The Delhi high court called the anti-Sikh riots case “communal frenzy” after the then prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards.
Thirty-four years after the anti-Sikh riots, the Delhi high court on Monday sentenced Congress veteran Sajjan Kumar to life in the first conviction of a politician in the communal frenzy, holding it was perpetrated by those who enjoyed “political patronage”.
The reversal of 73-year-old Kumar’s acquittal by a trial court cast a shadow on the swearing-in of fellow Congress leader Kamal Nath as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh with the Bharatiya Janata Party and ally Shiromani Akali Dal demanding answers from the Congress leadership when Sikh groups have alleged his culpability in the riots. Nath has denied any role in the riots and nor he is an accused in any riots case.
Describing the riots as “crimes against humanity”, the high court awarded Kumar life term for “remainder of his natural life”, convicting him of criminal conspiracy and abetment in commission of crimes of murder, promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of communal harmony and defiling and destruction of a gurudwara.
The case in which Kumar was convicted related to killing of five Sikhs in Raj Nagar part-I area in Palam Colony in South West Delhi on November 1-2, 1984 during the deadly riots in the national capital and other parts of the country.
According to official accounts, 2,733 Sikhs were killed between November 1 and 4, 1984 following the assassination of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards on October 31.
Observing it was “undeniable” that it took over three decades to punish the accused in the case, the court said it was important to assure the victims that despite the challenges faced by the court, “truth will prevail and justice will be done”.
The court directed Kumar, who was then a Lok Sabha MP from Outer Delhi, and other five convicts to surrender by December 31, 2018 and not to leave the city of Delhi.
There was no immediate reaction from Kumar.
WATCH: Only option left is to go to Supreme Court against judgment, says Kumar's lawyer
But his lawyer Anil Sharma, who represented Kumar, in the high court said that the Congress leader intends to move an appeal in the Supreme Court against the verdict.
Sharma said Kumar is in the capital itself and since he has been given time till December 31 to surrender efforts would be made to challenge the conviction and the sentence before that day.
If no appeal would be filed before December 31, Kumar would surrender, he added.
Six accused, including Kumar, were sent for trial in 2010 and three years later, the lower court convicted five of the accused but acquitted the Congress leader of all the charges.
Quashing the acquittal on appeals by the Central Bureau of Investigation, a bench of justices S Muralidhar and Vinod Goel said the accused in the case were brought to justice “primarily on account of the courage and perseverance of three eyewitnesses” -- Jagdish Kaur, her cousin Jagsher Singh and Nirpreet Kaur.
Jagdish Kaur’s husband, son and three cousins -- Kehar Singh, Gurpreet Singh, Raghuvender Singh, Narender Pal Singh and Kuldeep Singh -- were the five killed in the instant case. Nirpreet Kaur had witnessed the Gurudwara being burnt down and her father being burnt alive by the raging mobs, the bench also noted.
Jagdish Kaur and Narpreet Kaur said although 34 years is a long time, they were determined to “unmask the accused” and their their fight for justice will go on.
“This verdict has brought some relief. No one should face the kind of injustice we have faced all these years,” said Jagdish Kaur.
WATCH: 'Today the lies of the Gandhi family have been exposed'
The BJP and SAD hailed the verdict calling it historic and targeted the Congress while the opposition party cautioned against politicising the legal process in the anti-Sikh riots cases.
Senior BJP leader and Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley utilised the verdict to take a swipe at the Congress for choosing Kamal Nath as Madhya Pradesh chief minister, claiming that Sikhs consider him “culpable” in the violence against the community.
“It is an irony that the verdict has come on a day when a Congress chief minister, who is held culpable by the Sikh community, is taking oath,” Jaitley told reporters in an apparent reference to Nath.
BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra demanded Nath’s removal as chief minister.
Nath hit back at the BJP over their offensive against him.
“When I took oath earlier, nobody said anything. The issue (1984 anti-Sikh riots) is being raked up despite no case, FIR or chargesheet against me,” Nath told reporters in Bhopal shortly after he assumed office.
“You see there is a hidden hand,” said alluding to the BJP.
WATCH: Harsimrat Kaur Badal hails the high court verdict
Union minister and SAD leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal said the verdict has given confidence that the law would soon catch up with other Congress leaders allegedly involved in the “genocide”.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh hailed the verdict as “a case of justice finally delivered” to the victims of one of independent India’s worst instances of communal violence.
The Congress leader reiterated his stand that neither his party nor the Gandhi family had any role to play in the rioting.
Senior Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi said the anti-Sikhs riot case should not be linked to the political atmosphere prevailing in the country. “The law should take its course.”
The high court also upheld the conviction and varying sentences awarded by the trial court to former Congress councillor Balwan Khokhar, retired naval officer Captain Bhagmal, Girdhari Lal and former MLAs Mahender Yadav and Kishan Khokhar.
The high court also convicted them for criminal conspiracy to burn down residences of Sikh families and a gurudwara in the area during the riots.
The trial court in 2013 had awarded life term to Khokhar, Bhagmal and Lal, and a three-year jail term to Yadav and Kishan Khokhar.
Following the high court verdict, life term of Khokhar, Bhagmal and Lal has been upheld and the sentence of Yadav and Kishan Khokar has been enhanced to a 10 years in jail.
The bench, in its judgment, observed, “While it is undeniable that it has taken over three decades to bring the accused in this case to justice, and that our criminal justice system stands severely tested in that process, it is essential, in a democracy governed by the rule of law to be able to call out those responsible for such mass crimes.
“It is important to assure those countless victims waiting patiently that despite the challenges, truth will prevail and justice will be done.”
The bench noted that after the “horrific” mass killings witnessed during the 1947 partition, the country again saw an “enormous human tragedy” when 2,733 Sikhs were “brutally murdered” in a “communal frenzy” that was unleashed between November 1-4, 1984.
“Their (Sikhs) houses were destroyed. In the rest of the country too thousands of Sikhs were killed. A majority of the perpetrators of these horrific mass crimes, enjoyed political patronage and were aided by an indifferent law enforcement agency,” it said.
“The criminals escaped prosecution and punishment for over two decades,” the court said.
The high court said it took as many as ten committees and commissions for the investigation into the role of some of the perpetrators to be entrusted in 2005 to the CBI, 21 years after the occurrence.
It said that only after the CBI entered the scene, that the witnesses, represented by senior advocate H S Phoolka, were able to be assured and they spoke up.
“Admirably, they stuck firm to their truth at the trial. This court is of the view that the mass killings of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere in November 1984 were in fact ‘crimes against humanity’. They will continue to shock the collective conscience of society for a long time to come,” the court said.