This morning 15 years ago, when Sabarmati Express pulled into Godhra, it was attacked, 59 of its passengers were killed, setting off riots across Gujarat. The Indian Express boarded the same train in Ayodhya and got off at Godhra yesterday to find out how far have people — and politics — travelled this election season
The gutted S6 coach of Sabarmati Express still stands at the Godhra railway yard, a grim reminder of one of the worst tragedies in India’s recent history. The rusting coach, its doors protected by a mesh of barbed wires, is guarded by two securitymen from the railways. Barring investigators and snakes, say the guards, no one has entered the coach after February 27, 2002 when it was set on fire at the station, killing 59 kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya.
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In the new S6 coach of the Sabarmati Express that The Indian Express boarded at Ayodhya, few have any connection with or recollection of the 2002 incident. Most are busy discussing the elections in Uttar Pradesh.
Dr Umesh Chandra Dixit, 52, is an exception though. He had boarded S6 from Dariyabad near Ayodhya on February 26, 2002.
Dixit has been travelling in Sabarmati Express every day for two decades. A resident of Lucknow, Dixit practices medicine in Dariyabad and takes the Sabarmati Express in the evening to reach Lucknow. “Everybody knows me here.”
On February 26, 2002, Dixit says he and four others were pushed out of the coach. “The coach was full of kar sevaks from Gujarat. They were extremely ill-mannered… and pushed us out of the train.” He recalls that when he missed the train, he let out a curse: “Satyanash ho tum sab ka.”
“I never realised that hours later it would turn out true. I felt very sad the next day. No one deserves such a death, whatever the reason.” Dixit condemns the violence that followed and criticises the “Yogi Adityanath brand of politics”.
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“Punish people who set the coach on fire. Why kill innocents? Yogi Adityanath recently said in a speech that if BJP comes to power, all mosques will turn into temples. What kind of politics is this?”
In the past 15 years, politics may have remained relatively static, but a lot has changed on board Sabarmati Express. “We used to call it gadha gaadi (donkey train). It was slow and stopped at so many stations that it was perpetually late,” says Shyam Kumar, a lecturer at a college in Faizabad district who has travelled in the train several times since 2002.
On that fateful day too, the train was late. It reached Godhra station at 7.45 am, late by four hours.
Now the schedule has changed. The train reaches Godhra at 11.58 am after a 30-hour journey from Ayodhya and is rarely late. “The only good thing that has happened is that the train now runs on time, and three AC coaches have been added,” says Shyam Kumar, who hails from Faizabad but has grown up in Ahmedabad.
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In its 13 sleeper coaches, the train predominantly carries labourers from Bihar and the Jaunpur-Faizabad belt to factories in Vadodara, Surat and Ahmedabad.
On the day of the incident, S6 was carrying double the number of people that a 72-berth coach should. Fifteen years later, that number is only a little less — at least 100 people are in the coach. So by nightfall, people with unconfirmed tickets are sleeping in the aisle or near the toilet.
The only thing that hasn’t changed is the poor state of the coach, say regular travellers. There is an unbearable stink. The toilet seats are broken, the floor dirty and the water is over by morning, even before the train leaves Bundelkhand. The only water visible in the aisle, spilled by squealing children.
Not once is the train or the toilet cleaned during the journey. But passengers are not complaining, too engrossed in talk about elections.
Sunil Tiwari, 35, is listening to a Bhojpuri poll jingle of the Samajwadi Party on his phone — few use earphones in these parts. So it’s heard by everyone in the coach: “Bhaari vikas kaile Bhaiya hathawa dunno khol ke, Cykilia ke batan daba da, Jai Jai Akhilesh bol ke.”
He soon switches to a video of a Hindutva leader lecturing on why Valentine’s Day should not be celebrated. “Hum sab chamdi ke pujari hain,” the leader is heard saying.
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Tiwari is a resident of Akbarpur and works at a soap factory in Kutch. He won’t spell out his politics or say anything about Godhra.
Praveen Pandey, 32, is more focused. He is from Ayodhya and is pained by the Godhra incident, and the politics that such violence generates. “This is that coach… But who benefits from such violence except politicians? Look at Ayodhya. It is as it is ever since the Babri demolition,” he says. A civil contractor in Panvel, he wants politics to addresses issues of unemployment.
Mahendra Vishwakarma, 35, agrees with Pandey. A labourer in a Gujarat chemical factory, the Jaunpur resident says, “Unemployment is the biggest problem here.” He believes only Narendra Modi can change that. “Modiji ko to aise hi vote padta. Unko shamshaan-kabristan karne ki zaroorat hi nahi thi,” he says.
