Q1. India has a record of frequent communal violence. Isnt the 1984 violence part of an unpleasant reality we have come to terms with?
A. Though there have been any number of communal riots over the years, the 1984 violence has gone down in history as the worst ever. Indeed, it has become the most oft-quoted symbol of state-sponsored communal violence. The 1984 violence is different from other instances for some vital reasons. First, it did not conform to the pattern of communal riots at all. The killings were entirely one-sided. That is why it is called a massacre. Armed mobs had a free run of the streets for three full days, as they looted, raped and killed Sikhs with impunity. Second, most of the killings took place right in the Capital. The states complicity is therefore that much more evident. Third, the degree of organization seen in the 1984 massacre was unprecedented: the police either looked the other way or assisted the mobs, the miscreants were armed with voters lists and uniform-sized rods, there was an abundant supply of fuel and inflammable powder, and government-run buses were at their disposal. Fourth, it is the biggest ever instance of man-made killings in the history of independent India. The official death toll of the killings in Delhi alone is as high as 2,733. Fifth, the nation went to polls within two months and voted overwhelmingly in favour of the then ruling Congress party despite all the allegations of its complicity in the massacre and because of the vicious anti-Sikh campaign mounted by it.
Q2. But how does all this matter today, after so many years and in such vastly changed circumstances? Should we not look ahead and get on with our lives, unaffected by past injustices?
A. Well, as the old saying goes, those who dont learn from history are condemned to repeat it. The 1984 holocaust bears many lessons for the Indian people and state. But, unfortunately, those lessons have never been learnt and we continue to repeat our mistakes, with traumatic consequences. The state of Gujarat, where over 800 Muslims are alleged to have been killed in response to a train burning incident in in a town called Godhra in the same state, is but the latest example of this folly. Besides, we take pride in being the worlds largest democracy wedded to the principles of secularism and rule of law. The 1984 massacre is a case study of how the system was subverted by people at high places. Look into 1984 and you will understand Gujarat better - and hopefully find a way of checking such recurrences.
Q3. Much water has flown under the bridge since 1984. Whatever it might have done then, should we still be hounding the Congress party, which is today seen as the single greatest bulwark of secularism?
A. It is indeed ironical if any partys claim to secularism can be sustained only by suppressing its complicity in a massacre of members of a minority community. It is also instructive to note that the polarization we see today, with the Sangh Parivar and the Congress party standing at the opposite ends, was not so sharp in 1984. Though the BJP was even then at loggerheads with the Congress party, it is widely acknowledged that the RSS had actually abandoned the BJP for the Congress party in the 1984 Lok Sabha election. Sections of Hindu hard-liners, traditional supporters of the BJP and its forerunner Jan Sangh, campaigned for the Congress party in that election in appreciation of its moves to teach the Sikhs a lesson through Operation Bluestar and the November 1984 carnage.
Q4. If you have failed to secure justice for the victims of the carnage in all these years, are you not less likely to succeed in the future?
A. True, but that only highlights the need to unravel the truth from all the evidence that has emerged so far and record the same for posterity. The failure to secure justice is directly a result of the states complicity in the massacre. As we said earlier, the 1984 carnage was more than just another episode of communal disturbances. The scale of the killings has hardly any parallel and most of those killings took place right in the Capital. The state could still shield the guilty because of its elaborate cover up. This is an attempt on behalf of the aggrieved victims and concerned citizens to blow the cover.
Q5. But didnt the Rajiv Gandhi Government order a judicial inquiry into the violence?
A. The inquiry itself turned out to be a part of the cover-up. The Supreme Court judge who conducted the inquiry, Ranganath Misra, subsequently joined the Congress party and became a member of the Rajya Sabha on its ticket. Misras pre-determination to give the Congress party and its leaders a clean chit was so obvious that a panel of eminent persons, Citizens Justice Committee, which was the main representative of the victims, walked out half-way through his inquiry. The inquiry report that followed did little to dispel the impression that the Misra Commission only white-washed the riots. The Rajiv Gandhi Government and its successors went through the motions of follow up action but nothing concrete came out of that elaborate charade. Nobody of consequence among political leaders, bureaucrats or police officers has so far been convicted for his role in the massacre. It was against such a dismal background that in 2000 the Atal Behari Vajpayee Government, even after a lapse of 16 years by then, took the extraordinary step of appointing another commission of inquiry to probe the 1984 massacre all over again. To be sure, the proceedings of the Justice Nanavati Commission, which are now at an advanced stage, have helped bring out a whole lot of hitherto suppressed evidence.
