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Carnage behind cricket
- Memories lurk in Godhra, Ayodhya shadows

Feb. 27: The platform wore a deserted look. A quick scan of railway records at Godhra station showed nobody had bought a ticket to board the Sabarmati Express, scheduled to arrive at 2 am. Yet railway security officials patrolled the platform and guards stood outside the station.

Five jawans huddled near a bonfire at the station entrance, listening to the commentary of the India-England match. As Ashish Nehra took another wicket, they cackled. At 1.25 am, India’s path to the Super Six stage was looking easier. “Bas, aaj India match jeet jaye, kal ka kal dekha jayega,” a jawan said softly.

Kal, meaning the day exactly a year after coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express was torched, killing 59 kar sevaks and letting loose the demons of communal hatred. For most, like the jawan, cricket was uppermost on their minds, but the carnage wasn’t far behind.

The train pulled in ahead of time and lingered at the platform for 15 minutes. The few inside S-6 fidgeted nervously. Suresh Yadav, travelling with six family members, was not interested in the score.

“Why isn’t the damn train moving'” he muttered. His brother, Ramesh, who was peeping furtively through the closed shutters, didn’t volunteer an answer. There was a general sigh of relief when the train moved, hesitantly, at 1.56 am.

At Faizabad, from where the kar sevaks had boarded the train last year, a coach attendant also heaved a sigh of relief. “It’s peaceful and the train is half-empty this time. But it was different last year when kar sevaks had swarmed to Ayodhya at the VHP’s call,” reminisced Surendra Nigam, who was on duty on the train that was torched.

He recalled how more than 3,000 kar sevaks had forced their way into sleeper coaches of the train on their way back to Gujarat. “The train was so packed that we gave up checking tickets. When it reached Lucknow late at night, I had to fight my way down and hand over charge to the next attendant,” Nigam said.

“We hope this peace will last,” said Ram Prasad, a tea vendor at the station — the gateway to Ayodhya. Most of the passengers shared the sentiment. “It’s best to forget it,” said Kalika Charan, an engineer travelling from Varanasi to Bina. “What happened to the Sabarmati Express at Godhra last year can happen anytime, any place, anywhere, if we allow religion to be mixed with politics.”

Two passengers in S-6 expressed contrasting sentiments — one wanted to forget it, the other wished “every Hindu to remember it”.

For Sudhakar Mehta, who had boarded the ill-fated train but alighted at Jhansi, it is still a nightmare. “When I heard what happened to my fellow passengers at Godhra, I couldn’t believe it. Their faces still haunt me and I would like to believe that this won’t happen again,” he said.

“I have been coming to Ayodhya on pilgrimage every week for the last 10 years. But I have no sympathy for those who misuse religion to make people kill each other,” Mehta, a deeply religious man, said.

Jayant Shukla, a Kanpur businessman, was going to Godhra on a pilgrimage of his own. “I want to pay homage to the Godhra martyrs on the first anniversary of their martyrdom. I want every Hindu to remember this day,” he said, somewhat belligerently.

Shukla believes post-Godhra Gujarat has proved his point. “It has taught us that Hindus must fight back to safeguard their dignity and restore their past glory,” said the young man who has joined the Bajrang Dal as a full-time activist.

The others in S-6 seemed unconvinced. “It’s time we stopped looking back and looked ahead,” said Vinod Kamalkar, a businessman returning home to Ahmedabad.

As the train dawdled at Godhra, nerves were on edge. Neeraj Singh, a 20-year-old, was excited. “You know, I got down and had chai at the station,” he lied. “I wasn’t scared at all.”

But Jung Bahadur Singh was. “Everybody is scared,” he snapped at Neeraj. “I have been awake the whole night. I know it is the 27th but what can we do' We had to make this journey from Sultanpur, we left things to God.”

About 20 minutes after the train had left Godhra, people started relaxing a bit. Though it was still dark outside, everybody seemed to be in a talkative mood, denouncing the Congress, the BJP, the VHP and even the “secularists”.

As the train reached Vadodara at 3.45 am, everyone began offering tea to each other. They had left Godhra and everything that it stands for far behind. At least for now.

Neeraj, now looking happier than ever, merrily greeted a new passenger. “You know, we just passed through Godhra,” he said. “I even got down and had chai at the station,” he lied again.

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