Thirty-four years later, justice still seems only half donehttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/anti-sikh-riots-1984-sajjan-kumar-delhi-indira-gandhi-assassination-thirty-four-years-later-5499496/

Thirty-four years later, justice still seems only half done

The judges passing sentence on Kumar sagely declared that the Sikh killings in Delhi and elsewhere in November 1984 were “crimes against humanity”, a massacre that will continue to shock the collective conscience of society for a long time to come.

1984 anti-Sikh massacre
Policemen magically disappeared and the handful who were visible were unwilling, or under orders not to open fire upon cowardly mobs that drew encouragement solely from their numbers and assurances of immunity from prosecution.

The life sentence handed down by the Delhi High Court to Sajjan Kumar of the Congress party has, no doubt, brought a modicum of closure to victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh massacre; but it’s not nearly enough considering the quantum of reprisal killings in Delhi and elsewhere, purposefully instigated by some Congress party members like Kumar.

Jagdish Kaur, one of Kumar’s principal accusers, tersely termed the sentence a “little balm applied to long time scars”. She also resignedly declared that at least one high-profile individual accused in the Sikh killings would now be jailed, in what remains the most reprehensible episode in independent India’s history, in which the Congress-ruled state turned avenger.

Kaur’s son and husband were amongst her five family members clubbed to death and set alight by marauding Hindu mobs under Kumar’s instigation, within hours of Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984, by her two Sikh bodyguards. Their only sin, like that of some 3,000 others like them in Delhi, was that they were easily identifiable as Sikhs, and hence fair game for mobs, some led by Congressmen, to be slaughtered.

Kumar’s comeuppance also took 34 years in coming, or a time frame of one generation-and-three-quarters, to adjudicate in India’s lugubrious judicial system. The tortuous lead-up to sentencing the 73-year old former Congress parliamentarian to spend the rest of his natural life in jail, too, was riddled with crafty legal and procedural wrangles manipulated by his political colleagues for decades.

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At times, the outcome of Kumar’s guilt appeared chimerical as the maze of 10 inquiry commissions and investigative panels established by successive administrations into the 1984 massacre failed in indicting either him or other culpable Congressmen. A lower court even acquitted Kumar, but miraculously a dogged Central Bureau of Investigation challenged the exoneration in 1990 and, despite impediments, pursued his indictment all the way to the Delhi High Court.

Fear in the streets: A woman outside her residence during the 1984 riots

Understandably, senior Congress members have distanced themselves from Kumar after his sentencing. Some feebly reasoned that he had been adequately penalised by being denied a party ticket in recent years to contest elections, whilst others said neither the Congress nor the Gandhi family had any role in the 1984 strife.

They seemed to be in total denial of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s appalling justification of the Sikh massacre by publicly declaring that the earth shakes when a great tree falls. But more importantly, these Congressmen in times of competitive pogrom politics, discounted Manmohan Singh’s remorse for the 1984 Sikh killings in Parliament in 2005.

“I have no hesitation in apologising to the Sikh community (for the 1984 carnage)”, Singh declared in the Rajya Sabha in response to an Opposition-sponsored motion demanding that the prime minister seek forgiveness from the country for the inexcusable strife.

Singh went further by stating that he apologised not only to the Sikh community, but also to the Indian nation, because what occurred in 1984 was the “negation” of the concept of nationhood enshrined in the Constitution. “On behalf of our government and on behalf of the entire people of this country, I bow my head in shame that such a thing took place”, said the country’s first Sikh prime minister.

anti-sikh riot victims
From a distance: A crowd outside Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib, Chandni Chowk

Congress president Rahul Gandhi, too, disavowed his party’s role in the 1984 butchery. Speaking at the London School of Economics earlier this year, he categorically declared that his party was not involved. But with Kumar now sentenced, he, too, will have to do a rethink, in addition to strategising on ways to counter allegations regarding Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath’s involvement in the 1984 killings. Witnesses alleging the MP chief minister’s involvement are still around and as dogged as Jagdish Kaur and her family.

The wave of ethnic cleansing that consumed Delhi for 72 hours like a prairie fire within hours of Indira Gandhi’s assassination was terrifying. During these three days, Sikhs were hunted down, corralled and killed. The city’s entire law and order machinery had willfully collapsed at the behest of the federal and local administrations, and the capital was besieged by marauding mobs, including those led by bloodthirsty Congressmen, armed with voters’ lists to target Sikh households.

Policemen magically disappeared and the handful who were visible were unwilling, or under orders not to open fire upon cowardly mobs that drew encouragement solely from their numbers and assurances of immunity from prosecution. Instances of Sikhs being necklaced were common, as rubber tyres doused with petrol were jammed around their chests and arms and set alight. The victims took some 20 minutes to die.

None of the army units summoned from cantonments around the capital were provided necessary help, guidance or logistic direction by the local authorities. Neither were the bewildered soldiers, treated little better than riot police in olive green, issued any directives or shoot-to-kill orders, obligatory under the circumstances, to quell the mobs.

And whilst unbridled mayhem proliferated unimpeded across Delhi’s Sikh neighbourhoods, the killing of some 350 Dalit Sikhs, including women and children, over 48 hours in the trans-Yamuna resettlement Trilokpuri colony was, without doubt, the most brutal. The charred and hacked remains of the hundreds that perished in Trilokpuri’s Block 32 on the smoky and dank November 2 evening revealed an unbelievable tale of slaughter, which I, as a reporter for this newspaper, chanced upon, accompanied by two colleagues.

The massacre took place, uninterrupted, in two narrow alleyways no more than 130 metres long, with one-room tenements on either side. It lasted over 48 hours with the murderers, never ever caught, taking breaks for meals before returning and resuming their senseless slaughter.

Thirty-four years later, the memory and stench from slain bodies and hacked limbs piled high with mounds of hair still haunts my senses. HKL Bhagat, the alleged architect of the Trilokpuri massacre, was indicted by the Nanavati Commission, but died in 2005. The families of the Trilokpuri victims will never have the closure that the court delivered to Nirpreet Kaur, Jagdish Kaur and Jagsher Singh, who testified against Sajjan Kumar.

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The judges passing sentence on Kumar sagely declared that the Sikh killings in Delhi and elsewhere in November 1984 were “crimes against humanity”, a massacre that will continue to shock the collective conscience of society for a long time to come. It most definitely will, but in the sentencing, justice seems to be only half done. More remains.