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The Rediff Special
February 18, 2005
The Justice Nanavati Commission submitted its report on the anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi's assassination to Home Minister Shivraj Patil last week.
Poonam Muttreja is one of the founders of Dastkar, the movement of Indian craftspeople. She co-founded the Nagrik Ekta Manch to help Sikhs victimised by the 1984 violence.
This is the concluding part of a three-part series in which she recalls one of the most shameful phases in Independent India.
Part I: When Delhi Burnt
Part II: 'It was not guilt; it was shame'
When the riots broke out, we performed the role of firefighters. When rehabilitation work started, our work got over. After that my father would say that the Nagrik Ekta Manch has turned into the Never-Ending Meeting! Political manoeuvring had started by then and no one was ready to work long-term. The NEM was dissolved but individual activities continued.
'I haven't absolved Congress: Justice Nanavati
I believe that the people who were wronged in 1984 didn't get justice. I participated in the Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission that investigated the riots. I was a strong witness; I had my affidavit with all the names and facts before the commission. I took the help of (lawyer) Nandita Haksar to prepare it. Haksar, (social activist) Smitu Kothari and I were among key witnesses before the Commission.
But when I appeared before the Commission, I was disappointed. Whenever I named any guilty police officer or politicians, they said, "You are getting emotional." After that, I felt the Commission was an eyewash.
About eight years after the riots, I was called before the Jain Commission (set up to investigate Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in May 1991). I was asked only one question: Can you recognise all the people you have named in your affidavit? They trapped me. After eight years there were good chances I may not. So I said I may not be able to recognise them. They asked me to leave.
The biggest shock of all came when H K L Bhagat won the 1984 election with the second highest majority after Rajiv Gandhi. We had campaigned against him. But he won. How do you explain this? Sikhs were not stopped from voting but still Bhagat won. People started telling us, "You build wells and help the poor. Politics is for strong people with muscle power and not for us."
We won't forget many lessons from 1984.
First, the media should not knowingly or unknowingly contribute to the violence. For the first few hours after the assassination, if there had been some restraint in identifying the names of Mrs Gandhi's Sikh bodyguards, it might have helped.
Second, the press reported Rajiv Gandhi making this statement: 'When a huge tree falls, the earth shatters.' I think this was a very immature statement, if not downright communal. I don't think Rajiv Gandhi understood the political implications of his statement. And how it encouraged Congressmen to legitimate the violence.
The third lesson is that when such events occur, every citizen should take charge. How do I contribute to stop violence in my street? If this awareness and commitment exists, then the violence can be controlled faster. We perhaps cannot completely stop violence in our society but we can be effective in making sure it does not escalate. Every citizen should vow that in any such situation he or she will do his or her bit to reduce the violence.
Lastly, I don't think the Congress party has learned any lessons from 1984. What can they have learnt when the Sikh victims are still to get justice? Ours is a non-caring society in which it is difficult to get justice. Gujarat has been completely shattering for me.
After 1984, the Sikhs also got a lot of respect and compassion. But in Gujarat not many Hindu volunteers rushed to help the Muslims. The 1984 riots didn't mobilise large sections of Hindu society against Sikhs. But in Gujarat the division is very worrying.
If the Hindu-Sikh divide had deepened, 1984 could have paved way for another Partition. If large numbers of Hindus had supported the violence against Sikhs, the communal divide would have been worrying. But the Sikhs are back on their feet now. Their rehabilitation is not yet over, they didn't get justice from the legal system, but Hindu-Sikh tension is not present today. And perhaps that one fact should be something to be thankful about.
As told to Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt