1984 - the untold story

Published : Sep 09, 2005 00:00 IST

The Prime Minister's apology over the 1984 anti-Sikh riots is seen as a statesmanlike gesture but is of little value unless he makes good his promise to seek the truth and punish the guilty.


ON February 10, 2005, a day after Justice G.T. Nanavati submitted the report of the inquiry he held into the 1984 anti-Sikh riots to the Central government, Home Minister P. Shivraj Patil made a categorical statement that the government had "nothing to hide" in the report and that it would be tabled in Parliament soon. He said this at a conference of the National Commission for Minorities, and added: "There is nothing of which we can be shy because we know how we [Congressmen] had conducted ourselves, how our leaders had conducted themselves."

At that time, the indications from the Home Ministry were that the report would be tabled in the latter part of the Budget session of Parliament. The Budget session passed without the report being tabled. The Home Ministry held on to the report until it became lawfully untenable to withhold it from Parliament. By the time the Home Minister got around to tabling it in Parliament - on August 8, exactly six months after Justice Nanavati submitted it to the government - what remained of Patil's "nothing to hide" declaration were mounting doubts about its veracity.

In the next two days, the hue and cry over the Commission's report and the Home Ministry's Action Taken Report (ATR) forced the government to concede an adjournment motion debate in the Lok Sabha. The doubts had begun to seem well-founded. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in Parliament that he had no hesitation in admitting that the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 were a shameful episode in the country's history. He went on to apologise "not only to the Sikh community but the whole Indian nation" with the assertion that "what took place in 1984 was the negation of the concept of nationhood ... enshrined in our Constitution". He said: "On behalf of our government, on behalf of the entire people of this country, I bow my head in shame that such a thing took place."

Some concrete measures followed. Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Jagdish Tytler, against whom the Commission had found "credible evidence" of a possible role "in organising the attacks", was forced to resign. Another senior leader from Delhi, Lok Sabha member Sajjan Kumar, who was also referred to in the report, resigned as Chairperson of the Delhi Rural Development Board, a position of Cabinet rank in the Delhi government.

The Prime Minister gave a "solemn promise" to Parliament that "wherever the Commission has named any specific individual as needing further examination or specific case needing reopening and re-examination, the government will take all possible steps within the ambit of law". He also promised that the government would try to ensure that the widows and children who survived the riots were rehabilitated in a way that would allow them to lead lives of dignity and self-respect.

Manmohan Singh's performance in Parliament was impassioned and statesmanlike. But the whole episode, including Tytler's resignation, belied Shivraj Patil's avowal six months ago that there was nothing in the conduct of Congress leaders in 1984 that called for an apology or had to be hidden.

What caused this world of difference in the approach of the Congress leadership? On the day the report was tabled in Parliament, the Congress leadership's attitude was evidently closer to Patil's swagger. The ATR presented by the Home Minister on day one even said that there would be no action against Tytler because "criminal action cannot be initiated on the basis of probability". Yet, Tytler had to resign in two days. The Prime Minister himself made a sort of reference to this remarkable change in attitude in the space of 48 hours. He said the government was responding positively to public perception and "the sentiment of the House". "The government respects and bows to that sentiment,'' he said.

However, even while trying to present an easy justification Manmohan Singh said that though the Commission was ``not certain'' of the role of certain individuals in organising the 1984 attacks, the government would not take refuge in such uncertainty. This begs another question. If this was the government's position right from the time the Commission report came into its possession, why did it come up with a farcical ATR? There are no plausible or politically meaningful answers from the Congress leadership.

The virtual somersault of the party leadership has drawn many interpretations. The most widely accepted one is that the Congress leadership was forced to retract from its "arrogant" attitude vis-a-vis the report because of the pressure put by its allies, particularly the Left parties, on whose support the government depends for survival. By all indications, segments of the Left made it clear that they would have no hesitation in supporting an adjournment motion brought in Parliament by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), if the Home Ministry refused to move forward from its position in the ATR. Some constituents of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal, too had apparently taken a strong position against the ATR.

