Ground Reports

Godhra Train Massacre: 'Dard Hai, Dukh Hai, Par Garv Hai' — Survivors, Victims' Families Open Up For The First Time In Decades

Sharan Setty

Dec 18, 2023, 06:31 PM | Updated Dec 21, 2023, 11:54 AM IST

The Sabarmati Express massacre is still fresh in the memory of families who lost their loved ones.
The Sabarmati Express massacre is still fresh in the memory of families who lost their loved ones.

On 27 February 2002, the S/6 coach of the Sabarmati Express was set ablaze near Godhra — a few stations short of its destination, Ahmedabad.

A massacre was committed against innocent civilians that day — 59 passengers, including 27 women and 10 children, were burnt alive; 48 others received injuries.

Most passengers on the train were Ram sevaks, also known as kar sevaks.

The Godhra incident occurred between 8 am and 8.20 am near the A cabin when the train was a stone's throw away from the Godhra railway station.

The train left Muzaffarpur on 25 February and was about to reach Ahmedabad with nearly 1,700 kar sevaks on board.

The sevaks were a part of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP)'s plan to attend the Purnahuti Maha Yagna, a part of the Ram Mandir Nirman programme organised in Ayodhya.

While subsequent probes have proven that a Muslim mob was directly involved in the massacre of the kar sevaks travelling from Ayodhya to 'Amdavad', many reports have questioned the credibility of these findings.

While some have held the then-state government directly responsible for conspiring to create communal disharmony, others have suggested that the fire was "accidental."

Swarajya spoke with some of the families of the victims, as well as some survivors, to ask what happened on that unfortunate day in Godhra.

Zaverbhai Jadavbhai Prajapati lost his life in the tragic incident. (Sharan Setty/ Swarajya)
Zaverbhai Jadavbhai Prajapati lost his life in the tragic incident. (Sharan Setty/ Swarajya)

'Unki Kya Galti Thi?'

Ashok Prajapati, son of Zaverbhai Jadavbhai Prajapati, emerged from his house as soon as I informed him that we had arrived. In one hand, he held a classic Nokia handset, and in the other, his ten-month-old grandson. He waved at me at first sight.

"Itni door se aaye ho humse milne, na nahi bol sakta tha main (You have come a long way to meet us, I could not have said no to you)," he said.

This lane in the Vastral neighbourhood leads up to one of the victims' houses. (Sharan Setty/Swarajya)
This lane in the Vastral neighbourhood leads up to one of the victims' houses. (Sharan Setty/Swarajya)

Zaverbhai, Ashok's father, was one of the victims of the train-burning incident. Unlike the rest, his body could be identified.

Ashok's wife, mother, daughter, daughter-in-law, and a neighbour who had come to play with Ashok's grandchild* greeted us.

He asked us to be seated and make ourselves at home.

"Papa was supposed to go to the Char Dham Yatra. Our bus leaves every year. He was a part of the VHP and was a Ram sevak. I was in Baroda at the time. But papa was insistent that he visit Ayodhya directly. I was in Baroda (Vadodara) to pay the money for the yatra, but I learnt that my father had left for Ayodhya instead. So I stayed at a relative's place for a few more days," he said.

Ashok and his family believe that Zaverbhai's sacrifice won't ever be forgotten.

"The world may think whatever they want to, but I would like to believe that my father's sacrifice has not gone to waste. Even after a hundred years, the world will remember my father's ahuti. As a result of the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of people like him, the Ram temple is being finally built and inaugurated. You can't even begin to imagine what this means to us," he said, his family nodding in agreement.

Centre: Bipin Thakker, affectionately known as Bipinbhai. (Sharan Setty/ Swarajya)
Centre: Bipin Thakker, affectionately known as Bipinbhai. (Sharan Setty/ Swarajya)

"The day my father died, birthday celebrations were going on at my house (for the brother's daughter). Do we celebrate her birthday or mourn his death? People had come over to cut the cake. I informed only my wife at the time. I asked her not to tell anyone till the party was over. I could not spoil the atmosphere because the kid was five, after all," Ashok said.

Every year on the girl's birthday, the family remembers Zaverbhai. They don't know how to feel.

Ashok's only request to Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to engrave the names of all those who lost their lives somewhere in the Ram Mandir. By doing so, they believe that their sacrifices will not be forgotten.

