Waiting for justice

Print edition : September 01, 2001

As the Nanavati Commission inquiring into the 1984 Delhi riots traverses a crucial phase of its work, weary survivors wait - and some battle it out.

SEVENTEEN years after riots rocked Delhi following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination, the culprits are still at large and there is widespread disillusionment among the victims about the process of administering justice.

Satnami Bai with a portrait of Mohan Singh, one of the victims of the 1984 Delhi riots.-R.V. MOORTHY

Most of the individuals who have been deposing before the Justice G.T. Nanavati Commission, appointed by the National Democratic Alliance government in 2000 to investigate the 1984 violence, admit that they are doing so only out of a sense of duty to their family members who died in the riots. They know that the politicians who were behind the riots have long been acquitted by the courts for lack of evidence or because witnesses turned hostile.

In recent times, a legal battle between two women over a compensation claim have once again brought the issue of the survivors of the riots into the spotlight. Each of them claims that Mohan Singh, who was killed in the riots, was her husband and that the compensation given by the government belongs to her.

Satnami Bai, the defendant in the case, who came under public scrutiny when she deposed against Congress(I) leader and former Union Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Har Kishan Lal Bhagat. On the other hand, Gopi Kaur, the plaintiff, appeared on the scene in 1998, after the Delhi High Court increased the amount of compensation to the relatives of the dead from Rs.50,000 to Rs.3.3 lakhs.

Matters came to a head when Satnami Bai was remanded to 12 days of police custody on July 28, after Metropolitan Magistrate Inderjeet Singh rejected her bail application. She was charged with perjury by Gopi Kaur for making the false statement that Mohan Singh was her husband. Satnami Bai said: "I was kept in prison for 12 days for this case when those I had accused of killing my husband have not even spent one hour behind bars. Now I have to prove that I am the wife of Mohan Singh. I will fight this case to the end."

Satnami Bai maintains that she was married to Mohan Singh in Rajasthan when she was eight years old. Later she came to Delhi to stay with him. She has furnished a copy of the ration card and other documents to support her claim. "In 1984 I saw him being killed by the mobs in Trilokpuri. I saw the crowds come with petrol, tyres and iron rods. They first hit him on the head and then burnt him alive."

Satnami Bai later received monetary compensation from the government, a house in a rehabilitation colony, a pension, and a job with the local government dispensary. She says: "A compensation of Rs.3.3 lakhs was granted to me by the government in 1996. It was after this that Gopi Kaur came to the scene and claimed to be the wife of Mohan Singh." In the same period Satnami also fought a case against H.K.L. Bhagat. A few months after filing her affidavit in which she stated that Bhagat led the mob that killed Mohan Singh, Satnami retracted her allegation and refused to identify Bhagat in the court. Later, she filed another application alleging that she was coerced into retracting her statement naming Bhagat as an accused.

Gopi Kaur's claim that she was the real wife of Mohan Singh made matters worse for Satnami. Since then Satnami has been trying to prove that she is the wife of Mohan Singh. However, no court has ruled yet that she is not Mohan Singh's wife.

In December 1999, a court dismissed Gopi Kaur's suit for an injunction against Satnami Bai. Gopi Kaur filed a criminal complaint in 2001 and an investigation was ordered.

"More than anything else this is a case of compensation. Gopi Kaur remained silent from 1984 to 1998. That is a long time, especially when Satnami's and Mohan Singh's names were being splashed in all the newspapers when she decided to depose against H.K.L. Bhagat. Even in 1984, Gopi would have come to know of her husband's death. The circumstances of her remaining silent cannot be ignored. What prompted her to file a case against Satnami after more than a decade?" asks Satnami Bai's lawyer Dhian Singh Rahi. "As of now the investigation report of the police has not been submitted in the court. When the police submit their report, the case will start," said Rahi.

MEANWHILE, the Nanavati Commission has been recording evidence against Congress(I) leaders who have been accused by survivors of having led the riots. The Commission has been hearing the depositions of persons from east Delhi and central Delhi. "Six depositions have either charged Bhagat directly or named his supporters of being a party to the riots," said Carnage Justice Committee (CJC) counsel Harvinder Singh Phoolka. The CJC represents the riot victims.

