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1984 Sikh Massacres: Victory to the Mob


Outlook, Aug. 22, 2005

Photo: 1984 Sikh Massacres

The Nanavati report is utter garbage. All the killers are roaming freely.

I have only two words for Justice G.T. Nanavati's inquiry report on the butchery of Sikhs 21 years ago: utter garbage. I have the report in hand, all 349 pages, plus the Action Taken Report [A.T.R.] presented by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government in Parliament on August 8. I thought it would take a whole day or two to go through it. It took only a couple of hours because it is largely based on what transpired in zones of different police stations and long lists of names which meant nothing to me. There are broad hints about the involvement of Congress leaders like H.K.L. Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler, Dharam Dass Shastri and Sajjan Kumar. He gives them the benefit of the doubt and suggests yet another inquiry commission to look into the charges against them. Yet another commission? For God's sake, is he serious? To say the least, I was deeply disappointed with the whole thing. But the game of shirking responsibility was to attain higher levels!

First, the government took its own sweet time to put the report on the table of the House, waiting till the last day allotted to it for doing so. Union home minister Shivraj Patil had assured the House when the report had been submitted to him six months ago that the government had nothing to hide. However, he hid it till he could hide it no more. That shows the government's mala fide intent in the whole business. Even the Action Taken Report makes sorry reading. Most of it is aimed at the policemen now retired from service and hence no longer liable for disciplinary action. Any wonder why, despite monetary compensation, the sense of outrage among families of victims has not diminished by the passage of years?

About 21 years ago, northern India down to Karnataka witnessed a bloodbath the likes of which the country had not experienced since Independence nor after. In Delhi, over 3,000 Sikhs were murdered, their wives and daughters gangraped, their properties looted, 72 gurudwaras burnt down. The all-India total of casualties was close to 10,000, the loss of property over thousands of crores.

What triggered off the holocaust was the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. On the morning of October 31, 1984, she was assassinated by two of her Sikh security guards. As the news of her death spread, rampaging mobs of Hindus shouting khoon ka badla khoon se lenge (we will avenge blood with blood), armed with cans of petrol, matchboxes and lathis set upon Sikhs they met on the roads - easily identifiable because of their distinct appearance - and set them on fire. Sikh-owned shops and homes were attacked and looted. Most of this mayhem and murder took place in Congress-ruled states. Word had gone round, 'Teach the Sikhs a lesson;' the police was instructed not to intervene.

It was then people realised how much ill-will Sikhs had earned because of the hate-filled utterances of Bhindranwale against Hindus and the years of killings carried out by his hoodlums in Punjab. No Sikh leader, neither Congress nor Akali, had raised his voice in protest. Consequently, when Mrs. Gandhi ordered the army to enter the Golden Temple to get Bhindranwale dead or alive, no Hindu condemned the action as unwarranted. Sikhs were deeply hurt by Operation Blue Star and ultimately two of them decided to murder Mrs. Gandhi.

What followed was largely condoned by Hindus and the Hindu-owned media. Girilal Jain, editor of The Times of India, wrote that Sikhs should have been aware of what lay in store for them. N.C. Menon, editor of The Hindustan Times, wrote that they had 'clawed their way to prosperity' and deserved what they got. There were few people left to share their pain. It must be acknowledged that some leaders of the Sangh parivar and the R.S.S., including A.B. Vajpayee, went out of their way to help the Sikhs. So did men like Ram Jethmalani, Soli Sorabjee and a few others.

Rajiv Gandhi, who flew in from Calcutta with his cousin and confidant Arun Nehru, was quickly sworn in as prime minister by Zail Singh without consulting other ministers or chief ministers of states. Rajiv was busy receiving foreign dignitaries coming to attend his mother's funeral. Days later, in his first public speech, he exonerated the murderers: 'When a big tree falls, the earth beneath it is bound to shake.' He meant to take no action in the matter and retained men named as leaders of mobs in his cabinet. Home minister Narasimha Rao did not stir out of his house. When a few eminent Sikhs approached him, he listened to them in studied silence. He remained, as he always was, the paradigm of masterly inactivity. With the three men at the top refusing to do their duty, little could be expected from the Lt. Governor of Delhi or the police commissioner.

Section 144 of the I.P.C. [Indian Penal Code], forbidding gatherings of more than five people, was not promulgated or enforced; no curfew was imposed, no shoot-at-sight order given. A unit of the army was brought in from Meerut but when it was discovered that they were Sikhs, it was ordered to stay in the cantonment and not meddle with the civic unrest. The only word I could think of using for the way the authorities carried out its duties? Downright disgusting. It was like spitting in the face of all democratic institutions.

