NEW DELHI - The Supreme Court Friday asked the Gujarat High Court to decide within six weeks on the central government’s plea to allow it to table the Justice U.C. Banerjee Committee report on how a Sabarmati Express coach caught fire at Godhra railway station on Feb 27, 2002, causing death of 59 Hindu pilgrims.
A bench of Justice K.G. Balakrishnan and Justice P. Sathasivam issued the direction to the Ahmedabad bench of the Gujarat High court on a plea by the railway ministry, which sought an early permission to table the Justice Banerjee Committee report.
The railway ministry had on Sep 4, 2004, appointed a high-level committee under Justice Banerjee to look into certain technical aspects of the train burning, including the cause of the fire, in the S-6 coach. The death of the pilgrims led to large-scale sectarian violence in Gujarat in 2002, leading to the killings of more than 1,000 people.
The formation of the committee, however, was challenged in September 2005 by Nilkanth Bhatia on the ground that another high-powered commission, Nanavati-Shah Commission, formed by the Gujarat government earlier, was already investigating the matter.
On the basis of this petition, the Gujarat government earlier managed to temporarily prevent three top Gujarat police officials from deposing before the Banerjee Committee after they were summoned.
Bhatia challenged the setting up of the committee after it discarded the Gujarat government’s claim in an interim report to the railway ministry that the train was set on fire for communal reasons.
Justice Banerjee, in his report, stated that the fire in the S-6 coach of the train was ‘accidental’, which was not in accordance with the ‘conspiracy’ theory floated by the state government.
But the Gujarat High Court on March 6, 2006, prevented the government from tabling the final report of the panel until the court had concluded hearing on a related petition.
The union government later sought review of the high court order, but its lawsuit is still pending with the high court.
The apex court bench directed an early disposal of the government’s plea after Additional Solicitor General Gopal Subramaniam pleaded for it.