As the Delhi High Court convicted and sentenced to life senior Congress leader Sajjan Kumar in a 1984 anti-Sikh riots case, the Division Bench of Justices S Muralidhar and Vinod Goel cited several instances of mass killings in the country whose perpetrators are yet to be brought to justice.
The court said the November 1984 riots, in which 2,733 Sikhs were murdered in Delhi alone and nearly 3,350 all over the country, was neither the first instance of a mass crime nor tragically the last. “There has been a familiar pattern of mass killings in Mumbai in 1993, in Gujarat in 2002, in Kandhamal, Odisha in 2008, in Muzaffarnagar in UP in 2013,” the court said in its 207-page judgment.
Stressing that the common link in all the above mass crimes was the targeting of minorities spearheaded by dominant political actors in connivance with law enforcement agencies, the High Court observed that bringing such criminals to justice was a serious challenge to the legal system.
“The criminals responsible for the mass crimes have enjoyed political patronage and managed to evade prosecution and punishment. As these appeals themselves demonstrate, decades pass by before they can be made answerable. This calls for strengthening the legal system,” the court said.
These mass killings, the court said, highlighted an important loophole in the legal system — that neither crimes against humanity nor genocide is part of our domestic law of crime.
The court also mentioned incidents of genocide across the globe, saying not just India, but legal systems in other nations were also grappling with crimes against humanity. The Abdul Quader Molla case in Bangladesh, which involves the mass killing of Bangladeshi citizens in 1971 by sympathizers of the Pakistani Army, is one such incident where the trial commenced 38 years after the tragedy and concluded in 2013.
“The investigation, prosecution, and adjudication of core crimes against humanity often take place years or decades after their actual commission. Such delay usually results as societies recovering from mass atrocity are faced with a variety of more pressing reconstructive needs; a fragile political environment; or a lack of criminal justice capacity,” the Bangladesh Supreme Court had observed.
The HC judgment also mentioned another case faced by the Court of Appeal in the United Kingdom in the Anthony Sawoniuk case, where it was dealing with the issue of framing criminal proceedings 56 years after the alleged killing of Polish Jews during the Nazi era.
Concluding that there should be a mechanism to deal with riots that fall into the bracket of genocide, the High Court borrowed words from the International Criminal Law – Critical Concepts in Law, wherein it opined that “no amount of time can be too long to satisfy the needs for truth and some measure of accountability, nor can come arbitrary legal time limit be set”.