When 71-year-old Santokh Singh first saw a government ad in a local newspaper in Jalandhar two years ago, requesting people to depose or give evidence in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots cases to facilitate re-investigation by a Special Investigation Team (SIT), he thought it to be nothing more than a charade.
Singh had lost his brother, Hardev, and a neighbour, Avtar Singh, in the riots; his house and shop in Mahipalpur were burnt down; and he had to shift out of Delhi to start a new life. In the last three-and-a-half decades, Singh, like many other victims, had seen probes by various committees; the culmination of a trial; and a report being filed in 1993 that said the accused remained “untraced”.
“Neighbours in my village taunted us, saying that we lied about the riots, that we lost nothing. They insinuated that we did it for personal gain,” Singh, an ex-serviceman and a former Punjab Police constable, told The Indian Express over the phone.
Cut to November 14, 2018, when a Special Court in Delhi convicted two men for the death of his brother and neighbour, after the SIT re-investigated the case. The case had earlier seen registration of two FIRs — one in 1984, another in 1993. In the first FIR, the trial was followed by an acquittal. In the second, the anti-riots cell filed an untraced report. It was the untraced report that the SIT had re-investigated, this time yielding a different outcome: The conviction of two accused, and death penalty to one of them.
In 2014, the Centre had asked former Supreme Court judge, Justice G P Mathur, to examine the possibility of constituting an SIT to re-investigate 1984 cases. On February 12, 2015, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order, constituting an SIT to “re-investigate” “appropriately” the “serious” criminal cases that had been filed in Delhi, but were closed.
The task was mammoth: To examine afresh all records from various police stations and files of the Justice J D Jain and D K Aggarwal Committee — formed in 1990 to look into the riots — and launch fresh probes. Three persons formed the SIT’s core team: Anurag, an IPS officer and the chairperson; retired district and sessions judge Rakesh Kapoor; and Kumar Gyanesh, additional DCP (security, PM).
The SIT started out of a modest two rooms of the Vigyan Bhawan building in 2016. So cramped was the space that police personnel would wait in a park nearby, awaiting orders. As workload increased, demands were made for more officers. Eventually, the SIT found a new home, Lok Nayak Bhawan in Khan Market, and grew to comprise 69 people, including three senior members, four ACPs, 11 inspectors, and two prosecutors.
“The SIT would go to the anti-riots cell, formed in 1993, at Malviya Nagar to scrutinise records. We had two broken chairs there, but with the chairperson’s intervention, all records were called to Lok Nayak Bhawan,” said a source in the SIT. A policeman was assigned to make memos of all documents received from the cell. “None of the records were digitised; there were thousands of pages of affidavits, inner case diaries and FIRs,” the source said.
According to court filings, 293 cases that had been closed, and for which untraced reports were filed, were scrutinised. A person in the SIT said they faced two problems: many affidavits were in Urdu or Gurmukhi and needed translation; and inner case diaries or FIRs were often incomplete or illegible.
“Delhi Police called two of its personnel — one for Gurmukhi, the other Urdu. Their job was to translate each document to English. The case file was formed and each investigating officer (IO) assigned a case,” said another person in the team.
Inspector Yogesh Kumar, born and brought up in Punjab, translated Santokh Singh’s affidavit dated September 9, 1985, which was in Gurmukhi.
After months of going through records, the SIT closed 199 cases, primarily because of “incomplete, illegible” records or lack of witnesses.
This was the time Santokh Singh and his brother Sangat Singh approached the SIT, after seeing the ads in newspapers. They gave their statement to the police, and Santokh’s handwritten affidavit, filed before the Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission of Inquiry in 1985, was taken on record.
Meanwhile, a helpline was set up and queries started pouring in.
Of the remaining cases, the SIT launched a preliminary inquiry into 60. “We decided to investigate these further as there was scope to collect more evidence… Santokh Singh’s case was one of these,” said an investigator.
Between 2016 and 2017, all 60 cases were pursued, with different IOs interacting with witnesses. “One witness had moved to the US. We spoke to him via video conferencing, but nothing came out of it,” an investigator said. Over the next few months, IOs visited various witnesses in Delhi and other states. “Initially, people did not trust us, but we persisted,” the investigator said. “We couldn’t pursue some cases as witnesses could not identify the rioters.”
After going through multiple records, however, investigators were able to draw up a modus operandi used during the riots. “It was a pogrom. Many affidavits stated the mob threw a white powder in the air, which would catch fire easily. Various houses and people were burnt using this mysterious white powder. Secondly, the mob burnt bodies in trucks, or in houses, like a clay-oven. That way, there was no track of the number of people killed,” a source in the SIT said, citing affidavits. According to a source, it appears that the powder was used in manufacturing firecrackers.
The SIT had its ups and downs. In January this year, a supervisory committee comprising former Supreme Court judges — Justice J M Panchal and Justice K S P Radhakrishnan — appointed by the top court in August 2017, reported that the SIT had closed many cases without sufficient investigation. A Supreme Court bench led by former CJI Dipak Misra made a new three-member SIT to submit a status report on 186 cases related to the riots, which the SIT constituted in 2015 had closed. The new SIT is yet to file a report.