Most families we spoke with had shut themselves off from the media. They say the media had behaved insensitively with them in their time of grief.

"We never speak to the media. (In the past) they asked questions insensitively. They only cared about selling more newspapers, I guess. After a point, we decided to stop doing interviews," Ashok said.

However, they gave Swarajya a chance. "We were all surprised when you managed to get through to us. But I was told that we can trust you and that you are not like the others in your field."

Elaborating on the media's insensitivity, Ashok continued: "'How do I feel about my father's death' — How do I answer this? Of course, I feel devastated. Do you want me to spell it out?"

Most families have had a bad experience dealing with the press.

"The journalist who tried taking the photos of the dead fainted upon seeing them. The only photos you will find are the ones with the VHP. I think it is a part of their book that was released later. Most of the bodies were stuffed into five vehicles. No one knew which body belonged to which family. I was just told random names but realised that it did not belong to them when I saw them later. Some we identified from the shape of their teeth," Ashok said, describing the aftermath.

Ashok, refusing to consume any food, lost 22 kilograms in a couple of weeks. His doctors at the time were worried. He did not work again for four more years thereafter.

"Lalu Yadav formed that one-man committee with Banerjee to find out the reason behind the fire. My father's purse is still in my possession. It has traces of petrol. It has been kept inside. We never take it out. We start to cry immediately. This committee said that it was an 'accident'. What even!" Ashok grumbled in anger.

"I saw traces of acid on my father's head. I realised the cruelty then. I saw everything with my own eyes. Why will I depend on any committee or media report? They don't matter to us. People even blamed Modi. Everyone knows that the local administration was run by Congress people. Some of them were convicted too — what do you have to say about that?" Ashok asked.

Ashok Prajapati's brother playing with his grand-nephew. (Sharan Setty/ Swarajya)
Ashok Prajapati's brother playing with his grand-nephew. (Sharan Setty/ Swarajya)

Ashok's mother has been to Ayodhya once after she lost her husband. Her family is keen to take her once again after the temple is inaugurated and open to pilgrims.

Mrs Prajapati is excited about a trip to Ayodhya but says she is anxious about the train passing through Godhra.

"I feel sad thinking about the train and the loss. We lost the chhat (roof) of our house. My grandson keeps staring at papa's photo. What answer do I give him in the future?" Ashok said, breaking down.

I rushed into the kitchen after seeking permission from the mother. Grabbing a bottle of water, I offered it to Ashokbhai.

"Even after two decades, we still feel his absence. He used to work as a foreman. Our ancestors were agriculturists. Prajapatis are known for constructing houses. My brother is also in the same profession. Of course, the younger generation is into salaried jobs — engineering, medicine, etc," he said.

'What exactly happened that day (of the Godhra incident)? Can you begin from there?' I asked, trying to patch the story together.

"I took my two-wheeler from Baroda to Godhra as soon as I heard the news. I was the only one who managed to enter the area (Godhra) before the police imposed a curfew. It was not far off from there, so I took my motorcycle," Ashok began recounting the day's events.

"Among the dead, only my father's body could be identified because he died trying to rescue kar sevaks still stuck in the bogey. The rest could not even be identified. His licence was still in his wallet," he said. "His wallet is still with us. We break down the minute our eyes lay on it. That's why we did not want to take it out."

"I felt the collective loss. We knew most of them who died. We are all connected through VHP, and some of them were our neighbours and friends. I fell unconscious a kilometre away from my home while getting the body back. I don't even know what happened later. Luckily, my kaka (uncle) was around.

"I remember that the sevaks in Godhra did not consume a single drop of water or food until I agreed to eat. When we were on the railway track, some tea and biscuits were ordered. But the sevaks would not consume it, looking at my condition. I was devastated. I do not know how I can repay them for everything they went through and did for us.

"They were surprised how I even got there (at the incident site). I insisted that they have something to drink and eat. They refused straightaway. I salute them for their courage and sacrifice. Forget the government and the police; on that occasion, it was the sevaks who stood up immediately. Later, the government did try to help us, of course, but I am not speaking about that.

"I did not work for four years after that. Even Bipin (Thakker). Bipin was the one who made a lot of the arrangements. He feels responsible for their deaths. I quit my work and only started working again when we were completely out of money and could not sustain ourselves.

