An Indian court yesterday convicted 31 people on conspiracy and murder charges over a deadly train fire in 2002 that triggered anti-Muslim rioting in which 2,000 people were killed.
The unrest, some of the worst religious violence in India since independence, was sparked after 59 Hindu pilgrims perished in the train fire at Godhra station in Gujarat.
Hindus in the state blamed the blaze on Muslim protesters at the station, and furious mobs seeking revenge rampaged through Muslim neighborhoods in several cities during three days of bloodshed.
“Thirty-one people have been convicted under conspiracy and murder charges, 63 others have been acquitted,” special public prosecutor J.M. Panchal said.
A total of 94 people, all Muslims, stood trial at a court in Ahmedabad, where they had been detained since 2002 accused of causing the train blaze.
Responsibility for the fire has been the subject of fierce dispute between India’s Hindu and Muslim communities, and yesterday’s convictions supported Hindu claims that it was a planned attack.
Previously one national inquiry concluded the fire was an accident, though other official investigations contradicted that finding.
“The court has accepted the conspiracy theory. It was not an accident,” Panchal said, adding sentences would be handed down on Friday.
Extra police were on duty across Gujarat to prevent any outbreak of communal violence in the wake of the verdicts, which came after the trial concluded in September.
Officials banned TV stations and newspapers from broadcasting or printing the graphic images taken during the riots to avoid stirring up religious tensions.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist group that leads the opposition, welcomed the court’s ruling.
“The decision on Godhra has made clear the conspiracy of trying to cover up the entire episode and to put the blame on the victims themselves,” party spokesman Tarun Vijay said.
Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi — a prominent BJP leader — was accused of failing to stop the riots, and even of encouraging them, with police allegedly ordered not to intervene as the killing spread.
Muslims have always denied setting the train ablaze on Feb. 27, 2002, though an angry crowd had gathered at Godhra station to protest against the daily stream of Hindu passengers allegedly taunting Muslim porters and hawkers.
The Hindus on the train were returning from the town of Ayodhya, another flashpoint for inter-religion unrest after a mosque was razed in 1992 by Hindu zealots, leading to riots that killed thousands of people, mostly Muslims.
Modi has struggled to shrug off accusations about his handling of the Gujarat riots. A Supreme Court panel earlier this month criticized him over the events of 2002, saying he had been “partisan” and had sought to downplay the seriousness of the violence. He denies all allegations against him over the riots.
During the slaughter in Ahmedabad and elsewhere, baying Hindu mobs surrounded and raped Muslim women, then poured kerosene down their throats and their children’s throats and threw lit matches at them.