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1984 Sikh Massacres: A Massacre Is a Massacre


The Hindustan Times, Aug. 10, 2005

Photo: Vir Sanghvi

When is a riot not a riot? When is a massacre not a massacre? When is a mass murderer not a mass murderer? And when is public outrage to be muted - if not entirely suspended?

When the Congress is the culprit. And when the victims are Sikhs.

That, at least, seems to be the attitude of much of our so-called secular establishment. The publication of the Nanavati report into the 1984 Delhi riots should have served to remind us of the horrors of that bloody week. It should have led us to recall how completely the administration failed and how innocent Sikhs were murdered in front of their own children.

Instead, the secular response to the report has been curiously low-key. It was a long time ago, we are told. What is the point in raking up old memories? Justice Nanavati doesn't conclusively blame anybody anyway, does he? And anyway, all secularists must unite to fight Hindu fundamentalism, so let's not get sidetracked by an old riot.

There is something sad and shameful about these responses. Listening to them yesterday, I had some sense of why secularism has fallen into such disrepute. It has become a flag of convenience for anybody who wants to oppose the B.J.P. And we have forgotten that all communal violence - no matter who it is directed against - is equally bad.

It wasn't always like this. Those of you with long memories will remember the horror with which most educated people reacted to the riots in 1984. Then, they became a Great Secular Issue in much the same way that the Gujarat riots later became a defining issue for a new generation of politicians.

Certainly, it was impossible not to be outraged by the massacres. They took place in the immediate aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the early violence was spontaneous, sparked off by public anger against Sikhs and by simmering Hindu resentment at the Punjab violence. Then, somebody spread a rumour that Sikhs were distributing sweets to celebrate Mrs. Gandhi's death. Even though there was no substantiation to this story, small-time local Congress leaders gathered their followers and went in search of Sikh homes to burn.

What happened next is the subject of some dispute. Eyewitnesses claim that they saw senior Congress leaders - Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar, H.K.L. Bhagat and Dharamdas Shastri - either leading the mobs or organising the violence. Naturally, the leaders have since declared their innocence, but there is little doubt that some of their followers were involved.

It did not help that the police force failed. The Delhi Police disappeared from the streets of the capital and Sikhs were denied the protection they needed to save their lives. The administration delayed calling in the army and, in the interim, hundreds of poor Sikhs living in the resettlement colonies on the other side of the Yamuna were murdered. In a pattern that would be repeated in Gujarat nearly two decades later, the mobs resorted to extreme cruelty: fathers were killed in front of their daughters, women were raped in full public view and, in some cases, thugs drove electric drills into the heads of defenceless Sikhs.

By the time the riot was over - actually, I don't know why we call it a riot, it was a massacre - three things were clear. One: the Congress was involved. Two: the police and the administration did nothing to protect the Sikhs. And three: there was an unforgivable delay in calling in the military.

The dispute was over other issues. What was the level of Congress involvement? Were people like Bhagat and Tytler really involved? Did the policemen run away because they were scared? Or was it because they did not want to act against workers of the party that was in power? And why did it take so long to restore order? Was it because the government was in a state of chaos following Mrs. Gandhi's assassination? Or was there a more sinister design? Was it true that Arun Nehru, the Congress strong man of that era, had said, 'Let Delhi burn for three days?' Had Rajiv Gandhi's administration allowed the massacres to go on because they tapped into a vote-rich Hindu backlash?

Over two decades and many commissions of inquiry later, we have some answers. Yes, senior Congress leaders were involved. There may not be enough evidence to prosecute Tytler, but Justice Nanavati suggests that he played some role. About Bhagat, the report is vague: no purpose is served in investigating him further because of his advanced age and declining health. Sajjan Kumar and Dharamdas Shastri seem to have had some involvement.

On the more substantive issue of whether the administration allowed Delhi to burn, all the commissions have been unanimous: yes, it did, but this was because of incompetence and negligence, not because of any sinister design.

If there is a parallel, it is with the 1993 Bombay riots rather than with Gujarat. In Bombay too, the police failed to protect Muslims. And the local administration failed to ask the army to restore order till it was much too late. Then too, there were political workers involved - except that they belonged to the Shiv Sena which was in opposition, and not to the ruling Congress.

I suppose it offers secularists some comfort that the riots in two of India's greatest cities - Delhi in 1984 and Bombay in 1993 - were not engineered by Congress governments. But this is little comfort to the victims and their families. We elect governments to protect us and when they fail to do so, it is hardly reassuring to be told, 'At least they didn't set out to murder you.'

Besides, the distinction between a party and its government is not always clear. We accept now that the central government did not intend Delhi to burn in 1984 and that it did not ask the police to let Sikhs be murdered. But nevertheless, there is no denying the Congress's role in the massacres. Even if Rajiv Gandhi and his aides did not want the violence to spiral out of control, and even if the failure to protect the Sikhs was due to the government's state of paralysis following Mrs. Gandhi's assassination, it was still local Congress leaders who led the mobs, who committed the murders. And if Justice Nanavati is to be believed, it wasn't just local leaders; some national figures were also involved.

In the Eighties, nobody was afraid of saying this. But Indian politics has now become so polarised between the so-called forces of secularism (i.e. the Congress and the Left) and the so-called communal elements (the Sangh parivar), that every event is now reassessed through the prism of this polarisation. So Congress supporters and communists are willing to forget the horrors of 1984 lest they weaken the secular case against Narendra Modi and the mass murderers of Gujarat.

But the truth is that a murderer is a murderer. A massacre is a massacre. A victim is a victim - regardless of whether he is Hindu, Sikh or Muslim. When somebody comes to kill you, it does not matter whether he does so in the name of Hindu fundamentalism or Congress extremism. If we forget the murders of 1984 and allow those who committed them to get away with it, then we lose the moral right to criticise Narendra Modi or to ever speak out against communal violence.

It saddens me that the secular establishment has forgotten basic morality. Its failure to stand up for the victims of the 1984 massacres shames us all.