1984 riots: the long road to justice

Stranger still, the then government did not appeal to a higher court seeking more severe punishment given the brutal acts committed by these persons.

Published: 04th December 2018 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th December 2018 03:30 AM   |  A+A-

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 1984 pogrom unleashed by the Congress are the first signals that even if 34 years have gone by, at least some of the perpetrators of the ghastly violence will be brought to book.

The Narendra Modi government’s determination to bring the culprits in this macabre drama to book, its decision to constitute a Special Investigation Team (SIT) for this 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 Delhi and brutally assaulted and killed Hardev Singh and Avtar Singh, both in their twenties. That very day an FIR was registered against a leader of the Congress, but a Sessions Court acquitted him two years later. A second FIR was registered in 1993 but within a year, the Delhi Police filed a closure report claiming the accused were untraceable, despite the testimonies of family members and eyewitnesses. Success in this case became possible due to 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 convictions and sentences awarded to 70 persons, all part of a murderous mob that lynched 95 Sikhs in a most heinous manner in the Trilokpuri area of Delhi. 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 dragged on.

Stranger still, the then government did not appeal to a higher court seeking more severe punishment given the brutal acts committed by these persons. The matter came before the High Court only because the persons appealed against their convictions and sentences. While rejecting the appeals, the court had some harsh words to say about the attitude of the prosecution in this case. “The police forces, and the civil administration, did not take timely or effective action to prevent the riotous conditions from spiralling out of hand,” the court said.

The Nanavati Commission, which investigated the riots that broke out after the assassination of Indira Gandhi on 31 October 1984, did a far more thorough job than many previous inquiries, which were basically whitewash work. 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. Describing the horrendous aftermath of the assassination, the commission said mobs were instigated to take revenge against Sikhs and were transported in Delhi Transport Corporation buses to localities where Sikhs were living in large numbers. The mobsters were given weapons and 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 that indicated that Rajiv Gandhi, who had become prime minister soon after his mother’s assassination, had told one of his officials, “Yes we must teach them a lesson”. The commission however did not pursue this because it found that the “evidence in this behalf is very vague.”

In light of all this evidence, the Narendra Modi government’s efforts are indeed commendable. The government first constituted a committee headed by Justice G P Mathur in December 2014 to recommend measures to ensure justice for the victims of 1984. Acting on the recommendation of this committee, the Centre set up the Special Investigation Team in February 2015 to re-examine the closed cases.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court 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.
Reports from Germany indicate that even though 73 years have gone by since the end of World War II, efforts are still on to hunt down Nazis who were involved in the killing of Jews. Special efforts are on to track down three members of a Nazi mobile death squad called Einsatzgruppen, which killed over one million Jews. The suspects are over 90.

Such determination and honesty of purpose will be needed to track down and prosecute those who murdered thousands of Sikhs in 1984. 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 democratic way of life.

A Surya Prakash
Chairman, Prasar Bharati
Email: suryamedia@gmail.com

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