Wading into fresh political controversy, Rahul Gandhi has said that the Congress was not involved in the massacre of Sikhs that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. In an immediate response, the Shiromani Akali Dal accused the Congress president of rubbing salt into the wounds of the Sikh community.
Speaking at an interaction with UK-based Parliamentarians and local leaders in London on Friday, Rahul said the anti-Sikh riots were a “tragedy” and “a painful experience”, but added that the Congress was not involved in them.
“I think any violence done against anybody is wrong. There are legal processes ongoing in India, but as far as I’m concerned, anything done that was wrong during that period should be punished and I would support that 100 per cent,” he was quoted by PTI as telling the audience. “I have no confusion in my mind about that. It was a tragedy, it was a painful experience. You say that the Congress party was involved in that, I don’t agree with that. Certainly there was violence, certainly there was tragedy,” he added.
With the statement triggering sharp reactions, former Union minister and senior Congress leader P Chidambaram sought to come out in support of Rahul, while saying, “We are not absolving the Congress.”
Speaking at a press meet in Kolkata, Chidambaram said, “The Congress was in office in 1984, nobody is denying that. Now, you can’t hold Rahul Gandhi responsible for that — he was 13 or 14 years of age then… He has not absolved anyone. We are not absolving the Congress of it. What Rahul Gandhi has said is there on the AICC website. The full text is there, you can have a look at it.” The Congress has long struggled to put the 1984 riots behind it, and Rahul’s remarks are set to bring the party fresh embarrassment. Earlier, in January 2014, asked about the riots during an interview to Times Now, Rahul had said, “some Congressmen were probably involved”, and that “some Congressman have been punished for it”. He had, however, deflected questions on whether he should tender an apology for the riots.
In 2005, then prime minister Manmohan Singh had apologised in Parliament to “the Sikh community” and the “whole nation” on behalf of “the government, on behalf of the entire people of this country” for the 1984 riots, saying, “I bow my head in shame that such a thing took place.” Singh was speaking in the Rajya Sabha at the time during a debate on the Nanavati Commission report on the riots, which had indicted Congress leaders. One of those named in the report, Jagdish Tytler, had resigned as a minister from the Singh Cabinet.
“I have no hesitation in apologising to the Sikh community. I apologise not only to the Sikh community but to the whole nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood and what’s enshrined in our Constitution… So I am not standing on any false prestige. 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,” Singh had said. Rahul was a first-time MP at the time.
In his remarks on Saturday, Chidambaram too cited the apology by Singh, saying, “As far as 1984 is concerned, Dr Manmohan Singh has apologised in Parliament for the terrible thing that happened. Sonia Gandhi has apologised for it several times.”
Incidentally, during an interaction at the London School of Economics (LSE) later Friday, when again questioned about the anti-Sikh riots, Rahul too referred to Singh’s apology, saying the former PM had spoken for “all of us”.
At the interaction, streamed live on various social media platforms, the Congress president said, “When Dr Manmohan Singh spoke, he spoke for all of us… I am a victim of violence and I understand what it feels like. So I am against any sort of violence against anybody… on this planet. I get disturbed when I see anybody getting hurt. I condemn that 100 per cent and I am 100 per cent for punishment of people who are involved in violence against anybody.”
Rahul added, “I have seen people whom I loved being killed. I have also seen the person who killed my father being killed. And I can say that when I saw Mr Prabhakaran (the LTTE chief) lying on the beaches in Jaffna and when I saw him being humiliated… I felt sorry for him because I saw my father in his place and I felt sorry for him because I saw his children in my place… So, when you are being hit by violence, when you understand it, it has a completely different impact on you.”
In its 2005 report on the 1984 riots, the Justice G T Nanavati Commission had named several prominent Congress leaders, among them Tytler, former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar, Kamal Nath and the late H K L Bhagat. The Commission had concluded that there was “credible evidence against Tytler to the effect that very probably he had a hand in organizing attacks on Sikhs”. Soon after the riots, triggered by Indira’s assassination, then Congress president Rajiv Gandhi had appeared to justify the violence, saying, “When a giant tree falls, the earth shakes.”
In 2016, the Congress had to face severe criticism after it appointed Kamal Nath as the AICC general secretary in charge of Punjab. Not just the Akali Dal and AAP, the move had also evoked criticism from within the Congress, after which Kamal Nath, on the advice of the party, had sought to be relieved of the charge.
In the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress had also faced embarrassment after tickets to Tytler and Kumar from Delhi seats had to be withdrawn in the wake of protests by Sikh groups.
Questioning Rahul’s remarks, Akali Dal chief Sukhbir Singh Badal accused him of trying to protect the Congress leaders involved in the “genocide”. “Rahul Gandhi has rubbed salt into the wounds of Sikh kaum (community). It shows the thinking of Gandhi towards the Sikh community.”
Badal added, “I want to ask Rahul if Congress leaders were not involved in the anti-Sikh riots, why did the Congress withdraw tickets given to H K L Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar? Why was Tytler removed from the ministry in the Manmohan Singh-led government?”
The victims of the anti-Sikh riots are still waiting for justice. So far, 11 committees, commission or teams have investigated the clashes that led to 3,325 deaths, as per official numbers, nearly all of them Sikhs, 2,733 of them in Delhi alone. In January this year, the Supreme Court constituted another three-member Special Investigation Team (SIT) to re-investigate 186 of the cases.