Thirty-four years after more than 2,700 Sikhs were killed by rioters in Delhi in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Delhi High Court, ruling on one of the anti-Sikh riots cases, reversed a trial court order Monday and sentenced Congress leader and former MP Sajjan Kumar to life imprisonment on charges ranging from murder to criminal conspiracy.
Describing the 1984 riots as “crimes against humanity” perpetrated by those who had “political patronage and were aided by an indifferent law enforcement agency”, the bench of Justices S Muralidhar and Vinod Goel directed 73-year old Sajjan Kumar not to leave the national Capital and surrender by December 31. They made clear that imprisonment for life means “the remainder of his natural life”.
Noting that the “accused in the present case have been brought to justice primarily on account of the courage and perseverance of three eyewitnesses,” the judges said the killing of Sikhs “will continue to shock the collective conscience of society for a long time to come”. Highly critical of the role of Delhi Police, they said “\investigation by the local police was a farce”.
While reversing Kumar’s acquittal by the trial court in 2013, the bench upheld the earlier order awarding life terms to former Congress councillor Balwan Khokhar, retired naval officer Captain Bhagmal and Girdhari Lal, and enhanced three-year jail terms to ten years for former Congress MLAs Mahender Yadav and Kishan Khokhar. Balwan, Bhagmal and Girdhari are currently in jail while Mahendra and Kishan are on bail and have been told to surrender.
Sajjan Kumar’s lawyer Anil Sharma said he plans to appeal the sentence in the Supreme Court before December 31.
The ruling came on appeals by the CBI and the families of the victims against the April 2013 trial court order — petitions were filed by Jagdish Kaur whose husband Kehar Singh, son Gurpreet and three cousins Raghuvinder Singh, Narender Pal Singh and Kuldeep Singh \were killed; her cousin Jagsher Singh; and, Nirpreet Kaur who saw her father being burnt and a mob torching a gurdwara.
The five who had been convicted earlier had also filed appeals.
The case relates to the CBI investigation into the killing of five Sikhs in Raj Nagar Part I area in Palam Colony in South West Delhi on November 1-2, 1984 and the burning down of a gurdwara in Raj Nagar Part II.
In their judgment, Justices Muralidhar and Goel described the 1984 riots a “carnage of unbelievable proportions in which over 2,700 Sikhs were murdered in Delhi alone. The law and order machinery clearly broke down and it was literally a free for all situation which persisted. The aftershocks of those atrocities are still being felt”.
They imposed a cost of Rs one lakh each on the convicts, noting that they had escaped prosecution and punishment for over two decades.
“It took as many as ten Committees and Commissions for the investigation into the role of some of them to be entrusted in 2005 to the CBI, 21 years after the occurrence,” the bench observed.
Six accused, including Kumar, had to face trial in 2010. But three years later, the trial court acquitted Kumar and convicted five of the accused — three for offences of armed rioting and murder, and two for the offence of armed rioting.
Reversing this order, the High Court convicted Kumar of the offences of criminal conspiracy and abetment in the commission of crimes of murder, promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of communal harmony, defiling and destruction of the gurdwara. They were also held guilty of criminal conspiracy.
Praising the three witnesses whose testimony led to conviction, the High Court said: “It is only after the CBI entered the scene, that they were able to be assured and they spoke up. Admirably, they stuck firm to their truth at the trial… This court is of the view that the mass killings of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere in November 1984 were in fact crimes against humanity. They will continue to shock the collective conscience of society for a long time to come.”
“While it is undeniable that it has taken over three decades to bring the accused in this case to justice, and that our criminal justice system stands severely tested in that process, it is essential, in a democracy governed by the rule of law, to be able to call out those responsible for such mass crimes. It is important to assure those countless victims waiting patiently that despite the challenges, truth will prevail and justice will be done,” the bench said.
It criticised the role of Delhi Police and its riots cell in investigating the case. “The police indeed turned a blind eye and blatantly abetted the crimes committed by the rioting mob. The investigation by the local police was a farce… As pointed out by the trial court, the State machinery came to a complete standstill in those two or three days when the rioting mobs took to the streets and indulged in acts of violence and killings, and setting properties on fire.”
“The mayhem, destruction, and murders that rocked Raj Nagar ensured the exodus of the Sikh population from there. Many of the males were either killed or were put in such fear that they were scared to be seen in long hair and beard,” it said.
The bench described the attack as “two-pronged strategy”, saying the first was to liquidate Sikh males and the other was to destroy their residential homes, leaving the women and children utterly destitute. Recalling the pain of Jagdish Kaur, the bench said “here was a woman who, after much struggle, had to perform the cremation of her husband and son by lighting a funeral pyre with the help of furniture and household clothes”.
It concluded that “without such careful planning, the scale of violence, destruction, and the loss of lives could not have been brought about”.