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Articles on anti Sikh genocide by 2 Indian writers

Mehtab Singh

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The long wait for justice


14 August 2005

NEVER before had independent India witnessed anything like what happened on October 31, 1984: the first assassination of its Prime Minister by two members of a religious minority, and the wreaking of organised ‘revenge’ against the entire Sikh community which was held collectively responsible for their action in violation of all rationality and ethics.

The violence was considerably worse than Kristallnacht, the infamous smashing and torching of Jewish homes and shops in Germany, following the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a Jew in 1938. Less than 100 people died in Kristallnacht. By November 3,000 Sikhs had been butchered.

Delhi witnessed demonic brutality. This writer had just flown from Bombay that morning and saw it from a vantage point. Malicious rumours flew thick and fast about how ‘thousands of Sikhs’ had celebrated the assassination: "They will be taught a lesson".

By the evening, systematic killing and arson began at the behest of Congress leaders, who mobilised mobs crying for ‘blood’. Vehicles were stopped to check the passengers’ identity. Soon, Sikh truckers were ‘necklaced’. Lorry-tyres containing kerosene were hung around their necks. They were burnt alive. Officially, 2,733 people were killed, unofficially, perhaps 4,000.

Twenty-one years and nine inquiry commissions later, the perpetrators of the carnage haven’t been brought to book. Not one politician or policeman stands convicted. Only 13 people of the thousands who killed, raped and burned, have been held guilty.

The Nanavati Commission, appointed by the National Democratic Alliance five years ago, had raised hopes that the perpetrators of the violence, especially its plotters, would be brought to book and adequate corrective action would be taken. Most such hopes lie belied, especially with the Action Taken Report of the Manmohan Singh government. After the fractious debate that followed, the government partially retreated from its cynical stand on the issue.

The retreat conforms to a pattern — whether on the Employment Guarantee Act, the swearing-in of Shibu Soren in Jharkhand, BHEL disinvestment, the Pension Bill, or ‘the withdrawal tax’ proposal.

However, there is a much deeper significance to the government’s changed stance on the Delhi pogrom, reflected in Manmohan Singh’s public apology and in Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar’s resignations. If the UPA lives up to its promise of pursuing every individual named credibly as an accused by the Commission and its predecessors, it will gain in stature. This will raise hopes in Gujarat that the ordeals of the victims of independent India’s worst state-sponsored carnage might end. If the UPA fails, it will spread cynicism and despair all over.

How good is the Nanavati report? It is an inconsistent, slipshod and remarkably unconvincing document. It holds that the violence was ‘systematic and organised’, and it enjoyed ‘the backing and help of influential and resourceful persons’. But it fails to make causal connections between disparate events and fix culpability. It doesn’t identify these ‘influential’ persons and precisely how, by what means, the carnage was organised.

Nanavati accuses the police of ‘a colossal’ law-and-order failure and ‘collusion’ and ‘ineffectiveness’ in stopping the looting and killing. But it recommends no action against any policeman. This despite the fact that an earlier official committee (Kapoor-Mittal) had indicted 72 police officials for negligence or active connivance with violence.

Nanavati found the Delhi authorities collectively guilty, but individually innocent — a contradiction! He also held that top officials, including Lt-Governor P G Gavai and Police Commissioner S C Tandon, shouldn’t be prosecuted because they have retired. This makes no sense. All officers are liable for actions committed while they held their office. It is not contested that Gavai ordered Tandon to call in the army in the morning of November 1. However, the army effectively arrived on November 3, by which time hundreds had been killed. Gavai says Tandon was negligent and Home Minister Narasimha Rao ‘hid like a rat’.

There was no political will to stop the violence, and later, to punish its perpetrators. Nanavati is unable to weave this into chains of causality. His report thus marks another low in the level of quality and integrity of official inquiries into communal violence. In the 1970s and much of the 1980s, inquiry commissions produced high-quality reports — e.g. Jaganmohan Reddy on Ahmedabad (1969), D P Madan on Bhiwandi (1970), Vithayathil on Tellicherry (1971), the Jitendra Narain on Jamshedpur (1979); and Venugopal on Kanyakumari (1982). More recently, the Srikrishna commission on the Bombay violence of 1993 produced a splendid report.

But many recent commissions — e.g. into the Bhagalpur and Meerut violence or the Malegaon riots and the killing of Graham Staines (Wadhwa Commission) are poor in quality. Nanavati’s report is closer to this second category.

Even so, it provides a basis for prosecuting a number of people against whom ‘credible evidence’ exists, including Jagdish Tytler, HKL Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, Dharam Das Shastri, etc. That’s where the UPA showed the greatest timidity. It refused to follow on Nanavati’s reconstruction of individual cases. It originally interpreted ‘credible’ evidence to mean ‘probabilistic’ evidence. But all criminal cases are registered on probabilistic evidence! Only conviction needs conclusive proof.

Mercifully, the UPA has corrected course under pressure from friendly parties, especially the Left. It has promised to reopen cases against those named by Nanavati and to pay compensation to the victims. This is welcome, not good enough. Previous commissions too have named others. They all must be formally charge-sheeted and tried in special fast-track courts. The commission’s reports and the hundreds of affidavits of eyewitnesses contain enough material for framing charges.

The victims have — indeed the nation has — waited for two decades. At stake is not just justice, but the state’s responsibility to defend the citizen’s fundamental right to life against communal depredations. No state that fails to defend this can be democratic. What is also at stake is the future of the victims of the Gujarat carnage. The Delhi case can set negative or positive precedents for Gujarat. It’s vitally important that the precedent is positive and the message rings out that there will be no impunity for crimes against humanity in India.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator


72 hours, 21 years


17 August 2005

I SUSPECT each one of us who covered the anti-Sikh riots as reporters in November 1984 has a persistent nightmare. Some still wake up in cold sweat as images of half-burnt bodies in Trilokpuri appear again and again. Some cannot shake of the image of helpless widows, their men and children killed, their houses burnt, pleading for help from a police that only looked the other way.