"The Panchals lost four from their family. Bipin's wife lost two people. It was not easy for us. We went through hell. One girl in the Panchal household managed to escape. She was very young then. Homes were destroyed. Many men who lost their lives were the sole breadwinners for their families. Thankfully, now we are okay," Ashok's family said.

Ashok's mother even attempted suicide after hearing the news (they did not want to go into the details). She lost an arm. She was in depression after the death of her husband, and her mental health remained poor for several years.

"She felt lonely. He was the only man she ever loved," Ashok said, describing her mother's state at the time.

According to Ashok, Bipin feels partly responsible for the deaths because he made all the travel arrangements for the pilgrims from Vastral. Bipin, too, was supposed to go that day. He could not make it only because his brother was hospitalised.

But that didn't save him from pain.

"Bipin bhai won't tell you. It is not in his nature," Ashok said, referring to his neighbour and best friend. It's true. Bipin had not said a thing to me since I met him. Little did I know that he, too, had lost two people in his family.

Nilkanth Bhatia and Mandakini Bhatia were two of the passengers in the Sabarmati Express on the fateful day. (Sharan Setty/Swarajya)
Nilkanth Bhatia and Mandakini Bhatia were two of the passengers in the Sabarmati Express on the fateful day. (Sharan Setty/Swarajya)

'Thank God The Train Was Late'

Nilkanth Bhatia and Mandakini Bhatia were among the passengers who flirted with death on that fateful day in Godhra.

As soon as we reached their house in Vastral, situated not far from the other houses we visited, Bhatia pulled his trousers up to show us the injuries he sustained that day.

Media reports of the day supported the theory that the survivors had not sustained injuries in the lower half of their bodies. Before I could ease the couple into a conversation, Bhatia hesitated no further to establish the facts.

He immediately showed Swarajya an identity card that was issued at the time by the VHP to all the kar sevaks travelling to Ayodhya. It is still intact because he had worn warm clothes on that chilly day in February. His identity card was placed safely in his shirt pocket, which was in turn protected by a layer of warm clothing.

The ID card that was issued to Nilkanth Bhatia before he boarded the train (Sharan Setty/Swarajya)
The ID card that was issued to Nilkanth Bhatia before he boarded the train (Sharan Setty/Swarajya)

Nilkanth had tried to get out of the bogey by knocking down the railings of a window that were beginning to melt because of the fire inside, with the help of Ashok's father Zaverbhai, who was trying to get as many people out as possible. His upper body did not sustain any major injuries since he was well-clad.

Unfortunately, Nilkanth sustained serious burns from his waist below since the trousers began to melt, and his skin rubbed against the molten remains of the window panes and the surroundings.

"I cried for help. Then, one of our VHP people (Zaverbhai) made way for me by striking the railing from outside. I jumped out of the wagon. My upper body was saved because I had a sweater on. But when I was trying to get my lower half out, I was only wearing trousers, so the trousers caught fire and burnt my skin. When I got out, I tried ripping out my trousers. It did come off, and so did my skin along with it. It was painful," he said.

The Bhatia couple pictured in the Godhra hospital (Sharan Setty/ Swarajya)
The Bhatia couple pictured in the Godhra hospital (Sharan Setty/ Swarajya)

When the police arrived at the spot, the Bhatias were rushed to a nearby hospital for dressing.

"Ministers and politicians started pouring by towards the evening. We were told by someone that it would be difficult for us here, so it is better we leave for Ahmedabad at the earliest. All the karyakartas were busy attending to the injured, identifying the dead, and catering to other logistical needs at the moment. We could not impose that burden when the situation there was such," said Mandakini, completing her husband's sentences.

Nilkanth lost his hearing entirely in one ear on that day, and the hearing in the other ear started to weaken as he began ageing.

That night around 9 pm, the Bhatias were taken to Ahmedabad in an ambulance for further treatment. They had left their children behind and had no one to look after their kids.

The elder one was old enough to stay alone, but not for long, especially unattended. The parents hurriedly called their neighbours and asked them to take care of the kids until they (the Bhatias) were back home.

"I requested the medical staff to allow us to go. Dr Patel* looked after us. A couple of nurses requested the doctors to allow us to go. They did... only after four days. At home, the wound caught an infection. I went to Dhanvantri Hospital and got a plastic surgery done. It took me nearly a year to recover and be in a position to work. I was the sole breadwinner for my family," he said.