As the months progressed, the SIT submitted final reports or closure in 52 out of 60 cases due to lack of evidence or witnesses. In the remaining eight, police filed chargesheets in five cases. Two were “abated” as the accused were dead. Of the three remaining cases, one trial is pending in Rohini court, and the other in Karkardooma court. It was in the third case that a Special Judge, on November 14 this year, convicted accused Naresh Sherawat and Yashpal, awarding death sentence to Yashpal.
The first death sentence
After Santokh Singh and his brother Sangat approached the SIT, their statements were recorded and Sangat took the IO, inspector Jagdish Kumar, to Mahipalpur, where the family had a shop. “The building where the shops were being run was demolished, and new construction had come up,” stated court records.
The area had changed completely. But based on statements, death and injury certificates, and police investigation, a chargesheet was filed in a Metropolitan Magistrate court in 2017. “Inspector Jagdish assured us justice will be done this time,” said Santokh Singh.
During the hearing, prosecutors argued that the SIT was dealing with a 34-year-old case where no proper investigation had been conducted earlier. “Had there been proper investigation, there was no necessity for constitution of an independent SIT,” prosecutors said.
O P Sharma, counsel for the accused, argued in the court of Special Judge Ajay Pandey that Santokh Singh, on whose complaint the FIR was registered, was not even an eyewitness. The counsel argued that Santokh had told the Metropolitan Magistrate in 1993 that he “did not know the names and particulars of the assailants”.
However, Santokh Singh made a startling revelation. “My platoon commander, whose name I do not remember, asked me to report to some DG at ITO police headquarters, Delhi. When I was entering the police headquarters, I was arrested by the gate guards… I was very frightened to see the atmosphere at the time, and I stated before the MM as I was told by the ACP S K Malik,” he claimed during cross-examination in Special Judge Pandey’s court, as per documents.
“This was the turning point in the case,” said a source in the SIT.
Special Judge Pandey later commented: “… it appears that the manner in which the untraced report was presented and accepted itself justifies further investigation by SIT.”
The defence counsel also argued that collection of blood spots, bloodstained earth or clothes had not been done by the IO. But the court said: “The matter pertains to a 33-year-old case… Seizure of the bus, weapons, etc, was practically impossible. Hence, the investigation cannot be faulted.”
In his order, Special Judge Pandey lauded inspector Jagdish Kumar for conducting an impartial investigation. “He did not make any attempt to exaggerate the statements u/s 161 CrPC in order to include the name of any of the accused.”
Senior Advocate H S Phoolka, who has been spearheading the legal battle for justice for riot victims, said: “When the SIT was formed in 2015… I did not expect a concrete outcome. But the kind of evidences it put up, resulting in conviction, I think it did a good job.”
The 63 deaths
On March 29, 2017, a confidential report, signed by SIT chairperson Anurag, was sent to Pankaj Sanghi, Director of Prosecution, Delhi government, with a copy marked to Delhi Police chief Amulya Patnaik and Praveen Kumar Srivastava, Joint Secretary, UT, MHA. It pertained to the murder of 63 persons during the riots, in which the state did not file any application for “alteration of charge” or “appeal” against the judgment.
Highlighting FIR number 433/84 registered on November 1, 1984, the letter stated: “… the subject case is related to the murder of 63 persons… under police station Kalyanpuri. After investigation, a chargesheet was filed against 17 accused under IPC Section 302 (and other charges) for murder of 63 persons. However, from available records with SIT, it appears that during trial, charges were framed against accused in respect of only five deaths. The case ended in acquittal. It appears no application for alteration of charge or appeal against the judgment of Sessions Court was filed.”
Anurag “requested” that “necessary action” be taken. On April, 2017, the SIT again sent a letter with “photocopies” of the order on charges, acquittal order, chargesheet and judgment, marked to the Principal Secretary, Department of Home, Delhi government.
A letter dated August 28, 2017, again by the SIT chairperson, sought an update on the correspondence so it could be incorporated in the SIT’s final report. In a response from the Department of Prosecution, Nodal Officer Japan Babu wrote: “No record of the case FIR number 433/84… is available with the directorate.”
Officials said no record could mean either the FIR was misplaced or it had been weeded out — where unnecessary files are removed from active records.
Anurag again wrote a letter on September 9, 2017, stating that photocopies had been sent. A response from Additional Public Prosecutor Zanul Abedeen said that “no record is available” on the appeal. On December 12, 2017, Abedeen said a material witness could not be traced because he had changed his address. He added: “Moreover, it is an old case of year 1984 and is time-barred.”
In January 2018, the SIT wrote to the Principal Secretary, Department of Home, Delhi, and sent the photocopies again for further investigation. Sources said that as per its mandate, the SIT cannot investigate a case that has been decided by a court. “It is only the prosecution department which can file an appeal, and we have been pushing them.”
An observation made by Delhi High Court judge Justice R K Gauba, while upholding the conviction of 70 people in a riots case, summed up the exercise of reopening old wounds from a time that claimed 3,325 lives, including 2,733 in Delhi: “The anti-Sikh riots of 1984 are indeed a dark chapter in the history of independent India which, it is often said, this country must put behind so as to move ahead. But, for those who suffered personal loss in the form of killings of their near and dear ones, or destruction of their homes, there possibly can never be a closure.”