Q6. If the victims and concerned citizens have been committed enough to keep the issue alive for so long, why could they not do more in the early days when they would have stood a better chance of bringing the culprits to book?
A. Indira Gandhis assassination and the subsequent massacre happened to take place in the run up to the Lok Sabha election due in the first fortnight of January 1985. Rather than putting off the election till the nation recovered from those two setbacks, the Rajiv Gandhi Government got the poll advanced to the second fortnight of December 1984. The Congress partys calculation clearly was to harness the assassination and massacre for votes by whipping up an anti-Sikh sentiment in the country. Rajiv Gandhi himself set the tone for his partys election campaign by coming up with what sounded like a justification for the massacre: When a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake. Many of those who participated in the massacre were back on the streets, this time to solicit votes for the Congress party. Thus, even before the victims could get a proper opportunity to seek legal redress, the nation was already in the election mode in a communally surcharged atmosphere.
Q7. If the Rajiv Gandhi Government was so hostile to the idea of holding an inquiry into the massacre of Sikhs, how did it subsequently appoint the Misra Commission?
A. The anti-Sikh fervor whipped up by the Congress party yielded a bumper harvest in the general election held on December 27, 1984. In fact, it is the only time the Congress or any party for that matter bagged more than 400 seats in the Lok Sabha. Not surprisingly, the Rajiv Gandhi Government stuck to its winning formula even after the formation of the Eighth Lok Sabha. This was because the general election was followed about two and half months later by elections to some state assemblies. It was only after the assembly elections were over in March 1985 did the Centre agree to hold a judicial inquiry into the massacre. That too as part of a package of measures announced to pave the way for an accord on Punjab with Sant Longowal, then president of the Akali Dal. Thus, the Misra Commission came to be appointed purely as a sop to the Akali Dal and not because of any change of heart in the Centre.
Q8. Are you attributing a political motive to the appointment of the Misra Commission merely because of the six-month delay in its appointment?
A. No, Rajiv Gandhi himself made no bones of the fact that he appointed the inquiry in April 1985 purely to facilitate an agreement with Akali leaders. The press statements he made even two months after the carnage were dismissive of the inquiry demand. In fact, in an interview to India Today in January 1985, he said the inquiry into the violence would not help as it would only rake up issues that are really dead. And, then in an interview the same month to the now defunct Sunday magazine, Rajiv Gandhi said no inquiry was being instituted as it would do more damage to the Sikhs, it would do more damage to the country by specifically opening this whole thing up again. But his stance changed after the assembly elections were over in March 1985 and the Congress party gained some more mileage out of the anti-Sikh fervour whipped up by it. Rajiv Gandhi then began to talk of the inquiry as a bargaining counter in the negotiations he proposed to hold with the Akalis to enter into an accord on Punjab. Unfortunately for him, Longowal upset his plans by refusing to negotiate with the Centre until it proved its bona fides by appointing an inquiry into the massacre. So, in an interview to Frontline magazine in April 1985, Rajiv Gandhi petulantly questioned the wisdom of Akalis advancing the inquiry as a pre-condition for talks on the accord. Well, there is something basically wrong here, because isnt that what we are going to talk about? If its already done before we talk, then what are we talking about? Longowal stuck to his pre-condition that the inquiry should be appointed before the talks. It was in such circumstances that the then home minister, S.B. Chavan, announced the acceptance of the inquiry demand in Parliament on April 11, 1985, two days before the Akalis were due to launch an agitation on their demands.
Q9. So, how did the victims respond to the delayed appointment of the Misra Commission?
