Wounds of 1984

Print edition : December 04, 2009

In New Delhi on August 9, 2005, at a demonstration against the Nanavati Commission`s recommendations.-SANDEEP SAXENA

THE crowd at the Constitution Club in New Delhi on November 7 perhaps symbolised what Jarnail Singh said at the launch of his book on the anti-Sikh violence of 1984, I Accuse. In the hall, packed to capacity, were only Sikhs except for a few journalists, when Jarnail Singh, who shot to fame when he hurled his shoe at Home Minister P. Chidambaram during a press conference a few months ago, asked desperately: Why has no one except members of the Sikh community come forward as witnesses in the carnage that took place across the capital in 1984? Why, even after 25 years, only Sikh groups have been raising their voices against the governments inaction?

Jarnail Singhs statement rings alarmingly true. The violence that took the lives of nearly 4,000 Sikhs, according to unofficial sources, in the three days that followed the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two of her bodyguards on October 31, 1984, remains a blot on Indian democracy. Nearly a dozen inquiry committees, including two judicial ones, since the carnage have not expedited justice for the victims. Almost all the prime accused in the case have got off scot-free and have even enjoyed plum posts in the government.

On the 25th anniversary of the carnage, many victims have even given up hope. H.S. Phoolka, counsel for the victims, told Frontline: It is widely accepted that it was an organised massacre. Evidence was systematically destroyed in the immediate aftermath [of the violence]. It is difficult to prove things now, so many years later. Many witnesses have passed away. All we can hope for is symbolic justice, and we will fight for it.

The first conviction, for murder, came nine years after the riots. Jarnail Singh remembers how as an 11-year-old he witnessed the violence firsthand. According to him, the research he did to write the book clearly shows that the police and the government officials were in collusion to ensure that the Sikhs of particular areas in Delhi did not escape unhurt. He goes on to write that the policemen who were the main accused were rewarded with promotions and medals.

This photograph taken on November 2, 1984, shows a building belonging to Sikhs burning in Daryaganj, New Delhi, after violence broke out in the wake of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi`s assassination.-BEDI/AFP

On the basis of affidavits filed before various commissions, he says that on the night of October 31, a meeting took place in the house of a Congress legislator from where instructions were passed on to teach the entire Sikh community a lesson. To burn the Sikhs and their houses, sacks of an inflammable white powder were procured from chemical factories and distributed all over Delhi. This powder is mentioned in many affidavits given by the survivors to the commissions of inquiry. No one had a name for the powder, but they all said it was highly inflammable. Kerosene depots were told to make kerosene available. Sikh houses were identified and marked on the voters list. The police were instructed to either turn a blind eye or to help the mobs. A train was organised from Haryana to bring mobs to Delhi. Similarly, Delhi Transport Corporation buses were given the duty of bringing known criminal elements from Haryana, he says in the book.

The pattern in which the violence occurred is recorded in the Nanavati Commissions report, which says, The massacre was organised and carried out with precision. The commission submitted its final report in 2007, detailing accusations and evidence against a few members of the ruling Congress for instigating mobs to kill Sikhs in their constituencies.

Many experts who have done studies on the 1984 violence, too, believe that the murders were clearly planned and that it could not be called a riot. Riots, they say, are those in which spontaneous clashes between two communities break out and damage is done to the lives and property of both communities, but in 1984, only Sikhs were looted and murdered.

In Amritsar on November 3, members of Sikh organisations holding a dharna on the Amritsar-Delhi railway track during the Punjab bandh called by them to mark the 25th anniversary of the anti-Sikh violence.-PTI

The Congress government, however, publicised the idea that it was the result of a spontaneous outburst of anger and grief of citizens at the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Her son Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded her, justified this stance when he stated at his very first public meeting after Indira Gandhis murder at the Boat Club on November 19, 1984: Some riots took place in the country following the murder of Indiraji. We know the people were very angry and for a few days it seemed that India had been shaken. But, when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little. According to another factor which is often added to this interpretation, Sikhs had brought this violence on themselves because of violence perpetrated against Hindus by Sikh militants in Punjab during the previous years.

The academic Virginia Van Dykes essay on the Delhi riots of 1984 says that the murders were not ordered by the state but were rather organised for the government by forces which the government itself had created. Noting the class divide among people, she says there was always an institutional riot structure in Delhi and the government took full use of it. The speed with which these riots were organised following the assassination leads to two inescapable conclusions: they were pre-arranged and pre-planned and an institutional riot structure was already in place, a pre-existing technology of terror, she says. The Ranganath Mishra Commission report of inquiry, which failed to prosecute anyone, also noted this.

Most human rights organisations that studied the violence have noted that far from being spontaneous expressions of madness and grief and anger at Indira Gandhis assassination as made out by the authorities, the killing of Sikhs was the outcome of a well-organised action marked by the acts of important leaders of the Congress. Citizens for Democracy has gone further by stating that the pogrom was primarily meant to arouse passions within the majority community Hindu chauvinism in order to consolidate Hindu votes in the election held on December 27, 1984, which the Congress won with an unprecedented 404 seats. In what could be seen as a blatant violation of journalistic ethics, the state television channel Doordarshan the only one that time and All India Radio continually announced that the Prime Minister was murdered by her Sikh bodyguards.

