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Revisiting the Anti-Sikh riots: Justice vs Politics

The carnage of 1984 witnessed the killing of thousands – but in a tug of war between vested political interests, justice has been denied to many innocent victims

The residents of Tilak Vihar witnessed a different morning. Men wearing coloured turbans had gathered at various spots of the locale, exchanging pleasant hugs and smiles. An old lady, clad in a white suit with a dupatta wrapped around her head, sat in a chair talking to some relatives, trying to understand the reason for this sudden bout of happiness. 73-year-old Shami Kaur's face was lit with a smile, soon followed by tears that rolled down as she heard about the reason for the celebrations.

On November 20, many such outbursts were witnessed after a 34-year long battle for justice finally met its pleasant end. Convicted of killing two men during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, a Delhi court conferred the death sentence upon one convict and life imprisonment upon another.

Naresh Sherawat (68) and Yashpal Singh (55) were convicted of killing two men in south Delhi's Mahipalpur. A fine of Rs 35 lakh each has also been levied on the two declared guilty.

Yashpal Singh's verdict in the anti-Sikh riots is the first since 1996, when Kishori Lal, a butcher, was sentenced to death in at least five cases by the lower courts. The Supreme Court later commuted it to life term.

On November 1, 1984, Hardev Singh and two others were at their grocery shop in Mahipalpur when they were attacked by a mob of around 1,000 men armed with iron rods, hockey sticks, stones and kerosene, who eventually set their shops ablaze. They rushed to their friend Surjeet Singh's home and locked themselves inside. They were later joined by Avtar Singh – another helpless resident. The mob followed them to the house and stabbed Hardev before throwing all of them off the balcony.

An eyewitness and relatives of the victims say that the mob poured petrol and some powder in their mouths which caught fire. "Tyres were hung around their necks and burnt. As they struggled, the attackers laughed and referred to them as dancing monkeys," recollects a relative.

They were rushed to the Safdarjung Hospital where Avatar Singh and Hardev Singh succumbed to their injuries. Delhi Police though had closed the case in 1994 due to the lack of evidence.

Formed in 2015, a Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) probed into 60 of the registered 293 cases against the carnage of 1984. They succeeded in getting a conviction in the first case last week.

It filed "untraced report" in 52 cases and of the eight cases being investigated, charge-sheets have been filed in five, while the rest, in which senior Congress leader Sajjan Kumar is an accused, are pending further investigation.

Official records state that over 2,800 Sikhs were killed across India after former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. The violence across the country, but mostly in Delhi, witnessed women being raped and people being dragged out of their homes to be burnt alive.

Justice

Nearly a dozen government-appointed commissions and committees have investigated the deadly attacks against thousands of innocent Sikhs in 1984. Various independent civil society inquiries found both the police and leaders of Gandhi's Congress complicit to the committed crimes.

In the early 1980s, Sikh separatists in Punjab committed serious human rights abuses, including the massacre of civilians, attacks on Hindu minorities and indiscriminate bomb attacks in crowded places. In June 1984, the government deployed troops to remove militants who had occupied the holiest of Sikh shrines –the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The military campaign caused serious damage to the shrine and killed hundreds, including pilgrims, militants and security personnel. On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was murdered in an act of revenge by two of her Sikh bodyguards.

Following the assassination, mobs, often instigated by Congress leaders, went on a rampage against Sikhs in Delhi and other cities. Over three days, at least 2,733 Sikhs were looted, tortured and killed. Many women were raped in the capital. Hundreds of Sikhs were killed elsewhere in the country. The authorities quickly blamed every incident of mass communal violence on a spontaneous public reaction.

After the incident, Indira Gandhi's successor, Rajiv Gandhi, claimed at a rally in the capital, "Once a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it shakes."

Many victims, witnesses and perpetrators have died since then, making the hope for justice and accountability more remote with every passing year. Many legal cases collapsed after powerful suspects allegedly threatened or intimidated witnesses. In other cases, poor investigation and tampering of evidence by the police led to acquittals of the accused.

Talking to Millennium Post, senior journalist Manoj Mitta said, "The Supreme Court's intervention early this year seems set to make a dent in the long-pending issue of impunity for the 1984 carnage cases. Though I have reservations about the death penalty for any offence, I can't help seeing a sign of new resolve in the first ever instance of extreme punishment being given just now in a 1984 case."

The key accused of this genocide were top Congress leaders – but in the process of investigation, most leaders were acquitted and some cases are still pending.

Experts observed that the recent verdict may prove to be a precursor to the much-awaited verdict from the Delhi High Court in a case against former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar. A bench headed by Justice S Muralidhar has concluded the hearings in the appeal against Sajjan Kumar's acquittal in the case and the verdict is expected shortly.

"If the High Court reverses the acquittal, it will be the equivalent of the conviction of former BJP minister Maya Kodnani for her complicity in Gujarat in 2002," Mitta argues.

Politics

India is now at the juncture of crucial state elections along with the 2019 Lok Sabha election, which is just around the corner. In all these elections, communal concerns have come to circumscribe the fundamental allegations against the ruling Narendra Modi-led BJP government. In 2014, when the government came to power, they made many promises and one of those was to met out justice for the victims of the anti-Sikh riot.

In the current scenario of Indian politics, the Congress is trying to set up its secular image against the communal tinge of the BJP. Right now, the anti-Sikh riot could be the best example for the BJP to prove that the Congress was never a secular party.

"Whatever progress has lately been made on the 1984 riots, the credit for it can hardly be shared by the Modi government. In fact, the SIT set up in 2015 has been so lax that the Supreme Court was forced to set up another team to expedite the pending cases," says senior journalist Manoj Mitta. He also elaborates that politically, BJP has been wary of raising the 1984 issue lest it is held to account for its own role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. If anything, there seems to be a tacit understanding between the BJP and the Congress to avoid attacking each other for these two egregious instances of mass violence.

Mitta further adds, "While the BJP is ideologically communal, the Congress is opportunistically communal."

The battle for justice is still on. While the two major political parties will try to take advantage of the verdict by establishing their own virtues, the horrors of the genocide continue to haunt the people of Tilak Vihar. The end is still far but a ray of hope has suddenly enlivened these families of victims after 34 long years.

Politics will play its own game but the families will look for justice for their dear ones, justice for one of the worst genocides of India, justice for their children and, at last, justice for themselves.

Sayantan Ghosh

Sayantan Ghosh

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