A. The mere appointment of the Commission did not inspire confidence in them. A lot mere needed to be done. The victims still lived in an environment of fear as those who participated in the carnage were still roaming free with the obvious connivance of the police. The miscreants had either not been arrested or been released on bail in some minor cases booked against them. The victims could therefore see through the very reluctant decision of the Government to hold an inquiry. When the Misra Commission issued a public notice on July 9, 1985, i.e. over eight months after the massacre, it received a total of only one affidavit from the whole of Delhi in the one whole month that was originally allotted for that purpose. Such was the credibility of the Misra Commission! What saved the face of the Misra Commission then was the appearance before it of a newly formed panel of eminent persons called the Citizens Justice Committee (CJC). Misra called the members of the CJC to contact the victims to try and convince them that the Commission would do justice to them. It was only after the CJC undertook the responsibility of instilling confidence in the victims to file affidavits did they start pouring in during the one-month extension given by the Commission for that purpose.
Q10. How did the Citizens Justice Committee (CJC) come to be formed and for what purpose? What were the bona fides of the persons involved in it?
A. It was the brain-child of a 28-year-old lawyer who had migrated to Delhi from Punjab and had been in the profession for barely three years. H.S. Phoolka proposed the idea of such a body to help the victims, who are mostly poor and semi-literate, present their case before the Misra Commission. The idea appealed to a lot of eminent persons and in no time the CJC came into being with former Chief Justice of India S.M. Sikri as its chairman. The other eminent persons who were part of the CJC included human rights activist Justice V.M. Tarkunde, senior advocate Soli Sorabjee (who is now Attorney General of India), Bangladesh war hero Lt Gen J.S. Aurora, social scientist Rajni Kothari and author Khushwant Singh. Amid such luminaries, Phoolka was made the convenor of the CJC in recognition of the vision and drive he displayed in the run-up to its formation in July 1985.
Q11. What were the worst affected areas in Delhi in the 1984 violence?
A. Out of the six police districts that existed those days in Delhi, the worst affected were east, west and south districts. Out of the seven Lok Sabha constituencies in Delhi, the worst affected were east Delhi and outer Delhi which were represented then by Congress leaders H.K.L. Bhagat and Sajjan Kumar. The localities that saw the most number of killings were Trilokpuri, Mongolpuri, Sultanpuri and Palam Colony. The victims were mostly poor and semi-literate and even so were subject not only to murder and rape but also arson and looting. According to the official death toll estimated by one Ahooja Committee, the total number of people killed in Delhi during the 1984 carnage were 2,733, out of which about 1,200 were murdered in east Delhi alone.
Q12. How exactly did the violence begin in the Capital and assume the horrendous proportions that it did?
A. The violence began in the evening of October 31 in the vicinity of All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where Indira Gandhis body was still lying. The first serious indication of the violence came when the cavalcade of President Giani Zail Singh was stoned near AIIMS. After Indira Gandhis death was announced at 6 pm, the crowds went on a rampage in nearby areas like Safdarjung Enclave, Laxmibai Nagar, INA market and South Extension. The police conspicuously failed to take any action against the miscrents nor they try to protect Sikhs and their property. But there were no killings at all on October 31 anywhere in Delhi. The first murder of a Sikh was reported in the early hours of November 1 in east Delhi. After daybreak on November 1, many farflung areas of Delhi were taken over by armed mobs as administration seemed to have disappeared for the next 72 hours. The police belated imposed curfew but there were hardly any instances of shoot at sight orders being enforced. The Army was pressed into service in two police districts in the evening of November 1and in the other four districts the following day. But it was not till late November 3 was the Army provided all the facilities to make a show of its will to curb the violence. And the moment that happened, the violence abated as suddenly as it began.
Q13. How was the performance of the police in cubing violence and registering and investigating cases?
A. The Misra Commission laid all the blame at the door of the police. Its two main findings against the police were: (1) On the scene of crime, the police either looked the other way or joined the miscreants. (2) When it came to initiating action against the miscreants, the police either did not register the case or registered the case without mentioning the influential persons named by the victims. These two findings should have suggested to him that the police were acting so blatantly under the pressure of higher-ups in the Government or the Congress party. But Misra shrank from drawing such an inference. Instead, he attributed the polices failure mainly to a communication breakdown: The police stations failed to convey to their superiors the gravity of the situation. This communication breakdown theory has however been disproved by the proceedings of the Nanavati Commission, which have yielded documentary evidence showing that senior police officers were kept informed about the carnage right from the beginning. Even otherwise, the communication breakdown theory does not explain the wilful refusal of the police everywhere to register cases. They were clearly acting all through under instructions from above.
