www.sacw.net | 15 August 2005

Justice Delayed Should not be Justice Denied

by Smitu Kothari

Any analysis of the history of Commissions and Committees set up to investigate the massacre of Sikhs that took place in 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi must acknowledge five facts: that 3-4,000 Sikhs were brutally murdered many roasted alive in the three days following the assassination; that this happened in the capital of a democracy; that members of the ruling Congress party that takes great pride in labeling itself as secular, actively directed, inspired and participated in this carnage; that the police actively connived or looked the other way while the mobs went about their brutal business; and, that the Indian state and its agencies have tried to subvert or deflect all efforts by the victims and their survivors to secure justice.

The Nanavati Commission's tabling of the report in Parliament has brought some action. Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar have resigned from their governmental responsibilities, the Home Ministry has asked for all records pertaining to compensation and the Prime Minister has apologized to the Sikh community and the nation. For those whose loved ones were brutally killed, twenty-one long years have passed with no justice having been done. A generation of children who had watched there brothers and fathers being killed before their eyes have now grown up, many bitter with the games modern states play. While Tytler and Sajjan Kumar's resignation is a welcome small step, coming as they do after two decades of denial, lies and deceit, and with the prospect of their manipulating the system further to evade arrest and a trial, we have yet to see what concrete steps the criminal justice system and conscientious citizens are willing to take to ensure that this process is brought to some kind of satisfactory end.

I will never forget those first three days on the streets of Delhi, the months in the relief camps and the many trips to the various commissions inquiring into the carnage. Almost immediately after the first reports of killings started coming in, some of us spent those three days traveling extensively across the city from Trilokpuri where some of the worst atrocities had taken place to Lajpat Nagar and Ashram. We witnessed the mobs, visited police stations and extensively interviewed the survivors. After the killings, we were active in the relief and rehabilitation work, made depositions before some of the committees and written widely in the press. Throughout this process, we have felt a deep sense of frustration and anger as we have witnessed delaying tactics, active subversion of the criminal justice system and a growing voice among a section of the population that "we should move on and let bygones be bygones".

Throughout this period, there have been some who have been consistent in their recording the gravity of what happened, what it means for the fabric of democratic institutions and how shameful were attempts to subvert and cover-up the massacre. One of these was Judge AS Dhingra. He had this to say in his judgment on one of the 1984 cases: "The manner in which the trail of the riot cases had proceeded is unthinkable in any civilised country. In fact, the inordinate delay in trial of the rioters had legitimised the violence and the criminality. A system which permits the legitimised violence and criminals through the instrumentalities of the state to stifle the investigation, cannot be relied upon to dispense basic justice uniformly to the people. It amounts to a total wiping out of the rule of law".

Whatever failings there may be in Justice Nanavati's report, it is a powerful statement that justice has been hopelessly delayed. Also, what must be a matter of grave concern is that the Commission report says that there was evidence that on the day of the assassination, "meetings were held or the persons who could organize violence were contacted and given instructions to kill Sikhs and loot their houses and shops." Further that there were powerful people involved because those ordering and committing the crimes did so without, "fear of the police, almost suggesting that they were assured that they would not be harmed while committing those acts and even thereafter" Yet, one of the failings of the Nanavati report is that it presents this evidence and then shies away from investigating or naming those who organized the killings.

An almost identical pattern was evident in Gujarat a little over two years ago. Premeditated and systematic planning, coordinated instructions from politicians or others with political authority, assurances from them that the police will look the other way. Who gave these assurances? Who was present when the plans were drawn up to teach "the Sikhs a lesson"? These questions must be answered, even two decades later.

If there is one other indictment in Nanvati's report, it is of those who run our country: "Anything can happen anywhere in the country because politicians have no value system to follow and the police have no limits in behaviour or action."

Kuldip Nayar has argued for the setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission similar to the one set up in South Africa after the end of apartheid rule. There are few similarities between the Sikh massacre and the decades-long victimization of millions of South Africans under a regime that systematically sought to sustain white, supremacist rule by actively torturing, killing and repressing vast populations of predominantly black South Africans. After the overthrow of the apartheid regime, most South Africans were committed to establishing a just and democratic country and wanted to move forward but with the full knowledge of what had happened and who was responsible. What happened in 1984 cannot be similarly condoned. While some of the more privileged members of the Sikh community may want to maintain political status quo, most would agree that justice needs to be done and that the country is demeaned and degraded if those responsible for crimes against humanity are allowed to go free.

Also, deeper reforms and changes need to be made. For instance, about the police and the administration, Judge Dhingra is right when he says that, "it is imperative that the police force, which is increasingly becoming a threat to the democratic institutions of the country, is insulated from political interference made accountable to the people and effective steps taken to ensure that delinquent police officers no longer enjoy impunity. It is also imperative that when crimes of this gravity and magnitude take place, there needs to be urgent, unambiguously independent investigations and prompt action.

Our contemporary history is replete with grave tragedies where the economically and politically powerful who have been responsible for mass killings and suffering have actively manipulated the political system to escape any punishment for the grave crimes that they have committed. Just three out of thousands of cases are illustrative: the Bhopal tragedy (the world's worst industrial disaster); the systematic massacre of Muslims in Gujarat under a BJP chief minister, and, the Sikh massacre of 1984 under Congress rule at the centre. Time should not dilute the culpability of those responsible for heinous crimes. Until we are able to create the political conditions where those responsible face the strongest punishments (short of death penalty), we are far from realizing what a civilised, democratic country should be.

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