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These ghosts just don't go away
June 22, 2004
While our media was helped by A B Vajpayee in Manali to raise the Gujarat ghost of 2002, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh resurrected another, but forgotten, ghost: the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. When he visited a gurdwara in Delhi the other day, he prayed that the two events would never happen again.
All of us pray for the same, wishing to let the past be. But our English-language press is not content with that; pouncing on Vajpayee suddenly pointing a finger of guilt at Modi, the press is eager to rub the Gujarat salt into the BJP's lesion of Election 2004.
Has the Congress atoned for the Sikh carnage of 1984 by installing a Sikh as prime minister? Or has it atoned by making Jagdish Tytler, the same man who was among several Congressmen suspected of having had a hand in that carnage, a minister of state?
The 20th anniversary of that event is occasion enough to juxtapose the two ghosts. Since readers in India and abroad have, for over two years, been flooded with all kinds of detail about it from a large spectrum of writers, Gujarat 2002 is best left summarised as below.
Gujarat 2002 riots
Provocation: On the morning of February 27, at Godhra station, 58 Hindu passengers returning from a pilgrimage to Lord Ram's Ayodhya were scorched alive by a Muslim mob.
Retaliation: While nothing much happened on February 27 itself, a mass vendetta commenced on February 28. For two days thereafter, Hindu groups indulged in arson and loot, raping and killing.
Counter-retaliation: Francois Gautier, a Delhi-based French journalist, wrote that subsequently there were 157 riots and that all of them were started by Muslim groups (India Today, June 24, 2002).
Victims: In the three months following the Godhra massacre, the official figure is 800 dead, of which a quarter were Hindus. Another estimate is 1,050 dead, of which Hindus were 250. Of the 98,000 persons sent to refugee camps, 10,000 were Hindus.
Government action: A five-man fact-finding committee of The Council for International Affairs and Human Rights headed by D S Tewatia, a former chief justice of the Calcutta and Punjab and Haryana high courts, reported that:–
- By the afternoon of February 28, it was clear that the communal violence had spread widely and the situation had become so alarming that it was unlikely to be controlled by the police and paramilitary forces. Hence, at 4.30 pm that day, the chief minister announced at a press conference that the state government had decided to call the army to assist the civil administration. And by that evening the Union government had given instructions for the deployment of two brigades in Gujarat.
- The Union defence minister flew to Ahmedabad at midnight and had a meeting with the chief minister to discuss deployment of the army. Troops needed to be withdrawn from the country's border with Pakistan, where they were deployed in full strength in an eyeball-to-eyeball situation.
- Within 24 hours, one brigade of the Indian Army had landed in Ahmedabad. In a meeting at 8 am in which the chief minister, defence minister, army generals, and civil officers participated, the formal plan for deployment of the army was approved. Magistrates needed to accompany the army were appointed and by 11 am on March 1 the actual deployment of the army at sensitive points had begun.
- The second brigade was deputed to Rajkot and Vadodara on the night of March 1.
- Columns allotted to Godhra reached there on the morning of March 2.
- The army went back to the barracks on March 10.
What did the Gujarat police do? In the first 48 hours of the violence, they arrested 3,900 persons, of whom two-thirds were Hindus (Sanjoy Banerjee, 'Indian Politics in this Age', Indian Currents, June 2002). By April 5, 9,500 persons had been arrested, of whom two-thirds were Hindus. 'The Gujarat police did try to restore law and order.' (Prem Shankar Jha, 'Gujarat: A Sober Diary', Outlook, April 22, 2002.) National Minorities Commission Chairman John Joseph noted, 'As on April 6, 126 persons were killed in police firing, of whom 77 were Hindus.' (Kay Benedict, 'Bad PR charge on Atal, Modi', The Telegraph, April 21, 2002.) L K Advani, ex-home minister, publicly stated that the police fired 3,900 rounds of ammunition.
The National Human Rights Commission and the Minorities Commission 'accepted the Gujarat government's contention that it did foresee trouble and took precautionary steps to check it, but was caught by surprise and overwhelmed by the mob fury erupting on February 28.'
The billion-dollar question: So was Gujarat 2002 'state-sponsored' genocide against Muslims? Was it at all genocide or a pogrom against Muslims? Or was it a case of any number of sandbags not enough to stem the Brahmaputra floods?
Anti-Sikh Riots, 1984
Below is an account sourced almost entirely from a report released in the House of Commons, Britain, on May 25 this year to mark the 20th anniversary of what was the darkest and most humiliating year ever in the long, glorious history of India's Sikh community. The report was prepared by Truth & Justice Campaign, Berkshire (London), set up a year ago 'to bring the perpetrators of genocide to justice' (The Asian Age, Mumbai edition, page 6, May 27, 2004).