Sikhs huddled together at a camp in Delhi after the violence.-PABLO BARTHOLEMEW/GAMMA

Many political analysts also believe that the violence was an outcome of the majoritarian politics of the Congress in the period after the Emergency. The Congress had lost badly to the Janata Party in the elections following the Emergency and was not able to do much to consolidate its votes in the second term of Indira Gandhi. This period, analysts say, was marked by an effort by the Congress to consolidate its bases. An analysis of the 1984 election results, especially in North India, reveals that there was indeed a Hindutva dimension to the Congress victory. A big testimony to it is the manner in which the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) openly supported the Congress in a large number of constituencies. It was an acknowledgment of the Hindutva politics ingrained in the anti-Sikh pogrom.

The Congress did try to advance the same streak of politics during the Rajiv Gandhi regime with steps such as the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya for worship by the Hindus in 1986. Newspapers such as Indian Express and Jansatta also observed that the RSS extended its full support to the Congress at that time, completely sidelining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which managed just two seats in the December 1984 elections. It is another matter that the BJP and other constituents of the Sangh Parivar, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, upstaged the Congress game plan by embarking on an aggressive Hindutva campaign using the Ayodhya issue. In the midst of all these political games, the plight of the riot victims, including the survivors of those killed, remained pathetic, to put it mildly.

Manoj Mitta, senior editor of The Times of India and co-author of the book When a Tree Shook Delhi, which chronicles the events of the 1984 anti-Sikh violence, also believes that the violence was politically motivated. Rather than speaking about the killings of the Sikhs, Rajiv Gandhi, after becoming the Prime Minister, condemned only Indira Gandhis death. In fact, he showed disdain for the victims of the anti-Sikh violence when in Parliament a condolence address was made for Indira Gandhi and the victims of Bhopal Gas tragedy in 1984 but not for the people who died right in the capital. Even in the election campaign, he stressed Indiras role and drew sympathy out of her killing, and subsequently reaped an electoral harvest. The Congress talked about the militancy in Punjab and projected itself as the sole guarantor of national integrity. Even the media during that time barring a few exceptions toed the government line, he told Frontline.

He said this attitude of the government continued surreptitiously until March 1985 when many major States had to go in for Assembly elections. No condemnation of the anti-Sikh violence was made until that time. It was only after the Rajiv-Longowal accord that he conceded to Sant Longowals demand of putting up an inquiry commission, which was later headed by Ranganath Mishra. The commissions proceedings were also disdainful as the whole inquiry was done in front of the camera which prevented many government officials and witnesses from giving their statement, he said. (Harchand Singh Longowal was the president of the Akali Dal, and the 1985 accord attempted to establish peace between the Khalistan movement and the Government of India.) The hypothesis bears some credibility as most of the accused leaders won by massive margins in the 1984 general elections, including the prime accused H.K.L. Bhagat, who won by more than five lakh votes.

A victim of the violence. A November 4, 1984, picture.-PABLO BARTHOLEMEW/GAMMA

Despite the establishment of three commissions and seven committees of inquiry to investigate various aspects of the pogrom, none of the main organisers of the violence have been prosecuted. The Indian judicial system has failed to hold them accountable either on its own initiative or because of alleged pressure by the Congress party and governments. In spite of prolonged trials, only 13 persons, who acted on behalf of someone, have been convicted. Even charge-sheets against the prime accused have not been filed.

There are four cases against Sajjan Kumar on which the Central Bureau of Investigation sat on for three years after 2003. Now it says that they are waiting for the governments permission to file it. They must have included Sections like 153A that made it necessary for the government to permit the CBI to file a charge-sheet. [Only in Section 302, that is for murder, does the CBI not need any permission to file a charge-sheet against an MP.] The government has also been sitting on the file for the past three years after the CBI forwarded the case to it. In the meantime, 11 witnesses in the cases have died, counsel Phoolka told Frontline.

The wounds in the victims psyche are still festering. It is not just injustice, but we feel that we have been exploited, said Nirpreet Kaur, whose father was killed by a mob. She now runs a readymade garment business, but is still pursuing the case. She joined the Khalistan movement after her father was killed, and married a Khalistani militant only to be widowed in 12 days; her husband was killed in an encounter with the Delhi Police. She, too, spent eight years in jail with her son for her involvement in the Khalistan movement and has since been finding it hard to lead a normal life.

Pappi Kaur lost 10 members of her family in the pogrom and had to work as a maid along with her mother until the latter got a government job. They say that though they are trying to overcome the trauma, they will never be able to forget what happened in those three gory days across the capital. According to them, one generation of children who lost their fathers during the riots have taken to narcotic drugs and lost direction.

Perhaps, what the journalist Khushwant Singh told the Nanavati Commission describes the predicament of the victims the best. I felt like a refugee in my country. In fact, I felt like a Jew in Nazi Germany, he told the commission.

Though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh publicly apologised to the Sikh community for what happened in 1984 and the nominations of Congress leaders Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar were withdrawn in 2009 following widespread protests, the victims see these acts as mere tokenisms to mollify the community and to prevent the perpetrators of the violence from facing prosecution.

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