(The Times of India
4 November 1996)
Punish the Guilty of 1984
By Siddharth Varadarajan
Twelve years have passed since the massacre of 3,000 Sikhs in New Delhi following Indira Gandhi's assassination. And yet our khadi-clad assassins of memory would not like us to commemorate that anniversary. In the Capital New Delhi huge hoardings of Mrs. Gandhi were erected and prayer meetings held in her memory, but not one Congress or official head hung in shame at what was done to the Sikhs during those terrible days of November 1984.
Commissions of inquiry have come and gone. Several prime ministers and governments have come and gone, along with their empty promises of bringing the guilty to book. Todate, however, none of the main instigators and facilitators of the violence are behind bars. Their names are taken by most Indians with revulsion and they cannot move around without being enveloped by a dishonourable shield of security. Nevertheless, they remain at large, while their victims' widows and children mark time in slums and ghettos around Delhi, waiting for justice. And justice for them has only one, visceral dimension - as Prime Minister Deve Gowda discovered when he addressed a Sikh gathering in the city recently. Not the writing off of loans (the price the State paid for their dead husbands) or even a government job for their children, but the jailing of those responsible for the carnage.
The passage of time is a terrible thing because it ruthlessly tears apart the texture of memory. It makes one forget that which should never be forgotten. Three-thousand people murdered in three days in the national capital. Shockingly, the government has never even apologised to the people of India for failing to protect the lives of its Sikh citizens. Nor has Parliament thought it fit to pass a resolution of condolence for those killed. Even our poets, artists and film makers have tended to avoid the subject. There is no documentary or TV serial. There is no book which can explain to the future generations what made the killings possible, apart from the admirable reports issued by PUDR, PUCL and others, soon after the incidents.
Clearly, the political class would like to move on in the expectation that our recollection of what happened will eventually weaken. That we will actually start believing that November 1984 was not an organised, politically motivated pogrom but an unfortunate expression of mass hysteria induced by the death of a mother-like figure. (The last was actually said by a senior Congress leader at the time). Before collective amnesia sets in, therefore, it is important to reiterate the salient facts once again.
First, the violence would not have occurred had the Congress leadership not willed it. Nor was the conspiracy limited to an HKL Bhagat or a Sajjan Kumar alone. Rajiv Gandhi knew of - and condoned - the killings. We also know that P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was home minister at the time, chose not to lift a finger. On the evening of October 31, “everything would be brought under control within a few hours”. Everyone knows what actually happened. In another time and place, Narasimha Rao would have done serious time for such willful dereliction of duty. Instead, he went on to become Prime Minister.
Second, the violence would not have occurred without the active connivance of the police. In locality after locality, people testified to their partisan nature, and this was confirmed by the Jain-Aggarwal Commission. Defenders of the then police commissioner tell me he is an honourable man. In that case, he must come clean and tell the public what made him fidget while Delhi burned. He must tell us who exactly told him to lay off, because that is exactly what he did for 96 hours.
Our judiciary, unfortunately, also tended to take a hands-off approach. For years, the courts chose other subjects for activism. Garbage is being cleared, the Taj Mahal is being saved and government houses illegally occupied by clerks and peons are being emptied, but until Justice Dhingra's recent intervention, very little action has taken place on the November 1984 issue. CBI officials who tried to arrest Mr Sajjan Kumar in 1990 were thrashed by Congressmen and had to leave empty-handed. Six years later, he has still not been arrested. If only the Supreme Court had demanded day-by-day progress reports from CBI on the riots cases as well.
Of what use is a `secular front' if it will not take action to punish the killers of November 1984? Or those who demolished the Babri Masjid and organised the 1993 killings in Bombay? It is time to steer Indian politics away from the false dichotomy of `secularism vs communalism'. Ultimately, the issue is not secularism as an abstraction, but defence of the rule of law and a citizen's right to life, regardless of religion, language or beliefs.
Twelve years after 1984, it is clear that on this score, all major political parties have failed the nation.