Train Fire Recreated for Narendra Modi Biopic But Godhra Questions Remain

The film, which apparently “captures the life of Prime Minister Narendra Modi”, is going to be released on social media before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

New Delhi: On Sunday morning, a railway bogie was set on fire in Vadodara to recreate the 2002 Godhra train burning – so that makers of biopic on Prime Minister Narendra Modi could use the shot in their film.

According to the Indian Express, the Western Railways and Vadodara fire department gave permission to the producers, Benchmark Production. The film, which apparently “captures the life of Prime Minister Narendra Modi”, is going to be released on social media before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

“Permission was given to shoot the documentary film here. It was shot at the narrow gauge Vishwamitri railway station. No rail traffic was affected in the process of the shoot and the bogie being used for the shoot was provided by us. It is a mock-drill bogie and was unused,” Western Railways PRO Khemraj Meena told the newspaper.

Jayraj Gadhvi was the executive supervising the shoot, Indian Express reported. “It is a biopic documentary that captures the life of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This particular scene speaks of the challenges he faced. The Railways has given us the coach to shoot the scenes of the outside of the train, which shows the burning coach. However the scenes from inside the train will be shot at a film set in Mumbai,” he said.

The BJP MP from Vadodara, Ranjan Bhatt, said the party had no information about the movie. “We have no information that such a documentary has been commissioned by the party leaders or that it is being shot in Vadodara.”

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Ravin Bhaskar, Western Railways’ CPRO, said that his office was shown the film script and it did not mention ‘Godhra’. “It has been a week or so since the permission was granted and as far as I know, they wanted to shoot something recreating the Prime Minister selling tea on railway platforms. We go through the script and as a policy, do not permit anything that harms the image of Railways and the country. If they have set fire to a rolling stock or damaged railway property, then we can claim their deposit, claim insurance etc. We make them sign indemnity bond as well,” he told Indian Express.

This film is only one of many being made about the prime minister this year. An an analysis on The Wire noted, it is no coincidence that films featuring Modi and his brand of nationalism are coming out just before the Lok Sabha elections.

Films that have released or will release in 2019 in which Modi is an important character include UriBattalion 909 andPM Modi.

What happened in Godhra?

On February 27, 2002, coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express caught fire and 59 passengers, mostly Vishwa Hindu Parishad members and kar sevaks who were on their way back from Ayodhya were killed. The deaths triggered communal riots across Gujarat.

The official police version of that happened that morning – that the train burning was a pre-planned conspiracy to kill the kar sevaks – has come under considerable question. While it is known for sure that the coach was stoned by an angry mob, two reports – by Justice Banerjee and the Hazards Centre – indicate that the fire itself may have been an accident.

Siddharth Varadarajan wrote in The Hindu in 2005,

That there was an accidental fire at the same time an angry mob was throwing stones from outside might seem like something of a coincidence. Perhaps it was the panic induced by the stoning which made an accident more likely — a half-smoked cigarette thrown down carelessly, a stove used for making tea not turned off properly.

On the other hand, if the Hazards Centre theory — of a smouldering object under a berth eventually burning the latex seat, thereby generating thick black smoke and then bursting into flames — is correct, then the process of combustion might actually have started 15-20 minutes prior to the first time smoke was detected. This would be well before the stoning started.

The police version of what happened before the fire also changed between one chargesheet and the next. Everyone agreed on how the dispute began – there was a fight between Muslim vendors on a platform and the kar sevaks, during which a Muslim girl was molested. The station master got the train early to try and break it up.

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Soon after, the train’s chain was pulled. While the first police chargesheet says kar sevaks pulled the train because people had been left behind, the second one said that a Muslim vendor boarded the train and forced the chain to be pulled.

“In fact, rail records submitted to the Banerjee Committee show that the chain had been pulled in four coaches (83101, 5343, 91238 and 88238). These were rectified but it is possible there was a fifth coach too which was not rectified. The record in the chargebook of the Assistant Station Master (ASM) shows that there was another coach requiring rectification,” The Hindu report says.

Stone pelting continued, but the train continued after this first halt.

Minutes later, the train came to a halt for the second time. According to all version, smoke was spotted within five minutes of the second halt. This is where the timing of the police version is questionable. The Hindu reported, “According to a `panchnama of rehearsal’ dated 18.9.2002, it took the police four minutes to move by auto from the Guest House to the drain. In the remaining 13 minutes, the conspirators would have to have run from the platform to the [Aman] Guest House [in Godhra], loaded and unloaded the petrol, covered the 50 steps by foot, cut the vestibule and gone on board S-6.”

In addition, the assistant station manager at Godhra told the Justice Nanavati Commission that there was no mob waiting at the station.

When the Justice Banerjee report was first released, Arun Jaitley had questioned its conclusion that the fire was an accident. However, his questions were answered by the committee’s report as well as that of the Hazards Centre.

How the film on Modi will portray this contentious issue – and whether it will mention these reports at all or simply stick to the police version – remains to be seen.