Ruthless determination will be needed to track down and prosecute those who indulged in 1984 violence. Only then will we be able to restore the faith of an aggrieved community in the Constitution
Two recent judicial pronouncements, including the judgment of a Delhi court awarding capital punishment to one accused and life imprisonment to another for their role in the barbaric killing of two Sikhs during the anti-Sikh pogrom unleashed by the Congress Party in 1984, is the first signal that even if 34 years have gone by, at least some of the perpetrators of that ghastly violence against a religious minority will be brought to book.
The Narendra Modi Government’s determination to bring the culprits involved in this macabre drama after the assassination of Indira Gandhi; its decision to constitute a Special Investigation Team (SIT) for the purpose; and the Supreme Court’s sustained focus on the failure of the law and order machinery have begun yielding results.
In the first case, a murderous mob led by a Congress leader torched shops owned by Sikhs in the Mahipalpur area in New Delhi and brutally assaulted and killed Hardev Singh and Avtar Singh, both in their 20s. That very day an FIR was registered against the leader of the Congress Party, but a Sessions Court acquitted him two years later. A second FIR was registered in 1993 after the testimony of Hardev Singh’s elder brother before the Ranganatha Mishra Commission of Inquiry. But within a year, the Delhi Police filed a closure report claiming the accused were untraceable, despite the testimonies of family members and eye-witnesses. The success in this case became possible because of the Government’s decision to form a SIT in February, 2015 to re-investigate such cases. The family is now determined to bring the Congress leader to book.
In the second case, the Delhi High Court upheld the conviction and sentence awarded to 70 people, all part of a murderous mob that lynched 95 Sikhs in the most heinous manner in the Trilokpuri area. The assault was so gruesome that 22 of these bodies remained unidentified. Shockingly, all the accused in this case of mass murder were awarded just five years of imprisonment by the trial court and many of them were on bail. The trial court delivered its verdict in August, 1996 and the cases lingered on. Stranger still, the then Government did not appeal to the High Court seeking higher punishment given the brutality that these persons indulged in.
The matter came before the High Court only because the persons convicted appealed against their conviction and sentence. While rejecting the appeal, the High Court had some harsh words to say about the attitude of the prosecution in this case. It said the police force and the civil administration did not take timely or effective action to prevent the riotous conditions from spiralling out of hand.
The Justice Nanavati Commission of Inquiry, which investigated the riots that broke out after the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984, did a far more thorough job than many previous enquiries which were basically whitewash jobs. It established that in all 2,732 Sikhs were killed in those riots — 2,146 in Delhi and 586 in some other towns in the northern region. Apart from these large scale murders, Sikhs suffered loss of homes and property in an unprecedented scale. This commission found considerable evidence of the direct involvement of Congress leaders and workers and the complicity of the law enforcement agencies in the riots in Delhi.
The Nanavati Commission has documented the gross failure of the police as follows: The police registered only 587 FIRs against the mobsters and even among them, declared 241 cases as “untraced.” Another 253 cases ended in acquittals. Further, 11 FIRs were quashed and in another 11 cases, the accused were discharged. The Commission was told that one case was pending investigation and 42 cases were pending trial. Describing the horrendous aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the commission said mobs were instigated to take revenge against the Sikhs and they were transported in the state-owned Delhi Transport Corporation buses to localities where Sikhs were in large numbers. The mobsters were supplied weapons and inflammable materials like kerosene and petrol and they carried all this in DTC buses to specified locations. Then the savage assaults began.
The commission said it had received some material which indicated that Rajiv Gandhi, who had become Prime Minister soon after his mother’s assassination, had told one of this officials that “the Sikhs should be taught a lesson.” The commission, however, did not pursue this because of lack of evidence but it indicted the Government for the complicity of the police and administration with the rioters and for the inordinate delay in calling in the Army. Even former President Zail Singh threw up his hands helplessly. He told a delegation of eminent Sikhs that he “did not have the power” to intervene.
In the light of all this evidence, the Narendra Modi Government’s efforts are indeed commendable. The Government first constituted a committee headed by Justice GP Mathur in December, 2014 to recommend measures to ensure justice for the victims of 1984. On the recommendation of this committee, the Government set up the Special Investigation Team in February, 2015 to re-examine the closed cases.
In the meanwhile, the Supreme Court also stepped in to enquire about the delay in prosecution in many cases. It constituted a supervisory panel of judges to examine the work of the SIT and earlier this year decided to set up a three-member committee headed by a retired High Court Judge to re-investigate 186 cases in which investigations were closed.
Reports from Germany indicate that even though 73 years have gone by since the end of Wolrd War II, efforts are currently on to hunt down Nazis who were involved in the extermination of Jews. Special efforts are on to track down three members of a Nazi mobile death squad called Einsatzgruppen which indulged in shooting massacres and killed over one million civilians. The suspects are over 90 years old.
Such ruthless determination and honesty of purpose will be needed to track down and prosecute those who murdered thousands of Sikhs in 1984 and indulged in such unprecedented violence. Every case that was closed under Congress pressure must be re-opened and the political leaders who led the mobs must be brought to book. Only then will we be able to restore the faith of an aggrieved community in our Constitution and our democratic way of life.
(The writer is Chairman, Prasar Bharati. The views expressed here are personal)