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'Too late in the day for giving closure to 1984 anti-Sikh crimes'

Last updated on: November 04, 2014 12:45 IST

'The consolation is that in recent years, the focus at the time of the anniversary has been increasingly shifting from Indira Gandhi's assassination to the plight of the thousands of innocent Sikhs who had been killed in retaliation,' Manoj Mitta, co-author of When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath, tells Prasanna D Zore/

Even as you read this interview, 30 years ago almost to the day Sikhs in Delhi were being slaughtered, with the active involvement of the state machinery in response to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards on the morning of October 31, 1984.

The killings finally subsided on November 3, the day Mrs Gandhi was cremated.

Ever since, the Sikh community has been struggling to secure justice -- without much success -- under the umbrella of the Citizens Justice Committee, whose members were legal luminary Soli Sorabjee, JS Aurora, Justice V M Tarkunde, author Khushwant Singh and Harvinder Singh Phoolka.

In 2007 senior journalist Manoj Mitta and human rights activist Phoolka, who played a stellar role not only in the formation of the CJC and also represented the victims of the carnage before various commissions, came out with their book, When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath, documenting how the large-scale violence was orchestrated against the Sikh community. 

In an e-mail interview with Prasanna D Zore/, Mitta throws fresh light -- ably supported by official documents that are in the public domain now -- on the carnage that shook the nation and points out how the anti-Sikh riots and the scuttling of justice thereafter by state players became a template for perpetrators of similar acts of violence in Mumbai in 1992-93 and in Gujarat in 2002.

The massacres of Sikhs in Delhi took place in November 1984, H S Phoolka and you came out with your book in 2007, a good 23 years later. What took you so long? What kind of hurdles did you two overcome to make this book a reality?

Yes, we did take long to come out with the book. And even when we took 23 years to do so, it was the first book on the subject.

At any rate, the first book exposing the cover-up of the political complicity in the 1984 carnage.

This is a measure of India’s documentation culture -- or the lack of it. If the scale of the massacres that had taken place right in the capital of the country was shocking enough, the speed with which the nation "moved on" without any semblance of justice or acknowledgment of the truth was even worse.

Though there were over 10 successive commissions and committees probing the 1984 carnage, much of their evidence and findings remained a secret till the Nanavati Commission placed them in the public domain after almost two decades. And it was only after the Nanavati Commission itself submitted its report in 2005 were we in a position to get the full picture of the official fact-finding over the years.

Since our book was about parsing the various official reports, we could not come out with it earlier than we did.

In the book you have called the Ranganath Misra Commission, appointed by the Rajiv Gandhi government to probe the massacre, a farce. What are the most glaring gaps that every Indian must know about the Misra Commission and why was it an eyewash?

Right from the beginning, the Misra Commission meant to whitewash the complicity of the Rajiv Gandhi government and Congress party. This was evident from the fact that all its proceedings were held in camera.

This meant that when the testimonies of witnesses and victims were being recorded, no member of the public or even the media was allowed to be present in the court room.

Worse, when it was the turn of some of the State actors to stand in the witness box, the Misra Commission did not allow even the counsel for the victims to be present. Hence, the Citizens Justice Committee, the main representative of the victims, withdrew from the proceeding accusing Misra of holding the inquiry "in camera within in camera", a perverse innovation alien to all notions of fairness.

The commission went on to exonerate Rajiv Gandhi and other Congress leaders without even going through the motions of summoning them for their depositions.

How did the Congress party benefit politically from the carnage that, at many places, was allegedly led by senior leaders of the party?

The Lok Sabha election held within two months of the 1984 carnage was not about democracy but about majoritarian triumphalism.

No other election produced such a landslide majority. No other party reaped such an electoral harvest out of bloodshed.

Barely a fortnight after the carnage, Rajiv Gandhi came out with his infamous justification saying that when a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake. This was followed by an election campaign in which he spared no effort to whip up an anti-Sikh sentiment.

Barring Sajjan Kumar, the Congress party fielded candidates alleged to have been involved in the violence. H K L Bhagat won with the highest margin from East Delhi, the very constituency that saw the highest number of killings.

Tell us about the methods adopted by the ruling dispensation then to stonewall the truth from becoming public knowledge and interfere with the course of justice. 

For the first six months, Rajiv Gandhi was dismissive of all demands for an inquiry into the anti-Sikh violence. His blithe reasoning was that an inquiry would reopen old wounds or inflame passions.

But he was finally forced to set up an inquiry because Akali leader Sant (Harcharan Singh) Longowal had insisted on it as a pre-condition for holding talks with the government on the insurgency-hit Punjab.

Though a sitting Supreme Court judge had been chosen, Ranganath Misra ended up doing the government’s bidding. Shrouded in secrecy, the Misra inquiry did a whitewash of the carnage.

