The elusive truth

Published : Sep 09, 2005 00:00 IST

The report does not seem to have revealed anything new on any of the important aspects of the riots.

V. VENKATESAN in New Delhi

THE Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice G.T. Nanavati, retired Judge of the Supreme Court, was the 11th of its kind set up to investigate the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. It was formed in 2000, following a unanimous resolution in the Rajya Sabha, in view of the fact that the earlier probes were far from satisfactory.

The notification setting up the Commission pointed to the widespread demand from different sections of the public, particularly the Sikh community, for an inquiry into several aspects of the violence - abuse of authority, the remissness and apathy of the law enforcement agencies and those who were in position to exercise control over them, the excesses committed - and the action taken or purported to be taken. When the report of the Commission was made public nearly six months after its submission to the Government of India on February 9, there were expectations that it would throw light on some of these aspects and fix responsibility. The report, no doubt, reminded the nation about the enormity of the carnage that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi, but it did little justice to its terms of reference, causing profound disappointment.

The Commission was supposed to inquire into the causes and course of the criminal violence targeting Sikhs, and the sequence of events leading to it. It does not seem to have revealed anything new on any of these aspects.

The investigation into the attack on Gurdwara Rakab Ganj in New Delhi, for instance, illustrates this failure. There were two witnesses - a resident of the gurdwara and a journalist - who said that Congress Member of Parliament Kamal Nath was among the rioters who gathered there on November 1, 1984. According to the Commission's findings, the situation at the gurdwara turned serious around 11-30 a.m. that day, and continued to remain grave until about 3-30 p.m. Kamal Nath was seen in the mob at about 2 p.m. The Commission found his reply vague and thought it was strange that he left the place abruptly without even contacting the police officers who had gone there.

The journalist, Monish Sanjay Suri, told the Commission that Kamal Nath did not make any attempt to control the situation near the Gurdwara. But he also said that Kamal Nath was leading a crowd of 4,000 people, and was able to keep them under control. Because of this `discrepancy', and the fact that Kamal Nath was unable to give more details about when and how he went there and what he did (the Commission dismissed other eyewitness accounts), the Commission concluded that it would be improper to suggest that he instigated the mob to indulge in violence.

The gurdwara was damaged, the riotous mob went inside, and two Sikhs were burnt alive. Sikhs inside the gurdwara fired in self-defence. The Commission recommended action against Sub-Inspector Hoshiar Singh, who was present there, for dereliction of duty.

Going by the circumstantial evidence, the Commission's exoneration of Kamal Nath appears less than convincing. The report is full of similar exonerations on flimsy grounds.

The role of P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was then Home Minister, was a mystery, especially because, the Commission agreed, it was felt that the delay in calling the Army led to the escalation of violence. The then Police Commissioner of Delhi, S.C. Tandon, told the Rangnath Mishra Commission that he had requested the Home Ministry to provide him with paramilitary forces and police contingents from outside on October 31, 1984, because the police strength in the capital was not enough to deal with the situation. He claimed to have informed the Lieutenant-Governor on November 1, 1984, of the necessity of requisitioning the services of the Army. He did not receive any instruction from Narasimha Rao on October 31, 1984, or later. People who visited Narasimha Rao at home, such as lawyer Ram Jethmalani and I.K. Gujral, who later became Prime Minister, found him indifferent to their pleas for speedy remedial action.

Narasimha Rao, in his reply to the Commission on November 23, 2004, denied the allegation of indifference and claimed that he had been in constant touch with all persons in charge of law and order and had instructed them suitably. He stated that he had given instructions to deploy the police and the Army to curb any violence. This is contrary to what he had told the Commission on August 27, 2004, - that the Home Minister did not have the authority to call the troops.

Although Lieutenant-Governor P.G. Gavai was competent to call the Army under Section 130 of the Criminal Procedure Code, he did not take the initiative. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi took the decision to call the Army at 1-30 p.m. on November 1, 1984, and the first Army contingent reached Teen Murti Bhavan, where Indira Gandhi's body was kept, at about 3 p.m. on that day.