Q14. Why havent any of the cases involving H.K.L. Bhagat not resulted in convictions?
A. H.K.L. Bhagat, who was a minister in the Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi Governments and whose east Delhi constituency was the worst affected in the carnage, figured as an accused in three murder cases. In the first two, he was issued arrest warrant in 1994-95 after two carnage widows, Satnami Kaur and Darshan Kaur, alleged in the court that Bhagat had instigated the murder of their husbands. But Satnami Kaur was subsequently pressured to withdraw her statement and thereby let Bhagat off the hook. Darshan Kaur withstood the pressure and, sticking by her statement, she identified Bhagat as an instigator of her husbands murder. The court however acquitted Bhagat on the ground that in a riot case, a conviction cannot be based on the deposition of a solitary witness. The police failed to produce other witnesses to corroborate Darshan Kaurs version. H.S. Phoolka filed an appeal against Bhagats acquittal and the matter is still pending in the high court. The third case against Bhagat is also pending. It is based on an FIR registered by the Delhi police riot cell in 1996 on the recommendation of the Jain-Aggarwal committee. The police filed a chargesheet in 1998 but made no allegation against Bhagat even though the victim concerned, Harminder Kaur, alleged that she lost her husband, son and son-in-law in a massacre instigated by Bhagat. The magistrate directed the police to do further investigation. The police filed another chargesheet in July 2000 and reported to the court that Bhagats involvement in the murder could not be established. At Phoolkas instance, the matter has been referred to the CBI, which is evidently still investigating the case.
Q15. What happened to all those serious allegations against former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar?
A. After east Delhi, Sajjan Kumars sprawling outer Delhi constituency was the worst affected. The police registered three cases against Sajjan Kumar. The first one is on the complaint of one Anwar Kaur whose husband was killed in the carnage allegedly by a Sajjan Kumar-led mob. Look at the manner in which this case was stalled at every stage: It was recommended for the first time by one official panel called the Jain-Banerjee Committee in 1987. But because of a litigation challenging the committees recommendation the CBI got around to registering the case only in 1990. It took another two years to complete the investigation but had to refer the matter to the Union Home Ministry as one of the provisions under which it sought to prosecute Sajjan Kumar was Sec 153A of IPC which requires sanction from the Centre. The Home Minister gave the sanction in June 1994 and the CBI filed the chargesheet in December 1994, that is full 10 years after the carnage. The case is still pending. The other two cases against Sajjan Kumar were handled by the Delhi police. Both those cases were closed on the ground of lack of evidence.
Q16. How did the Vajpayee Government come to appoint the Justice G.T. Nanavati Commission?
A. The idea took birth at a meeting held in Delhi on November 1, 1999 commemorating the 15th anniversary of the carnage. Senior advocate H.S. Phoolka, who has been the main crusader all through on the carnage issue, floated the idea of a fresh judicial inquiry. Soon the proposal acquired political weight as the Akali Dal, a component of the National Democratic Alliance Government at the Centre, came out in support of it. As it happened, nobody opposed the idea remarkably, not even the Congress party, which is widely accused of engineering the 1984 massacre to harness the Hindu vote in the elections held within two months. Parliament passed a unanimous resolution in this regard, even though there is no precedent to a fresh judicial inquiry into a matter already probed by another commission of inquiry. For the record, the Government reeled off statistics to substantiate the need for a fresh inquiry. It pointed out that though 2,733 persons were admitted to have been killed in the carnage, most cases had resulted in acquittal and hardly any police official has so far been punished.
Q17. Has the Nanavati Commission proved to be any different from its predecessor Misra Commission?