I have a couple of mine, too. One is of defiance. A group of Sikh taxi drivers outside Imperial Hotel on Janpath decided to protect themselves as the state had chosen to abdicate all responsibility. They picked up chains, sticks, iron-rods, just stones and decided to take on the mobs. On the afternoon of November 2, I was with a small group of reporters that witnessed this remarkable incident.

A mob of several hundred would converge on the taxi stand shouting the by-now-familiar slogan: khoon ka badla khoon, Indiraji hum sharminda hain, tere qatil zinda hain (blood for blood, Indira we are ashamed, your killers are alive). But the small group of taxi drivers, instead of fleeing, challenged them with what looked like a whole motor workshop converted into an armoury. A dozen assaults were mounted, each was beaten back and soon enough many helpless bystanders, including us reporters, were cheering.

All it took were a few brave men to keep at bay a mob of the kind that was looting, pillaging and killing in many parts of the city, unquestioned, unchallenged and often helped by a police force that looked more complicit than even Modi’s in Gujarat, 2001. In Gujarat at least the police opened fire several times. Here you found Delhi policemen openly talk of the need to teach the Sikhs a lesson.

My other nightmare is a beautiful house at the corner of Chiragh Dilli and Panchsheel Park, next to where the flyover came up later. The house burnt furiously as perhaps no other, even in those three days of arson. There was no provocation, just that word had spread that it was owned by a Sikh family. The family, fortunately, escaped the mob. But the looted house, set on fire, lit the night brutally in what you thought was safe, upper crust South Delhi.

I remember that burning house, the towering column of smoke that dominated an already blackening sky, as I drove past it on my Enfield one afternoon, riding the pillion behind me two neighbours — India Today colleagues, one of them expecting her first child soon, as we were expecting our second. Both our boys are twenty now, and final year college students. They represent a whole new generation of Indians born after that dreadful tragedy which has already voted in one state and one national election. But those that suffered in those 72 hours of hell are still awaiting justice. Those that were responsible for it have still escaped the supposed long arm of justice, or retribution. That burning house is my most persistent nightmare. It was never rebuilt. It was believed the owners sold it and migrated to Punjab.

Partition, in fact, was the dominant metaphor in the rumour mill. Your next-door neighbour would tell you of trains loaded with Hindu bodies coming in from Punjab. There was talk of mass rape and mutilation of women. Then you asked a few questions on the source of the rumour and the answer usually was, "I didn’t see, but my brother saw a train, or probably my brother’s friend’s neighbour".

There was no truth in any of them. No such thing even happened. And to tell the truth, even the most vicious rumours never succeeded in turning Hindus against their Sikh neighbours. Ordinary people like us ignored all rumours and maintained peace. Even when Delhi Police joined the rumour business by giving currency to wild rumours that Sikh militant had poisoned water supplies. In many areas we saw police vans making announcements asking people to avoid municipal water that may have been poisoned.

These were no communal riots of the kind you often see, or saw in Gujarat, where neighbours turn on neighbours. In every locality, the killer mobs came from elsewhere. Somebody had got them together, told them where to go and target the Sikhs. Most important, they were promised the police won’t interfere. And that was a promise Delhi Police kept for a good 72 hours.

I remember driving around Govindpuri on my motorbike, skirting burning bodies, a hundred fires, big and small, raging around the place, and at the local police station they told you nothing had happened, nobody had died, everything was in control. Or the odd policeman would chide you. What’s wrong with you presswallas? Are you Khalistani sympathisers? Reporters like me had limitations in terms of how extensively one could document all this because I then worked for a fortnightly (India Today).

But several newspaper reporters, notably Rahul Bedi, Sanjay Suri and Joseph Maliakan of the Indian Express, did stellar and courageous work tracking and documenting this, day after day. Without their contribution, so many inquiries and commissions would have failed to name even these few names.

The points that intrigued me for a long time afterwards were, if mobs had all come from elsewhere, who were these people? Who got them together, and what was in it for them? Finally, how did the killings stop abruptly? It was clear soon enough that the mobs comprised mostly jobless lumpens, collected by political mafiosi on the promise of easy loot and pillage.

The killing, however, stopped all of a sudden the moment a few army APCs appeared. No mobs fought with the army, there was very little firing. Just the message that the army was out and police protection no longer available now, and the mobs lost their will. It was not like the Partition, or even Gujarat, 17 years later. This was not the case of a community turning on another in blind fury, willing to face bullets, lathis, anything. This was ‘good-time’ mobs who melted away the moment they saw some challenge.

That is why those of us who covered the riots, and many more who carried out relief or citizens’ investigations, believe that what we saw over those murderous 72 hours were not Hindu-Sikh riots but Congress-Sikh riots. Or, rather, Delhi Congress-Sikh riots. Too many small time Congress politicians, who had built their careers organising crowds for Sanjay and then Indira Gandhi, decided revenge was naturally expected of them.

If there is one thing that has emerged with the Nanavati Report and its aftermath, it is that political parties have to accept their past will continue to come back and haunt them. They cannot, as in the past, use brute force to sweep all questions under the debris. The Congress is not the only party to have done so. If Advani and Vajpayee, after making such solemn speeches last week, recall what their own party did with the Srikrishna Commission in the Bombay riots of 1992, they will be ashamed too. And, hopefully, they will remember that when Justice Nanavati delivers his findings on Gujarat, 2001.

Shekhar Gupta is editor-in-chief of Indian Express and can be reached at sg@expressindia.com

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