, on December 6 1992, a mob demolished the Babri Masjid. This was followed by multiple bomb blasts and riots in India against the Hindu community. Subsequently, Courts asked both Hindus and Muslims to stop worshipping/praying on the spot where Ram Mandir existed or where Babri Masjid was demolished.
Since Muslims didn’t use to offer namaz at Babri masjid anyway, it didn’t matter to them much. But Hindus kept worshipping from outside the periphery as the significance of the place for Hindus was paramount. Hindus from across the nation also used to do Karseva to Ayodhya.
In 2002, BJP was in power in both Centre and Gujarat with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister and Narendra Modi as Chief Minister respectively. It was the morning of February 27, 2002, when a Hindu pilgrimage group from Gujarat went to Ayodhya for Karseva and were returning to Gujarat via Sabarmati Express. When the train came near Godhra Railway station, it caught fire and a few coaches were burnt. As horrific as it may sound, this resulted in the deaths of 59 Hindu pilgrims including 9 men, 25 women and 25 children. Following this incident, a widespread extremely violent riot as retaliation occurred in Gujarat between Hindus and Muslims.
Within days, on March 6, 2002, the Government of Gujarat set up a one-man commission of retired Gujarat High Court KG Shah to look into the train burning incident and the riot which followed it under section 3 of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952. Looking at the gravity of the incident, the government of Gujarat added retired Supreme Court judge GT Nanavati as its chairman and made it a two-member commission.
Before the commission could give its findings, the UPA led by the Congress party came into power in the centre with Dr Manmohan Singh as its Prime Minister and Lalu Prasad Yadav as Railway Minister. Politicising the issue, they formed another committee in 2005 under the retired Supreme Court judge Umesh Chandra Banerjee on the issue of Godhra Train burning under the Indian Railways Act. In a very short span, the committee gave its verdict that the fire was accidental and not started by the Muslim mob. It concluded that the fire had begun inside the train.
However, coming heavily on the Centre government, Gujarat High Court in 2006 declared the appointment of the commission outside its jurisdiction by calling it unconstitutional, illegal and void. The order passed by Justice DN Patel stated: The Railways has no authority to appoint such a committee as it was in gross violation of provisions of sections of the Indian Railways Act.
After this, Zakia Jafri filed a police complaint seeking justice for the murder of her husband Congress MP Ehsan Jafri during the Gujarat Riots. This complaint came after 4 years when Gujarat High Court dismissed the Banerjee commission formed by Congress as unconstitutional. The complaint was so politically motivated that it named Gujarat CM Narendra Modi as an accused.
Subsequently, in 2007, Sonia Gandhi of the Congress Party, while accusing BJP of Gujarat Riots, referred to Narendra Modi as Maut ka Saudagar during an election rally in the Gujarat elections.
In March 2008, the Supreme Court while considering multiple cases including that of Zakia Jafri set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) headed by former CBI chief RK Raghavan. It also included former Uttar Pradesh DGP CD Satpathy and IPS officers – Geeta Johri, Shivanand Jha and Ashish Bhatia as members.
Meanwhile, Justice KG Shah died in 2008 and was replaced by Akshay H Mehta and the commission formed by the Gujarat govt was renamed as Nanavati-Mehta Commission. In September 2008, the commission submitted its 168-paged preliminary report concluding that the fire was a premeditated crime, an act of arson, and not an accident, committed by a mob of one to two thousand Muslims with Maulvi Husain Haji Ibrahim Umarji of Godhra and dismissed CRPF officer Nanumiyan as its masterminds.
The report which was presented in Gujarat Assembly also gave a clean chit to then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, saying there was no evidence to show that he or anybody in his Government was involved with the incident.
In February 2011, the trial court convicted 31 Muslims for conspiring to murder observing that the train burning incident was a pre-planned conspiracy.
On the other hand, SIT formed by the Supreme Court submitted its final (closure) report on February 8, 2012, concluding that there was no prosecutable evidence against Narendra Modi and others named as accused by Zakia Jafri. It went on to conclude that the Gulbarg Society massacre happened after provocation by Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, who fired gunshots which led to a “reaction” by the mob. The magistrate court accepted the closure report of SIT.
In 2013, Zakia Jafri filed a petition objecting to the outcome of the SIT report which was dismissed by Ahmedabad Magistrate Court on 9th January 2014. In the meanwhile, Nanavati-Mehta Commission submitted its over-2000 page final report on 18th November 2014. Zakia Jafri moved to Gujarat High Court which dismissed her petition on October 5, 2017. She then moved to the Supreme Court opposing SIT closure report and clean chit to Narendra Modi.
Despite nothing against Narendra Modi, who was voted twice by the people of India as their Prime Minister, and the Gujarat government, there were people and organisations hell-bent to prove that the train burning was an accident and Narendra Modi was involved in riots that happened thereafter. Congress tried to prove the same with the Banerjee commission which was termed unconstitutional by Gujarat High Court. An NGO named Concerned Citizens Tribunal (CCT), headed by Teesta Setalvad carried out their separate investigation while concluding that the fire had been accidental and the theory of an attack by a mob was part of a government conspiracy to trigger violence across Gujarat. The SIT report which gave a clean chit to Narendra Modi was being contested first before Gujarat Court and then Supreme Court by Zakia Jafri. Top-notch lawyer and ex-Congress top leader Kapil Sibal regularly argued for Zakia Jafri. But like the Motto of India which is Satyameva Jayate, Narendra Modi finally won his judicial battle.
On June 24, 2022, Supreme Court in its detailed judgment finally discharged Narendra Modi from all allegations he faced for years. Apex court observed: “After cogitating over the matter, we uphold the decision of the magistrate in accepting the stated final report dated February 8, 2012, submitted by the SIT, as it is and rejecting the protest petition filed by the appellant. We do not countenance the submission of the appellant regarding infraction of rule of law in the matter of investigation and the approach of the magistrate and the high court in dealing with the final report. Accordingly, we hold that this appeal is devoid of merits and resultantly, deserves to be dismissed in the aforementioned terms. We order accordingly”.
(Shashank Shekhar Jha is an advocate at the Supreme Court of India.
Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.)