Rhetoric and reality

Published : Dec 21, 2007 00:00 IST

A book that reveals for the first time several aspects of the1984 anti-Sikh riots that had remained hidden from public scrutiny.

THE 1984 riots against Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere, in the aftermath of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, is a shameful chapter in the history of independent India. Even as India prides itself as the only country with rich diversity in the subcontinent to stick to the democratic path, characterised by the rule of law, the failure of the state to punish those who planned and executed the carnage right in the national capital will for ever undermine its claim to be a part of the civilised world. Therefore, the quest to know why and how it was allowed to happen, despite strong institutional safeguards created by the Constitution and the law against atrocities directed at minorities, continues, irrespective of half-hearted attempts in the form of state-appointed inquiry commissions to seek out the truth.

This book, authored by journalist Manoj Mitta and senior advocate H.S. Phoolka, takes us nearer to the truth by revealing, for the first time, several aspects of the carnage that had remained hidden from public scrutiny all these years.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is a reconstruction of the carnage by Mitta, who tells us how it all started and how it was facilitated by the collusion of the police with the riot (ruling party) leaders and by the connivance of key functionaries in the government. Mitta drew his material from police records, affidavits filed before the Ranganath Misra Commission (1986) and the G.T. Nanavati Commission (2005), and the reports of these two and other Commissions set up to examine the various dimensions of this carnage. The Misra Commission held in-camera proceedings whereas the Nanavati Commission threw open its proceedings to the public.

Tracing the carnage to the failure of the authorities to respond to the early signals of trouble on October 31, 1984, Mitta points out that the then Home Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, who secured the general clearance at the Cabinet meeting held on that day to take necessary steps, could well have called for reinforcements immediately from the Army and the paramilitary forces and deployed them alongside the police at the earliest. Had there been any clear signal from Rao to do whatever it took to protect the Sikhs, the top brass of the Delhi Police would not have ignored the plea of the Sabzi Mandi police station to clamp a curfew on the evening of October 31. The two police officers who had asked for such permission were, instead, pulled out of action. Though curfew was declared on November 1, there was a lapse of 48 hours before it was enforced, leading to the killing of more than 3,000 Sikhs. The delay of a few hours made all the difference to the scale of the massacre, which was carried out over 72 hours, Mitta says. Most of the killings took place on November 1.

The Misra Commission commended Rajiv Gandhi for anticipating violence in Delhi in the wake of his mothers assassination and blamed the authorities below him for failing to follow up on his instructions. The Army was called late simply because there was no feedback of incidents by the station house officers, the Misra report had said. According to Mitta, such facile reasoning brought the Misra report the odium of doing a whitewash. The Nanavati report reiterated that while the Rajiv Gandhi government was blameless, Lieutenant Governor P.G. Gavai and Police Commissioner S.C. Tandon were responsible for the delayed reaction.

Bringing out the discrepancies in the versions of Gavai, Tandon, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister P.C. Alexander, and General Officer-Commanding of the Delhi area, Major General J.S. Jamwal (as recorded by the Nanavati Commission), Mitta says it is hard to make out who spoke the truth about the cavalier manner in which the Army was deployed later rather than sooner. If those four did want the Army to be deployed without delay, there must have been some force in the government beyond their control that delayed the process, with tragic consequences. Such a force, if any, could only have been the political leadership of the government, Mitta says, and adds that Narasimha Rao gave no explanation for not visiting a single affected area. Mitta, therefore, is critical of the Nanavati Commissions clean chit to Narasimha Rao, calling it laconic.

Citing the official death toll, Mitta puts the carnage in perspective. Out of the 2,733 Sikhs killed in Delhi in the first week of November 1984, 1,234 were killed in East Delhi alone. Though more than half of those killings took place on November 1, only 26 people were arrested in East Delhi on that fateful day, and all of them were Sikhs, that is, members of the very community that was being massacred. In East Delhi, the police arrested 26 Sikhs and four members of the rioting mobs on November 1 and 2, 1984. The corresponding figures for West Delhi were 40 Sikhs, and 31 members of rioting mobs. Mitta rightly cites these figures to rebut the suggestion of the then government led by Rajiv Gandhi that the killings were spontaneous.

Read with police records, the affidavits filed by victims shed light on the manner in which the massacre was organised by Congress leaders and then executed with the collusion of the police. Mitta points to the eyewitness accounts of a series of meetings of Congress workers held in and around Trilokpuri on the night of October 31 and the morning of November 1. It was against the backdrop of such meetings that a mob of 400 men, armed with iron rods, wooden sticks and kerosene tins, descended on Block 32 of Trilokpuri on the morning of November 1. The Sikh residents converged on their gurdwara, putting their kirpans (swords) and other small arms to good use to keep the mob at bay.

But the Sikhs lost the battle when the Station House Officer of the Kalyan Puri police station, Soor Veer Singh Tyagi, forced them to return to their homes, making them easy prey for the rampaging mobs led by local Congress leaders. None of the police officers responsible for the Block 32 massacre Tyagi, Sewa Dass and Jatav was penalised, whether in criminal cases or through departmental proceedings. All of them got on with their careers and went on to get their promotions. The Nanavati Commission neither indicted these police personnel nor recommended any action against them. The Commission had the courage to indict the Congress politicians involved in the massacre namely, H.K.L. Bhagat, Rampal Saroj and Dr. Ashok but did not recommend any further action against them as they had been acquitted in the criminal cases filed against them.

In the chapter on Rape in the Time of Mourning, Mitta lifts the veil of silence over the rapes during the carnage. He refers to the abduction of 30 Sikh women of Block 32, Trilokpuri, who were held captive for over 24 hours at the nearby Chilla village and sexually assaulted, to show that there was little sign of grief over Indira Gandhis death among the rampaging mobs. The women were rescued by Jugti Ram, head-constable at the Kalyan Puri police station, who later faced harassment by his superiors.

Mitta reveals tell-tale evidence of the manner in which the carnage was organised. Rioters were paid in proportion to the number of Sikhs they killed, he says, quoting from the affidavit filed by Joginder Kaur, a widow, before the Misra Commission. In the affidavit, Kaur recollects that she saw members of the rioting mob remonstrating with the police inspector who rescued her and her two sons, that by shielding her two sons he was inflicting on them a loss of Rs.500 for each. The Misra Commission glossed over this part of her affidavit as it contradicted with its finding that the violence had begun spontaneously and that only unnamed anti-social elements and Congress party workers were involved.

In Part II, Phoolka offers an inside account of the conduct of the official inquiry commissions. Starting with a harrowing account of his familys escape from the violent mobs on the fateful days following the assassination, he recounts in moving detail how he sacrificed his professional interests to work with the carnage victims in Delhi and organised the forum, Citizens Justice Committee (CJC), comprising eminent intellectuals, to intervene on their behalf.

Phoolka narrates how the Misra Commission used the in-camera device to bar not only the media from covering its proceedings but also the victims counsel from cross-examining the officials who deposed before the Commission. He points out that the in-camera device came in handy for the anti-victim groups, as parties to the proceedings, to get advance information about the identity of the victim-witnesses and the timing of their depositions, and threaten them beforehand. The CJC, therefore, decided to withdraw from the proceedings, even while permitting Phoolka to continue to function as counsel for the victims.

Phoolka reveals that the legal system has so far imposed punishment on just 13 persons in half a dozen murder cases relating to the carnage. In all other cases, either the police have closed the file or the courts have acquitted the accused.

The gap between the rhetoric and the reality of the rule of law in India is indeed astounding.

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