The Commission concluded that there was no delay or indifference at the level of the Home Minister, even though it could not get any evidence of Narasimha Rao remaining in constant touch with police officers or giving instructions to deploy forces. The Commission found Gavai and Tandon responsible for the failure of law and order but, curiously, did not investigate their roles closely. It was content with their written explanations. It is not clear why the Home Ministry did not respond to Tandon's request for more troops. There is no clarity on why Gavai's account of the sequence of events from October 31, 2004, was substantially different from that of the then Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, P.C. Alexander. Alexander denied that Gavai sent any proposal to call the Army or that he telephoned Gavai on November 2, 1984, as the latter claimed, to go on leave. The Commission has not bothered to explain the discrepancy in their statements. As a result, the questions as to who had the real power to call the Army, and who delayed it - either deliberately or through negligence - remain unanswered.

In a recent article in a newspaper, former Union Minister Arun Nehru - he was known to have been very powerful in the immediate aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination - has said that there was virtually no government worth the name for three days following the killing. Although the Commission has found credible evidence against Congress politicians Dharam Das Shashtri, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar for instigating attacks on Sikhs, it is not at all convincing that they would have acted on their own without signals from above, or that the administration would have remained passive through the carnage without such signals.

The Commission has dismissed the suggestion that it was Rajiv Gandhi who sent the signal that Sikhs should be taught a lesson. One would tend to agree with the Commission that he would not have said that in so many words to an official, as it has been alleged, even if a conversation at all took place between him and the official. The Commission concluded that it was not clear what the conversation was about and in which context he allegedly said, "Yes, we must teach them a lesson." From this, and from Rajiv Gandhi's subsequent display of concern for the riot victims, the Commission concluded that there was absolutely no evidence suggesting that he or any other high-ranking Congress leader had organised the attacks on Sikhs. But local Congress leaders, the Commission said, could have done so for "personal political reasons".

The Commission, however, fought shy of identifying these "personal political reasons". Had it attempted to do so, it could have discovered that they acted to ensure their own political survival, as their subsequent career graphs bear out, with the blessings of high-ranking party leaders whom they were trying to please. Questions are bound to be asked as to whether the Commission ignored the need to probe the role of any Congress leader, other than Rajiv Gandhi, who took advantage of the crumbling state machinery during those crucial hours after the assassination. It was widely believed that the carnage helped to polarise the electorate on religious lines on the eve of the general elections in favour of the Congress. The Commission in its investigations did not take into account this political factor.

The Commission claims to have examined voluminous evidence consisting of registers maintained at police stations, first information reports (FIRs) and so on, to prove the negligence and dereliction of duty on the part of the police, and adds that it agrees with the findings of the previous commissions in this regard. It did not examine why the police failed to protect Sikhs - was it lack of political will or a signal that the perpetrators of the violence would be protected at any cost? An examination of the factors that led to the police negligence would have revealed the huge political influence that the people in power wield on policemen. The Commission itself has recommended that there should be an independent police force free from political influence, which is well-equipped to take immediate and effective action. Why then was it unable to expose a single instance of political influence over police functioning during and after the riots?

H.S. Phoolka, counsel for the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, pleaded with the Commission for making public details of the departmental action taken against certain police officials who had been indicted by previous commissions for complicity in the riots. The Delhi Police had given the summary of the proceedings in a sealed cover to the commission. Inexplicably, the Commission felt it was bound by the findings of these proceedings, which exonerated such officials in East Delhi, where the worst carnage had taken place, while rejecting similar exoneration of an indicted police official in South Delhi on the grounds that its scope of inquiry was much wider than that of a departmental inquiry or a criminal trial.

The Commission found no merit in Phoolka's plea, apparently oblivious of the importance that even the government now accords to the right to information. The Commission has not even suggested how the government should proceed against policemen who have been found guilty but who have since retired. In the Action Taken Report, the government pointed to "legal difficulties" (without explaining what they were) in taking departmental action against retired government servants.

One of the key clauses of its terms of reference mandates the Commission to recommend measures that may be adopted to meet the ends of justice. History is sure to judge the Commission's contribution in this regard as zero.

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