Nilkanth's native place is in Santrampur, and Mandakini is from Datha, a town in Saurashtra.

Remains of the S/6 and S/7 bogeys parked near the Godhra railway station (Sharan Setty/Swarajya)
Remains of the S/6 and S/7 bogeys parked near the Godhra railway station (Sharan Setty/Swarajya)

Mandakini said that the interiors of the bogey were filled with smoke. She fell unconscious because of it. After a while, when she gained consciousness, she saw many people gasping for breath. Some lay unresponsive.

"My face was completely blackened at the time because of the smoke and the char. I got out of the window, too. By then, the railing was off completely. They had to vacuum some char residues out of my throat. There were 11 more women with me (from Janta Nagar). All of them died. I was the zilla in-charge of the VHP back then. Vilasbhai's father also passed away. I remember his father cycling his way home to us to motivate us to contribute to the cause," Mrs Bhatia said.

She did not sustain any major injuries and was among the lucky ones that got away that day.

I asked them several questions that the media had begun to ask at the time, about whether the mob was there and belonged to a minority community.

Was it true that some of the kar sevaks misbehaved with Muslim tea vendors at the Godhra junction, establishing an immediate trigger for the aftermath?

"At least a thousand people armed with stones, petrol were attacking the train and the pilgrims. We heard people shouting "Maaro, kaato. Ek bhi zinda nahi jaana chahiye (Chop, kill everyone. Don't spare a soul). We think it was preplanned thoroughly. The whole area was Mohammedan.

"Local petrol-pump people have also admitted to this (in the subsequent court hearings)**. This 'trigger' that our folks fought with Muslim tea vendors is merely an excuse. They were all families. Which woman would approve of their husband, brother, or son behaving that way with someone?" they said, seeming almost tired of having to defend and describe what they saw and experienced.

According to the Bhatias, Molotov cocktails and petrol were used to burn the coach down. An armed mob of thousand-odd people running towards the train from Signal Falia, a slum near the railway station, is how the incident began.

"A few people may have been convicted, and that is good. But what about the thousand other mobsters who got away? What happens to them? The police were blocked from reaching the spot. Even if they did, what could they possibly do? They were ridiculously outnumbered at the time," the Bhatias said.

They are thankful that the train arrived late in Godhra.

"Had the train arrived on time, which is around 2 or 3 am, in the wee hours of the morning, Bhagwan Ram knows who would have come to save us at that time! At least during the day, people can easily gather since the word spreads faster, and everyone's awake," Bipin said, seated among the Bhatias and other VHP volunteers. Everyone nodded in agreement.

"The lawyers who were cross-examining us during the hearings were being insensitive to us, and trying to ask questions without bearing the sensitivity of the matter in mind. I told him, to his face, that it was I who was there that day and not he. He kept quiet and started behaving better since then. The people present during the hearing seemed to agree with me," said Nilkanth, who was an eyewitness in the case.

"They got angry every time we tried to describe the perpetrators. They wore a topi and sported a daadi (beard). The lawyers started pouncing on us, saying that we were trying to label the Muslims. How else do we identify them? What's wrong in saying daadiwala (bearded) to a person who sports a beard?" the Bhatias said.

Vilas Jadhav, who lost his father Sadashiv Jadhav in the Sabarmati Express tragedy, along with his family (Sharan Setty/Swarajya)
Vilas Jadhav, who lost his father Sadashiv Jadhav in the Sabarmati Express tragedy, along with his family (Sharan Setty/Swarajya)

'We Will Take The Sabarmati Express Again'

In Vastral, where Vilas Jadhav lives, a small gully leads to the most uniquely designed homes in the locality. Vilas' father, Sadashiv Jadhav, was among the 59 people who lost their lives on the train.

Vilas lives in a three-story building that is shared with 14 other people in his family.

"We have been living here for the last 40 to 45 years. Now and then, as our family's strength increases, we add a new floor to make space for everyone in the house," he said.

I asked Vilasbhai why he has four kitchens.

"Sabko khana hai na, saab! Isiliye," he laughed, pointing out the dietary requirements of an average Gujarati household.