Given the tenuous nature of Misra's findings, the Rajiv Gandhi regime did not allow any discussion in Parliament on the inquiry report. Thus, when a post-colonial State devoured its own citizens, the legislature and the judiciary failed to serve as safeguards.

Who do you hold responsible for the massacres that went unabated, unchallenged, for almost four days after the assassination of Indira Gandhi?

If Rajiv Gandhi had not been party to the macabre plan of teaching Sikhs a lesson for his mother's assassination, there was much that he could have done to check the violence and, more so, to bring the culprits to book.

Instead, he rewarded blood-stained leaders.

Within two months of the carnage, HKL Bhagat was promoted to the Cabinet rank and Jagdish Tytler became a minister for the first time.

There were far too many suspicious circumstances. Though the violence was entirely one-sided, there were hardly any instances of police firing.

Wherever the police were present, they facilitated the massacres by disarming the Sikhs or driving them out of gurudwaras. The deployment of the Army did not make a whit of difference during the carnage. And then, on the afternoon of November 3, 1984, the killings stopped suddenly, immediately after Indira Gandhi’s funeral.

Thirty years have elapsed and yet there seems to be no sense of closure for the Sikh community which bore the brunt of the rioters as well as State apathy. Do you think the victims will ever get justice and the perpetrators and conspirators punished?

In these 30 years, many of the culprits, political or otherwise, had died. It is not for anybody to speculate whether there was still any chance of justice being rendered. What is more pertinent today is to address the need for systemic reforms.

If there had not been so much impunity for the 1984 carnage, it is is reasonable to argue that India would have perhaps been spared the large-scale massacres that followed years later in places such as Mumbai and Gujarat.

Do you see any similarities between how the criminal/justice system was manipulated in 1984 in Delhi, 1992-93 in the Mumbai riots and in 2002 in Gujarat?

One of the most striking similarities is the manner in which the criminal justice system was manipulated in each of those three instances to shield the police officers complicit in the violence.

It was a glaring manifestation of honour among thieves, or rather mass murderers.

The unstated immunity for police personnel helps keep the conspiracy behind the violence from unravelling. So much so that even while convicting a minister (Maya Kodnani) in the Naroda Patiya case, the trial court went out of its way to let off the police officer on the spot, K K Mysorewala, despite all the evidence acknowledged by it of his errors of omission and commission.

Do you think enacting a law like the Communal Violence Bill can prevent such unabashed misuse of State machinery in the future?

No law, however well drafted, can deter a crime altogether. But yes, the Communal Violence Bill introduced by the United Progressive Alliance government did have some commendable features.

Its most radical provision was the application of a war crime principle, command responsibility, to the police overseeing communal violence.

It’s a pity that the Bharatiya Janata Party has been vehemently opposed to the idea of increasing accountability for communal violence.

Do you think people like Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler, alleged by many to have been in the forefront of the killings, will ever be punished by a court of law?

Again, one can’t speculate on whether Sajjan Kumar and Tytler would ever be punished by a court. But what one does know is that Sajjan Kumar had a narrow escape last year when a trial court acquitted him even after the complainant had given a credible explanation, supported by evidence, of how her attempts to name him in the immediate aftermath had been thwarted.

It remains to be seen if the Delhi high court will take corrective action.

Similarly, there was much movement last year in a case against Tytler: rejecting a closure report filed in his favour, a trial court directed the CBI to conduct further investigation in the matter.

How can India close one of the most tragic and heinous chapters in its recent history?

It's too late in the day to think in terms of giving a sense of closure for the 1984 anti-Sikh crimes.

In the 30 years that have elapsed, far too much evidence has been subverted or fallen through the cracks. The most important leaders accountable for 1984 -- Rajiv Gandhi, P V Narasimha Rao (home minister then and prime minister later), Arun Nehru, H K L Bhagat and the then police commissioner Subhash Tandon -- are all dead.

The consolation is that in recent years, the focus at the time of the anniversary has been increasingly shifting from Indira Gandhi's assassination to the plight of the thousands of innocent Sikhs who had been killed in retaliation.

Of course, the least that could be done in the circumstances is to secure the conviction of those who are still around -- leaders like Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler.

Do you think a special investigation team, as demanded by a number of Sikh organisations, to probe the Sikh genocide of 1984 can become a reality under the new NDA government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

The process of setting up an SIT for the 1984 carnage, especially to reopen the cases that had been closed by the Delhi police, was initiated early this year by the short-lived Arvind Kejriwal government.

If it has not become a reality so far, it is because the Modi government may be wary of taking any accountability measure for 1984 lest such demands be raised in the context of 2002 as well.

As described in my book, The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra (Read Mitta's interview with 'Had the SIT not balked, Modi would have been facing a trial'), the SIT dealing with Gujarat carnage cases has been far from beyond reproach, especially when it came to Zakia Jafri’s complaint against Modi.

Buy the book here: When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath

Also Read:

How a Sikh family survived a massacre 30 years ago

Prasanna Zore/ in Mumbai