A. For one, the proceedings before the Nanavati Commission have all been in public while the Misra Commission held the entire inquiry in camera. To its credit, the Nanavati Commission did not take to the veil of secrecy even when political leaders like P.V. Narasimha Rao and former police commissioner S.C. Tandon were summoned to be questioned for their role in the riots. Nanavati has also been more receptive to the requests for calling for original documents rather than following Misras practice of relying mainly on the replies the Government gave to interrogatories. Such openness on the part of the Nanavati Commission has yielded a whole lot of hitherto suppressed evidence about the massacres. Even though the Nanavati Commission is still in the thick of its inquiry, its proceedings have already thrown fresh light on how the state machinery contributed to the massacre. The Police records have revealed, for instance, that the first action top police officers took everywhere was to disarm the Sikhs who fired in self defence. The proceedings also yielded documentary evidence showing that senior police officers sat on urgent messages about the carnage. Some VIPs deposed their interaction with authorities: Rao has been accused of dithering on the demand for calling in the Army. All such revelations augur well for the inquiry being conducted by the Nanavati Commission.
Q18. How did the CJC-II i.e. Carnage Justice Committee come to be formed in 2000?
A. The Carnage Justice Committee was formed after the Vajpayee Government conceded the demand for a fresh inquiry into the 1984 massacre. Its object is similar to the purpose for which the Citizens Justice Committee was set up in 1985 after the appointment of the Misra Commission. Namely, to represent the victims and help the Commission concerned find out the truth. H.S. Phoolka has been a catalyst for the formation of both the CJCs. But one conspicuous difference between the two CJCs is in their composition. While politicians of all hues were kept out of the CJC-I, there are quite a few members of Akali Dal and Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee besides eminent lawyers and human rights activists in the CJC-II. This change in composition is mainly because of the financial problems the CJC-I faced on account of being totally non-partisan and having no formal link with the DSGMC. When the composition of the CJC-II was to be decided, Phoolka and his associates decided to accept help from and induct members from the DSGMC and the Akali Dal for this reason. The CJC-II is none the worse for that as the DSGMC and Akali Dal too have in their own ways been pursuing the carnage issue. The CJC-II operates from the premises of the DSGMC which also funds, infrastructure and personnel necessary for its work.
Q19. Does the sidelining of H.K.L. Bhagat in recent years not mean that the Congress party has atoned for its sins of 1984?
A. Hardly. It is true that in the very different situation they have found themselves in since they lost power at the Centre in 1996, Congress party leaders have generally been more receptive to the idea that they are accountable for the 1984 Delhi massacre. Congress president Sonia Gandhi even expressed an apology to the Sikhs for that episode. But all this is just posturing in a bid to strengthen their claim to be secular and a contrast to the communal BJP. In reality, there has been no sign of any penitence in the Congress leadership. No Congress leader has so far made a clean breast of how the massacre was organised and how all manner of overt and covert efforts were made to shield the culprits over the years. The sidelining of Bhagat who is now close to 80 is meaningless. Given his senility and ill-health, Bhagat is hardly in a position to be active in the competitive politics of the Congress party. What really counts is that even after he was widely accused of engineering violence in his constituency, Bhagat was within two months promoted to the rank of Cabinet minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government and years later, he was made the president of the Delhi unit of the party. In any case, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, other Congress leaders who figure in the rogues gallery of the 1984 massacre, are still going strong in party circles.
Q20. Have there been any instances of communal amity during the 1984 massacre?
A. Yes, there have been several heart-warming instances of communal amity when Hindus and Muslims have at great risk to their lives protected the lives of their Sikh neighbours. In certain parts of Delhi, the local residents formed combines and succeeded in preventing rioters from entering their localities. Such incidents make nonsense of the claim made by the Rajiv Gandhi Government before the Misra Commission that the violence was a Hindu backlash to Indira Gandhis assassination. One particularly poignant incident of communal amity was from Jahangirpuri where a head constable, Hari Singh, succumbed to the injuries he suffered while trying to save Sikh neighbours on November 1. If any policeman deserved to be given a gallantry medal for his role during the carnage, it was Hari Singh. The Government instead gave a gallantry medal to senior police officer Amod Kanth for arresting a family of Sikhs who fired in self-defence and for foisting a murder case on them.