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Sajjan Kumar is acquitted but the wounds of 1984 remain raw

Eighteen long years after the 1984 anti-Sikh communal program, the acquittal of Congress leader Sajjan Kumar in the case of alleged complicity in the violence is another instance of the criminal justice system’s hopeless failure to address the woes of the victims of that vengeful mob. At the end of a protracted process of inquiry, the court has failed to convict any of the
accused in the 1984 case and this acquittal will in no way reassure the families of the riot-affected. The timing of this verdict is also particularly piquant, coming as it does after the Gujarat elections. Even as the Opposition calls for action against those who were allegedly responsible for the ‘state-sponsored’ riots in Gujarat, the judgement illustrates that the justice
system often fails to act against anyone who might wield political power, irrespective of the political complexion of the ruling dispensation. Notwithstanding token Congress admissions of shame, it would appear that then as now, politically powerful actors in situations of communal violence are completely above the law.

In fact the judiciary’s record of punishing those who have allegedly played a provocative role during communal riots has been dreadful. Every time a riot takes place, inquiry commissions are set up, they publish voluminous reports that should become the basis of trial and exemplary punishment, but no-one is ever convicted. The Srikrishna Commission published a detailed report of the Mumbai riots of 1992-93 but the state government has so far taken no action on it. An unprecedented two Commissions of Inquiry — the Ranganath Mishra Commission and the Nanavati Commission — were set up after the 1984 riots and over ten thousand affidavits were filed. Yet all politicians supposedly involved in the violence such as H.K.L. Bhagat and Jagdish Tytler have not only been let off completely but have also gone on to hold ministerial positions.

The shocking fact about the 1984 trials is that witnesses for the prosecution have refused to come forward to give evidence, saying that they saw nothing. Even police officers have claimed in the court that they were unaware of any political involvement in the riots resulting in the ‘no
evidence’ verdict. Without adequate witness protection and the lawlessness meant nobody wanted to come forward and risk the wrath of Police, Hindu extremist mobs & the mobs of the mainstream political parties themselves. Given the deliberately long drawn out nature of these inquiries and the stances of the witnesses, it seems as if victims of communal riots are doomed to perpetual injustice because their attackers are above the law.

Not only did Sajjan Kumar get aquitted, he was actually put forward as the Congress candidate for Delhi in elections. The Hindu majority elected him to be MP; a man that any truly impartial court in the world would have found him GUILTY.


Remember 1984

Eighteen years later, who’s been nailed, who’s been


The Vigyan Bhavan premises are host to the Justice Venkataswami Commission inquiring into the issues arising out of the Tehelka Tapes and the Justice Nanavati Commission seeking the truth about what happened to Sikhs in October 1984 following Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

The former arouses more interest in certain political circles even though it is looking into matters of procedure and allegations of corruption arising out of videotapes whose veracity is still uncertain.

If one reason is that 1984 is best forgotten for some people, the recent events in Gujarat make it imperative to recall the past and learn a few lessons.

Hundreds who are still active in politics, voluntary organisations and the media, including this writer, were eye-witnesses to the targeted attack on every Sikh person, establishment, dwelling and taxi stand for four days from the late afternoon of October 31, 1984. Khoon ka badla khoon se was the refrain which emanated from Safdarjang Road, where Mrs Gandhi’s body lay; it reverberated over Doordarshan and found echoes across Delhi, Gurgaon, Kanpur, Bokaro, Indore and in trains.

Sikhs desperately cutting off their hair and removing their turbans to escape identification were attacked with iron rods, trapped in burning tyres or in their flaming shops and homes. Even Sikh army officers in uniform were pulled out of trains and killed.

The police went around on motorcycles shouting encouragement to the mobs while Congress leaders were seen instigating those beholden to them in the vast slum clusters.

All this has been documented in the thousands of heartrending affidavits filed by the victims and in the PUCL report, “Who are the guilty?”, termed the job of a kangaroo court by the Congress.

The government belatedly put the death count at 425 but Atal Bihari Vajpayee asked the BJP to compile an accurate list which was released at the end of November 1984. This put the toll at 2,500. Both Madanlal Khurana and V.K. Malhotra have deposed before the Nanavati Commission, recounting how the Congress had raised a hue and cry calling the BJP anti-national for quoting such a high figure.