However, there were citizens' organisations which refused to allow a crime of this magnitude to go uninvestigated and unpunished. Leading them were Dr. Rajni Kothari and Justice (retired) V.M. Tarkunde. Kothari's report, Who Are the Guilty?, named men like H.K.L. Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar, Dharam Dass Shastri - all M.P.s and leaders of the Delhi municipality amongst leaders of goonda [hoodlum] gangs. None of those named took these men or organisations to court for criminal libel. When Jagdish Tytler claimed that none of the commissions of inquiry implicated him in the anti-Sikh violence, he was lying. You can see it in the smirk on his satanic face. Only sarkari [governmental] commissions let him off the hook.

More important than Kothari and Tarkunde's findings were those of the non-official commission of inquiry set up under retired chief justice of the Supreme Court, S.M. Sikri. Comprising retired ambassadors, governors and senior civil servants (none of them a Sikh), the commission castigated the government in no uncertain terms.

The government could not ignore its verdict. Ultimately, Rajiv Gandhi took the Sikh problem in his own hands. He appointed Arjun Singh governor of Punjab to make contacts with Akali leaders in jails. They were released in small batches to create a favourable atmosphere. Secret negotiations with Sant Harchand Singh Longowal were started. Zail Singh, Buta Singh and others were kept in the dark. On July 24, 1985, the Rajiv-Longowal Accord was signed. Amongst other items, it provided for an inquiry commission into the incidents of violence of November 1984.

Justice Ranganath Mishra of the Supreme Court was appointed as a one-man commission. 'Operation Whitewash' had begun. Before Mishra was half-way through, the panel of lawyers representing victims of the holocaust led by Soli Sorabjee expressed its lack of confidence in the learned judge's impartiality and withdrew from the commission. Mishra went ahead and submitted his findings to the government. As expected, he held the Lt. Governor and the police commissioner of Delhi guilty of dereliction of duty. It must have occurred to him that neither of the two could have acted the way they did without the instructions of higher-ups, including the prime minister or someone acting on his behalf or the home minister. I doubt if Mishra can look at his own face in a mirror.

I don't think Rajiv Gandhi was himself a party to the anti-Sikh pogrom. If he was guilty of anything, it was allowing it to go on for two days and nights till his mother's funeral was over. Behind it all was his eminence grise who sent out the message: 'Teach the Sikhs a lesson.' No commission of inquiry, official or non-official, has looked into the role of this sinister character, although he is still very much alive and around in Delhi's political circuit. Nor, unfortunately, can I look into it at this stage.

After the Mishra Commission, nine others were instituted by the government. Their terms of reference were restricted. Nothing much came out of their findings as most of them focused on the shortcomings of the Delhi police in handling the crisis. Resentment against the government continued to simmer.

Ultimately, in May 2000, the government set up yet another commission of inquiry under Justice G.T. Nanavati. He was to submit his report in six months. At the leisurely pace he heard evidence tendered, it took him five years to do so. I did not expect very much from him. But H.S. Phoolka, who had taken charge of presenting victims' grievances, persuaded me to file an affidavit and appear before him. I did so, but the way the inquiry commission functioned didn't inspire much confidence. It was less like a court dealing with criminal charges and more like a tea party with lawyers on both sides exchanging pleasantries.

I told the commission what I had seen with my own eyes taking place around where I live: burning of Sikh-owned taxi cabs and the desecration of a gurudwara behind my flat, looting of Sikh-owned shops in Khan Market - all in full view of dozens of policemen armed with lathis lined along the road but doing nothing. I also told him of my futile attempts to get President Zail Singh on the phone.

There is no doubt about it: the November 1984 anti-Sikh violence will remain a blot on the face of our country for times to come. No one will take the findings of these sarkari commissions of inquiry seriously. It will be left to historians to chronicle events that led to this tragedy and the miscarriage of justice that followed.

A few salutary lessons that the experience has taught us should be kept in mind by our leaders.The most important is to understand that crimes unpunished breed criminals.Another equally important thing to bear in mind is that the State must never abdicate its monopoly of punishing criminals, if it overlooks its duty or delays dispensing justice beyond limits of endurance, it encourages aggrieved parties to take the law in their own hands and settle scores with those who wronged them.If we do not learn these lessons now, we will have more holocausts in the years to come.