Shammi Bai, who lost her husband, a son and a brother-in-law in the riots, told the Commission that Bhagat visited Trilokpuri in east Delhi a day after Indira Gandhi's assassination and instructed the residents of the locality to "finish off" all Sikhs. She said that the Congress(I) leader came in a white car on the night of November 1, 1984 and asked the residents whether they had accomplished the task. Shammi Bai said she heard Bhagat telling a group of people to "finish off all Sikhs. If there are any male children left alive, kill them. Eliminate the entire progeny of these snakes."

Surinder Kaur, a survivor, said that Bhagat had called up the Shakarpur police station and demanded the release of all the people who had been called for identification by the survivors.

Another survivor, Ajit Singh, told the Commission that on October 31, 1984, the day of the assassination, Bhagat gave orders to Ram Pal Saroj, a local Congress(I) leader of Trilokpuri, to kill members of the Sikh community. The next day Saroj was seen leading mobs that killed Sikhs, looted their houses and set them on fire. Wazir Singh, a resident of the area, also deposed that he was a witness to a meeting held by Bhagat in Block 32 of Trilokpuri, an area that witnessed the worst form of violence.

Sardara Singh, who lost six sons in the riots, also testified against Ram Pal Saroj. "Ram Pal Saroj of the Congress(I), who is very close to H.K.L. Bhagat, was leading the rioters," Sardara Singh said in his affidavit. He said: "While I was sitting near my door, Saroj came with a mob of 100-150 people and called my son Bhajan Singh, aged 28 years, to come out. When he came out, they made him unconscious by beating him with sticks, and after he fell down they burnt him after pouring oil on him. Thereafter, they killed my three other sons and burnt them. They also killed two of my sons-in-law and a grandson aged 18 years."

Parsa Singh, another survivor, said that the local Station House Officer Soorvir Singh, who disarmed Sikhs at the time of the riots, later told him that Bhagat had pressured him to do so. Jagjit Singh, who was a Congress(I) worker before the riots, deposed that another party worker, Babarsi Dass Goel, had come to his house after the assassination of Indira Gandhi and informed him of a meeting attended by Bhagat. "In the meeting it was stated that Sikhs should be taught a lesson, they should be looted, killed and their houses be destroyed. Bhagat had given money for the riots," Jagjit Singh said.

Most of the depositions have hinted at some government representatives' active participation in or open support to the riots. Even independent groups that carried out investigations to identify the guilty politicians had come out with similar statements. The Amiya Rao report, prepared by the voluntary organisation Citizens Commission, titled "Report to the Nation: Truths about Delhi violence", had referred to Bhagat as "scolding the crowd" and asking "what is the point of assembling here?" This statement was interpreted in two ways - either that the crowd had no purpose in assembling there or that it might be more useful elsewhere. Indian Express wrote on November 8, 1984: "After Mrs. Gandhi's body was taken to the AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences), the police 'disappeared' as if by an 'unseen signal' clearly indicating to eyewitnesses their sanctioning of the violence already under way." However, the Justice Ranganath Misra Commission of Inquiry, appointed by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1985, had exonerated politicians, including Bhagat, in the matter.

The People's Union of Democratic Rights in its report "Who are the Guilty? Report of a Joint Inquiry into the causes and impact of the riots in Delhi from 31 October to 10 November, 1984" also named Bhagat in its list of guilty and blamed him for organising the crowds.

However, the Ranganath Misra Commission noted that "implication of Shri Bhagat was perhaps in the air and hundreds of affidavits were filed before the Commission to say that Shri Bhagat had no role to play in organising the riots". The Commission got charges against him in other affidavits investigated by its own agency and exonerated him in the "absence of convincing material".

The Nanavati Commission faces the difficult task of investigating the role of senior politicians in the riots. "As of now, among politicians, depositions have been made against H.K.L. Bhagat because the commission has covered east Delhi where he was active. Depositions made as the Commission moves to other districts, will throw light on the conduct of other leaders," Phoolka said. Whatever be the results, ascertaining the role of politicians is important both for the survivors and the for the inquiries into the 1984 riots.

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