Punjab Assembly’s Monsoon Session failed to resonate the indignation expressed at the national level over Rahul Gandhi’s remarks on no Congress involvement in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s comments at the London School of Economics Friday that Congress was not involved in 1984 riots had all the potential to be a political hot potato in the Assembly session, but the Congress got away unscathed. The issue caught least bit of momentum among the opposition MLAs as the Justice Ranjit Singh Commission report on Bargari desecration and subsequent police firing at Behbal Kalan and Kotkapura eclipsed 1984 riots in session that concluded here Tuesday.
The SAD-BJP combine’s attempts to rake the comment on the second day of the session was ambushed by the Chief Minister, Capt Amarinder Singh, who immediately took the floor when Bikram Majithia raised the issue and took the names of four Congressmen whom he had “heard” to be involved in the violence against Sikhs in 1984. Sukhbir Badal and his fellow MLAs came well prepared with placards on the topic, but Amarinder’s ‘confessional’ remark took the initiative from them and the protest petered out with a walkout.
The impact of naming four Congressmen — HKL Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, Arjun Das and Dharamdas Shastri — appeared to have had a salutary effect on Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) benches too with even H S Phoolka, who has waged a legal battle against Congressmen accused of involvement in 1984 riots for past 40 years, commending the Chief Minister. No attempt was made by the Akalis or the AAP MLAs to demand why the CM had not named several other senior Congress leaders like Jagdish Tytler or Kamal Nath who have also been accused of playing a role in the riots.
In fact, Kamal Nath’s appointment as general secretary in-charge of Punjab Congress ahead of the 2017 Assembly elections had created such a controversy that the Congress had to withdraw its decision and replace him. A year and a half down the line, the emotive issue of desecration of Guru Granth Sahib and the death of two Sikh youths in police firing has taken centre stage putting Akalis on the backfoot and allowing Congress to get away with Rahul Gandhi’s comment.
Amarinder’s bete noire and former Congressman Bir Devinder Singh says that 1984 riots are now only a tool for political parties. “It is unfortunate that 34 years later, the only people for whom the wounds are fresh are those who lost their family members in the violence. It is only they, who actually suffered, who seem to still carry the tears of pain. The Sikh community’s eyes have dried up it seems. The ‘qaum’ seems to have moved on and at every level there is ‘samjhauta’ (agreement) being done by people at the helm of affairs,” he said.
Giving an example, Bir Devinder said the 1984 issue comes in handy for the BJP to hit back at the Congress whenever the 2002 Gujarat riots are raised or the issue of lynching comes up. “There is no doubt that after 1947, the most organised lynching took place in 1984. But even the BJP has done nothing about getting justice to the victims, whether during the Vajpayee government or now,” he said.
Amarinder’s move, meanwhile, has evoked mixed reactions from his party colleagues. While a few said he had opened a can of worms for himself and the Congress by bringing four names on record, others felt it to be his strategy to counter the offensive well before it could be launched by the opposition. The matter ended there within a few minutes and the Congress was not cornered on the issue after that.
When asked why he did not bring up the issue with the force it required, H S Phoolka said, “I did raise the issue. I was the one who wanted the names of those four recorded. I did not raise it afterward because I did not want this issue to overshadow Behbal Kalan. That is also a sensitive issue,” he said. He added he was on national TV for many hours on 1984 riots, after the Assembly session, and that his tweet challenging Rahul for a debate was re-tweeted 2,400 times. “Is it not raising an issue?” he asked.
Akali leaders said they were the ones to raise it, “We could not have raised it in the Assembly again and again as the session was meant to discuss sacrilege,” said a leader. The Akalis are, however, preparing to take the issue further. “Four names are there on the record of Vidhan Sabha. We will fight it out at every possible platform. We will make sure Amarinder has to appear as a witness in the SIT constituted to investigate riots,” said an Akali leader.
The Congress camp is fearing the backlash of Amarinder’s “confession” in the Vidhan Sabha. “We wish Rahul did not have to deny it. Former PM Manmohan Singh apologised in the Parliament. Sonia Gandhi came to Golden Temple and apologised. All that he should have done was to have express regret. And the Chief Minister, in a bid to undo the damage, ended up causing more damage,” said a Congress leader.