The Sabarmati Express is a running commentary on rampant unemployment and under-employment in eastern UP. A large number of passengers are second-generation migrants to Gujarat.
Sachin Bind, 24, is a graduate from a Jaunpur college. He is travelling to Ahmedabad to meet his father who migrated to the city 30 years ago and sells ice cream there. Now Bind will join him in his work. “What to do? I applied for jobs at several places, but never got an opportunity.”
A Mallah by caste, Bind hails from Malhani constituency in the district and is betting his money on a candidate from an unrecognised party but from his community.
The discussion on caste gets Tiwari excited. “Now even Dalits use the surname Singh. Where I work, there are three men with that surname. I suspected they were Dalits, but they wouldn’t say. I fished out their documents and confronted them,” he says without shedding light on the purpose of such an exercise.
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Pramod Kumar, 41, a factory worker in Mumbai since 1993, says this is the problem in the region and that is why he doesn’t vote. “What’s the point? Nobody does anything. Society itself is corrupt. Here everybody is trying to put you down on the basis of caste or class. In Mumbai, no one is bothered about it.”
Pramod says people of his region are “ashamed” of doing certain kinds of work. “They won’t work in a brick kiln here but they will clean gutters in Mumbai. Look at Modi. He showed that if you work hard with dedication, even a chaiwalla can become PM,” he says.
Manoj Kumar Gupta, 37, from Deoria supports Pramod. He says Modi draws his dedication from the RSS and “that is why he is so good”.
By noon, they have begun fighting over demonetisation. Gupta believes it was for the good of the country while Pramod believes only the poor suffered. “Tell me if you saw any rich man in the queues,” he asks Gupta.
Demonetisation is a topic that excites and divides people in the coach.
Asif Khan Mansuri, 50, has boarded the train from Bina. He is a railway guard who has ushered Sabarmati Express many times. He knows the significance of S6 and reiterates what Pandey said. He rants against demonetisation and says that women suffered the most. His wife breaks into a smile and reminds him of a certain aunt who was caught off-guard with Rs 80,000 saved over several years. “She was pulled up by uncle,” she says.
Other women join in. Daya Tiwari, 50, says she had collected Rs 30,000 over the years. “I gave it to my son. In any case, it is for the children. It’s just that I have nothing for a rainy day now,” she says.
None of them, however, criticise Modi for the move. “Jo bhi kiya theek kiya.”
All this while, RSS worker Ramesh Giri has been listening to the conversations. “People have suffered, indeed. But the intention of the PM was not wrong. Even Manmohan Singh was a good man. But Modi is a decisive leader.”
Associated with the Sangh Parivar for 20 years, the 40-year-old from Ghazipur is travelling with two friends, Ajay Kumar Giri and Chandrakesh Yadav. Ajay Giri is a vocal BJP supporter who doubles up as an LIC agent and a stringer for a local channel.
They get into a long discussion on the decline of the Congress and how it once produced great leaders “like Kalpnath Rai”. The party, they say, was “destroyed by Rajiv Gandhi” as he was “born with a silver spoon”.
“Modi is different. But something needs to be done about Yogi Adityanath. We don’t need such provocative speeches,” says Ajay Giri. “I agree,” Ramesh answers, “But he only states matters of fact.”
Chandrakesh Yadav, a machine operator in a Surat textile mill, claims he only votes on issues. So in UP he votes for SP, and in Gujarat he votes for the BJP. “I have votes at both places. Akhilesh is doing a lot of good work in UP, I support him. But in Gujarat, my choice is BJP,” he says.
Yadav is not the only one with votes in two states. Many passengers, who have worked in Gujarat for several years, say they have votes at both places.
Near the toilet sits Saryu Das, 52. The Vaishnav sadhu from Ayodhya is offered a seat by many but refuses. “It’s not my right. I have not paid for it,” he says politely. He too is a migrant who embraced celibacy after failing to get married by 30. He left Guna in Madhya Pradesh for Ayodhya and has been there since.
“Vinashkale viparit buddhi” is all he says of the Godhra carnage and the riots that followed.
When Sabarmati Express enters the Godhra station at its scheduled time, there is absolute quiet. The station has had a makeover with digital displays and tiled floors. A member of the station staff says he had forgotten that the train carnage date was here again. Until the station received a police notice about a VHP rally planned for February 27. “We are more busy with this,” he says, handing out a pamphlet for a Swachh Bharat programme.