Flight Lieutenant Harinder Singh, winner of three trophies, had been selected to be part of a new generation Mirage fighters and was among the four pilots being sent to France by the Indian air force for advance training. His flight from Banglaore to Paris went via New Delhi. During the stopover at the Delhi airport, Harinder went out to meet his father, also an air force officer. He never reported back. The other three pilots had to leave without him.
During three fateful days in November 1984, 50 soldiers were killed in the most brutal manner by a frenzied mob. Some of them were beheaded, some set alight by burning tyres hung around their necks. Harinder, his father, S.K. Singh, and his two uncles were killed in this carnage.
Only recently, our Parliament erupted over the beheading of two Indian soldiers by the Pakistan army. But it has not had the time in 30 years to even pass a resolution condemning the killings of its soldiers by its own citizens. The ministry of defence has not bothered to so much as come out with a list of soldiers killed in November 1984. No one raised a protest against the killing of these soldiers. No trials, no convictions, no justice.
Today, it is difficult for anyone, even for me, to imagine that for 48 hours, one citizen died every minute on the roads of Delhi. From the noon of November 1 to the noon of November 3, that is, 2,880 minutes, over 3,000 Sikhs were killed. The official figure in Delhi alone is 2,733. The figures compiled by human rights groups are 4,000 in Delhi and 7,000 across the country.
For 3,000 murders, only 30 people have been convicted till now. According to the Nanavati Commission report, 587 FIRs were registered, out of which 241 were closed by the police as untraced and thus never sent to court for trial. After Nanavati’s report, only four of the 241 cases were reopened and reinvestigated. In one of these cases, decided in April 2013, five persons have been convicted. The other 237 cases still lie closed. The Arvind Kejriwal government in Delhi had asked for the formation of an SIT to reopen and further investigate these cases. The matter was still pending with the lieutenant governor, who was to take the final decision, when Kejriwal resigned. The UPA government stalled this SIT. Now it has been five months of the NDA government, in which the Akali Dal is an ally, and the SIT is still stalled.
Only one case remains in the trial court. The others have mostly led to acquittal, except for 13 murder cases, and only 30 people have been convicted. When there are acquittals, no one stops to ask, then who killed 3,000 people in just two days?
Two cases are still under investigation by the CBI. One, registered at the Nangloi police station, is into the murder of four Sikhs on November 1. In this case, an FIR was registered after three years, in 1987, and an investigation carried on for another five years. On April 8, 1992, a chargesheet was finalised and signed by the SHO, as well as the ACP. Sajjan Kumar, a former Congress MP, is the main accused in this case. In the normal course of things, the chargesheet should have been filed in court in three to four days. In this case, it has not been filed after 22 years.
The other case pertains to three murders at Gurdwara Pulbangash. Jagdish Tytler is accused in this case. The CBI filed a closure report but before that, the DIG of the CBI recommended that a chargesheet be filed. The IG, who is joint director, also agreed. But the then director of the CBI overruled their decision and directed that a closure report be filed. The court rejected this closure report and directed a further probe. The case remains with the CBI, pending investigation.
The main endeavour has always been to shield the guilty politicians and unfortunately, it has been successful. Apart from those accused in the above cases, no other leader from that time — some are believed to have been actively and physically involved in the riots — has been prosecuted or even questioned. Police complicity has gone completely unpunished. Every state agency in November 1984, for two whole days, worked towards facilitating the riots. But there have been no questions, let alone answers.
The 1984 carnage and the subsequent inaction send out a message: the word of a political leader is final and above the law. Over the last 30 years, the same principle has held. Even today, people believe that when under the orders of a political leader, they have the licence to commit any crime with impunity. No civilised society can allow this to continue. A loud and clear message needs to be sent out that nobody is above the rule of law. It is the law that is supreme, not the political leader. Unless a fear of the law is instilled in the minds of the people and the mob, no one is safe. Mob frenzy may not restrict itself to targeting minorities. There are already numerous examples of Dalits being targeted, and this could go on endlessly, with different castes and classes becoming objects of mob fury. For a safe future, it is absolutely necessary that a massacre like 1984 does not go unpunished. The recent declaration awarding compensation to victims is welcome. However, it is not a substitute for punishment. Under Indian law, both punishment and compensation are a must.
Gujarat 2002 was an example of history being repeated. Innocent lives were lost, but thanks to the intervention of the Supreme Court, 129 have already been given life imprisonment, 10 awarded the death sentence and one minister sentenced to 28 years in prison. Unfortunately, as far as 1984 is concerned, even the judiciary has failed. The steps taken by the Supreme Court to ensure fair trials and investigation on Gujarat 2002 are missing in the case of 1984. Of course, much is yet to be done for Gujarat 2002, too. But for Delhi 1984, ensuring that the same measures for fair trial and investigation are taken would be a good start.
Seven thousand murders across the country, only 30 punished, guilty leaders rewarded with high positions, guilty police officers given repeat promotions and the victims forgotten. That is the truth of November 1984. No one talks about those 50 soldiers who were beheaded or burnt with tyres around their necks.
I am reminded of Narendra Modi’s statements referring to Kashmir during his election campaigns, that the country would demand an accounting for the head for each and every soldier. Mr Modi, what about the heads of those 50? You owe the nation an answer.
The writer, senior advocate in the Delhi High Court, is co-author, ‘When a Tree Shook Delhi’