Indeed, the Left categorically rejected the ATR and questioned the mildness of the Commission's report. It is also true that UPA constituents such as the RJD were upset about the ATR. But what is surprising is that the Congress leadership should have failed to anticipate it. "Any leadership of a politically knowledgeable government in India," a senior Congress leader told Frontline, "would have sensed that the Left parties would take a strong position on an issue like this." It is an issue over which the Left has repeatedly launched agitations and raised questions in and outside Parliament. He said that if the Home Ministry had taken this into account, it "would not have shown the gall to come up with an ATR like this and that would have saved the government and Congress leadership the embarrassment it suffered". He thought that the party could have even dropped Tytler in a regular reshuffle, long before the report was tabled in Parliament. In this leader's opinion, all this has exposed the political naivete of the Congress leadership.

However, some partners of the Congress in the UPA think that the mess-up was perhaps because the ATR had not gone up for discussion at the highest levels of the Congress leadership. "This breakdown of communication within the hierarchy," said a senior leader of the UPA, "is not new to the Congress." It was a phenomenon, he said, that overwhelmed the party during the later years of the Rajiv Gandhi regime, when a lot of important communication meant for him would stop with a coterie that he had built around him. He and some of his colleagues in the UPA are apprehensive that a similar situation is developing in the echelons of Sonia Gandhi's Congress. However, there was no independent corroboration of this perception from any section of the Congress leadership.

Whatever the various perceptions about the Congress' change in attitude, there is general agreement that Manmohan Singh's masterly performance in Parliament and the steps taken along with it have helped the party to save face, albeit in a limited sense. At the political level, this performance has some added value, because it would help the Congress take a moral high ground, especially in its political confrontations with the principal Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

This would be useful in the near future because several personalities in Narendra Modi's government in Gujarat are under investigation by yet another commission led by Justice Nanavati probing the anti-Muslim riots of 2002. This commission's term is scheduled to end in December. Chief Minister Modi and six of his Ministers have been named in various testimonies before it. If it comes up with observations against any of them, the Congress could highlight Tytler's resignation and demand similar action from the BJP.

At another level, Manmohan Singh's performance has also kicked off power games within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. The convulsions that were witnessed in the BJP on August 20 had a direct connection to the Manmohan Singh act. It all started with the release of a letter by former Delhi Chief Minister Madanlal Khurana to BJP president Lal Krishna Advani, seeking a Manmohan Singh-like apology to the people of Gujarat and a Tytler-like removal of Modi. Khurana pointed out that the Supreme Court had already likened Modi's role during the riots to that of Nero. The developments of the day ended with Khurana's suspension from the BJP.

BUT beyond these seemingly temporary realpolitik gains for the Congress are the real issues thrown up by the Nanavati Commission report and the way it was handled by the Manmohan Singh government. Manmohan Singh himself made some oblique references to them when he said that even after 21 years "we, as a country" had failed to fix responsibility for the 1984 anti-Sikh violence and that the search for truth must continue tirelessly. Will he be able to show the political will to fulfil this task beyond emotional speeches?

The popular perception on the riots is clear. There is little doubt in people's minds that well-known Congress leaders of Delhi such as Tytler, H.K.L. Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, Dharam Das Shastri and Arjun Das were involved in them. The Nanavati Commission received 2,557 affidavits naming Congress leaders for inciting and leading mobs in Delhi. It recorded interviews with 89 people, including journalists, Army officers, police officers and eminent persons who had either witnessed the violence or tried to goad the government into action to stop the violence. The Nanavati report notes that it had received "large numbers of affidavits indicating that local Congress leaders and workers had either incited or helped the mobs in attacking Sikhs". It also states: "But for the backing and help of influential and resourceful persons, killing of Sikhs so swiftly and in large numbers could not have happened... "

The important political question in the context of all this is whether Manmohan Singh, like most political leaders, will treat resignations from political office as a sort of ultimate punishment, or whether he is ready to treat the 1984 killings as an unpardonable criminal offence deserving harsh punishment. It must be noted that the man who had to resign from the Council of Ministers, Tytler, was a relatively dispensable, with no great mass following in Delhi.

There is also the question whether the Prime Minister's promise to seek tirelessly the truth behind the riots would involve identifying and penalising those "influential and resourceful persons" who backed the violent mobs. Unless he comes out with a positive answer to these queries, and soon, the statesman-like performance in Parliament would have only a fleeting socio-political value.

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