Vilas and his family are also residing in Suriliya, near Vastral, which is a part of Ahmedabad's Amraiwadi.

Vilasbhai has three brothers in the family, all of whom are working in related fields at factories and small-scale industries in the area.

Vilas himself is a supervisor at a local factory. His father was a worker at a local mill and had become involved full-time with the VHP upon retirement.

Vilas says that his father Sadashiv had no plans of going to Faizabad (now Ayodhya). Community leaders from the VHP, however, insisted that he travel along with the rest of the families since he was the more senior one in that crowd. That way, he could guide the rest of the families that were travelling to Ayodhya.

Vilas was not at home at the time, but when he returned, he was pleasantly surprised to see his father change his mind at the last moment and tag along with the rest of the kar sevaks.

Nearly 300 people from Amraiwadi were a part of the journey to Ayodhya. Many of them knew each other very well for several years. They were friends, families, and neighbours who stood for the same cause.

"Everyone who was going had a reservation," said Thakker, who is still a part of the VHP. Certain media reports accused the kar sevaks of travelling without a reservation on the trains, and therefore, ending up occupying reserved bogies that were meant for the ones with reservations.

"We cannot say for certain about the others, but as far as our group was concerned, we made sure that everyone carried an identity card issued by the VHP and that everyone had their reservation," said Thakker, who at the time volunteered to book the train tickets for the kar sevaks.

Vilas and his family were informed about Sadashivbhai's death the next morning. They saw some media reports the previous night, but could not confirm the same since they did not have any means to communicate or to visit Godhra themselves (since a curfew was in place).

They were also talking to some of the co-passengers when the train left from Ayodhya for Ahmedabad. They were informed that the train was running slightly late, but also that there was nothing to worry about.

Vilasbhai's family pays homage to the martyred every year on 27 February. The entire family is planning to visit Ayodhya soon and has received an invitation to attend the grand inauguration of the temple.

Since there were many victims from the same locality, the road that passes through the neighbourhood was renamed Shaheed Ram Sevak Marg.

Vilasbhai's mother, Hansaben Sadashiv Jadhav, who had been sitting silent all along, finally opened up and said: "We are not scared, we are proud. My sons are planning to board the Sabarmati Express in February this year along with their kar sevak friends. His ahuti (Sadashiv's sacrifice) has not gone to waste. We are, of course, devastated, but we are proud."

The road leading to the residences of the families of Sabarmati Express victims has been renamed Shahid Ramsevak Marg. (Sharan Setty/Swarajya)
The road leading to the residences of the families of Sabarmati Express victims has been renamed Shahid Ramsevak Marg. (Sharan Setty/Swarajya)

We Have Moved On, But

The survivors and the families of the victims that Swarajya spoke with felt that they had received justice for the losses they endured.

"But it shouldn't stop there," they said.

"We feel that we have received justice. But we are looking forward to the convicts receiving the death sentence. We do not want a single rupee of compensation, but we hope they face the same fate. Innocents were burnt alive, but the guilty can get away? What justice is this?" said Thakker.

"An example must be made of them. No one in Bharat's future must think of this again. They must think twice before touching a Hindu," he said.

Key Takeaways

One, since 2002, the families have been waiting for Ram Lalla to sit in the mandir (temple). They are looking forward to visiting Ayodhya soon.

Two, everyone received an ID card before they left for Ayodhya (at least the ones we spoke to).

Three, why did the media and the intellectual class, who represented the minorities and asked for justice for the victims of the riots, not even once condemn what happened to the passengers of the Sabarmati Express?

It was only as late as 2022, 20 years since the tragedy, that for the first time, some of the names of the victims were compiled and published by Surat-based columnist Gopal Goswami in his report on Firstpost.

Four, provocation as an immediate trigger has no solid backing.

Five, most theories propagated by the media at the time stand debunked.

(A theory went as far as accusing kar sevaks of flashing their private parts to women in Signal Falia, the slum near Godhra.)

All the kar sevaks who lost their lives in the tragedy (Sharan Setty/Swarajya)
All the kar sevaks who lost their lives in the tragedy (Sharan Setty/Swarajya)

*Certain names of family members have been withheld at their request.

**Swarajya could not independently verify this.

(With inputs from Bhuvan Krishna.)

Sharan Setty (Sharan K A) is an Associate Editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @sharansetty2.

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