The report (of which this writer has a copy) is titled '1984 Sikhs' Kristallnacht', or 'Night of the Broken Glass'. It is so named after the event of November 9, 1938, when a night of horror was raged, apparently spontaneously, on Jews throughout Germany to avenge the murder of a German embassy official in Paris by a 17-year-old Jew refugee enraged by the mass expulsion of 10,000 Jews, including his father, to Poland. Countless Jewish shops, synagogues, and homes went up in flames, and several Jewish men, women, and children were slain while trying to escape burning to death even as the police and the fire brigade looked on. According to William Shirer's classic book on the Third Reich, the destruction in broken glass alone came to five million marks.
The Truth & Justice Campaign's report's revelations are highlighted below.
The riots: Early on November 1, 1984, hordes of people from the suburbs of Delhi descended on various localities where the Sikh population was concentrated. They carried iron rods, knives, clubs, and combustible material, including kerosene. They had voters' lists of houses and business establishments belonging to the Sikhs.
Murderous gangs of 200 people or 300 people began to swarm into Sikh homes, hacking the occupants to pieces, chopping off the heads of children, raping women, tying Sikh men to tyres set aflame with kerosene, burning down the houses and shops after ransacking them. Mobs stopped buses and trains, in and out of Delhi, pulling out Sikh passengers to be lynched or doused with kerosene and burnt. An Indian Express report of November 2 described a mob. 'Labouring at a leisurely pace, they split open Lachman Singh's skull and pouring kerosene into the gash set alight the half-alive man in front of Gyan Devi, his wife.' Unlike Gujarat 2002, the violence wasn't confined to one territory, but spread to 80 towns throughout India.
The provocation: On October 31, 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards in revenge for Operation Bluestar. This operation had started on May 31, when 150,000 troops were sent to Punjab with tanks and all and the entire state was sealed off from the rest of the country. On June 4, Indira Gandhi had ordered the army to invade the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, the Sikhs' national institution, with the purpose of flushing out Bhindranwale and his militants who had been demanding Khalistan as an independent Sikh state. (The report contains gory details of Operation Bluestar as well, but they do not concern us here.)
The retaliation: None. Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere just didn't put up a fight.
The victims: 'Thousands," says Truth & Justice Campaign – all Sikhs. (The figure mentioned in India is 3,000 odd – all Sikhs.) Moreover, its subject report says, 'A reign of violence, repression and genocide was to persist until at least 1995.'
Government action: The State-owned and controlled Doordarshan and All India Radio broadcast provocative slogans such as khoon ka badla khoon. Remember, there were no private television channels then.
The rest of the Congress government's 'action' is best expressed in the following quotes:
- Hardly any soldiers were to be seen in the streets of the capital. (The Guardian, UK, November 3, 1984).
- Criminally led hoodlums killed Sikhs, looted or burnt homes and properties while the police twiddled their thumbs. (India Today, November 15, 1984)
- Many people complained that, in some cases, the police were not merely hanging back, but giving active support. (The Times, November 5, 1984)
- The new prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in his maiden speech on Delhi's Boat Club lawns did not have a word to condemn the killings; nor did he give any assurance to the Sikhs that the killers would be punished. Instead, he merely used ugly words such as 'avenge,' 'anger,' 'revenge,' and explained away this unprecedented orgy of violence comparing it with a natural phenomenon: 'there is a shaking of the earth whenever a big tree falls.' (Amiya Rao, 'When Delhi Burnt', Economic and Political Weekly, December 8, 1984.)
To Rao's above quote must be added that of the late veteran journalist, Janardan Thakur, who in his book Prime Ministers (Published by ESHWAR, Mumbai, 1999) wrote, 'The Prime Minister [Rajiv Gandhi] paid no attention to the most emotive issue of the Sikhs: the demand to punish the culprits of the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi.'
Rajiv Gandhi's inaction must be seen in the context of the joint report on the riots by the People's Union of Civil Liberties and the People's Union of Democratic Rights. That report mentioned the names of 16 important Congressmen and 13 police officers among those accused by survivors and witnesses.
The billion-dollar question: In his article cited above, Amiya Rao says, 'The Delhi violence was well planned and well organised. It would have burst forth even if Indira Gandhi had been alive.' So, were the Sikh riots of 1984 in fact a Congress-sponsored genocide and a pogrom? Should Saint Sonia's Congress atone for it by kicking out Jagdish Tytler from the UPA ministry to start with?