But the official figure compiled by the Justice Ahuja Committee as late as 1987 confirmed 2,733 deaths. No government has provided a consolidated figure for the rest of India.

Despite such unprecedented horror in the capital of a supposedly civilised India, the Congress government headed by Rajiv Gandhi chose not to institute a commission of inquiry immediately. Human rights groups filed a writ, but the government took the stand that the court had no powers to institute a commission of inquiry. However, in April 1985, when the Rajiv-Longowal accord was to be signed, Longowal listed a commission as one of the pre-conditions. So
came the Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission, more as a political sop than out of duty.

Mishra, who is today a Congress member of the Rajya Sabha, stated in his report that a number of Congress workers participated in the “riots” but that the Congress party was not involved. The report also said that if the army had been called in time, 2,000 lives could have been saved.

It did not go into who was responsible for all this since that had been conveniently left out of the terms of reference.

The report was submitted in August 1986 but the government took six months to lay it before
Parliament. To demonstrate “action taken”, it appointed retired justices for (i) the Jain-Banerji
Committee to go into why a large number of cases were not registered at all or were not registered properly; (ii) the Kapoor-Mittal Committee to inquire into the role of the police; and (iii) the Ahuja Committee to determine the number of deaths.

On Mishra’s crucial finding that the delay in army deployment resulted in 2,000 deaths, the government was totally silent. No one shouted for the resignation of the prime minister or the home minister. Little or no action was taken on the reports submitted by these committees.

The deployment of the army in 1984 was in sharp contrast to recent deployment in Gujarat. Army trucks were helplessly lost in the tree-lined avenues of New Delhi as killings went on unabated in faraway Palam and Trilokpuri. At 5 p.m. on the evening of the assassination the car of none less than the president of India, Giani Zail Singh, a Sikh, was stoned near the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Large-scale violence had begun. This should have been
enough to call the army out but even on November 1, as killings went on in east and west Delhi, Palam area and the south districts, curfew was not imposed till 4 p.m. — and that too only in central and south Delhi. In the east it led to 1,026 Sikhs being killed. Only at 8 p.m. on the night of November 1 was curfew imposed throughout Delhi.

The army was called at 2.30 p.m. on November 1 but when the general officer commanding went to meet the lieutenant governor, he was kept waiting for one hour.
Was this swift action compared to Gujarat?

The army reached south and central Delhi at 6 p.m. and east and west Delhi only in the afternoon of November 2. No magistrates to give permission to fire or navigators were provided, rendering the army virtually ineffective until Mrs Gandhi’s funeral was over.

The three days “to teach them a lesson”, as the message went, were finally over as her funeral pyre died down.

After this, the Congress unleashed a highly inflammatory election campaign with bit advertisements in all newspapers. These are well-documented in the January 13, 1985, issue of the now closed Illustrated Weekly of India.

It spread fear about “neighbours” and “taxi drivers” and questioned Sikh patriotism by asking people whether they wanted the country’s borders at their doorsteps.

Political analyst Rajni Kothari wrote in the December 23 issue: “Rajiv Gandhi’s government was inaugurated in Delhi through massive killing, arson and incitement to crime by influential politicians accompanied by a total breakdown of civil authority... There is considerable evidence to suggest that the neglect was planned neglect.”

The greatest beneficiary of all this was Sonia Gandhi’s late husband whose party won more than 400 seats to the BJP’s two in the ensuing Lok Sabha election.

He had declared at the Boat Club rally to commemorate his late mother’s birth anniversary that “when a great tree falls, the earth will shake”, clearly approbation for those who committed genocide in the name of spontaneous anger.

Today she fears the BJP government in Gujarat will have learned the lessons that her party taught and turn the tables, to the detriment of the Congress.

It is clear that the Congress’ rantings on the recent events in Gujarat stand on hypocrisy and amnesia, but Narendra Modi should not succumb to the temptation of imitation and attempt to benefit electorally out of violence and mayhem. In the meanwhile, let not the existence of the Justice Nanavati Commission be allowed to fade from public view.

Jaya Jaitly