Justice has hardly been served if we consider the quantum of punishment, the time it took to bring this closure and the inter-generational damage this catastrophe has caused.
It may be considered as an unpopular opinion but there’s no cause for celebration over Sajjan Kumar’s conviction in the anti-Sikh riots where scores of Sikh’s were murdered in cold blood.
Former Member of Parliament, belonging to the opposition and so-called secular Congress Party, Sajjan Kumar was convicted by Delhi High Court on December 17 for his complicity in the anti-Sikh massacre.
Thousands of Sikhs were murdered during the first week of November 1984 all over India following the assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards who were enraged by the military invasion on the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in June that year.
Gandhi had ordered an army operation to flush out a handful of militants who had fortified the Golden Temple Complex in Amritsar. This came after a peaceful agitation of moderate Sikh leadership in Punjab, for state autonomy and several concessions for Sikh minority, turned violent.
A spike in the killings of Hindus and the critics of extremism culminated into an ill-conceived army attack that left many devotees dead and historic buildings inside the complex destroyed. This had outraged the Sikhs who felt that the action was preventable as alternative means, such as peaceful negotiations could have been used to deal with the situation. As a result of this controversial operation, two of her bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, killed Gandhi in cold blood.
The activists belonging to Gandhi’s Congress party were seen leading the mobs that killed Sikhs in a systematic manner with the help of police to avenge the murder of their leader. Kumar was one of those high-profile leaders who was seen instigating the mobs in New Delhi where close to 3,000 Sikhs were murdered.
34 years later, the Delhi High Court pronounced him guilty of conspiracy in murders and creating enmity between the Hindus and the Sikhs. He was given a life sentence for these crimes. He was earlier acquitted by the lower court. Not only the Delhi High Court overturned that verdict, but it also affirmed its belief in the witnesses who stuck to their testimonies with courage and conviction. Among them were Jagdish Kaur – who lost her husband and a son, besides three cousins, and Nirpreet Kaur who lost her father.
Nevertheless, justice has hardly been served if we consider the quantum of punishment, the time it took to bring this closure and the inter-generational damage this catastrophe has caused.
First of all, what Kumar and his colleagues did was no less than an act of terrorism. Though the Sikh extremists were dealt with firmly when the army was used to attack the Golden Temple Complex, the police machinery openly sided with the goons who went after the Sikhs. The army wasn’t pressed into service immediately when the Sikhs needed it the most.
The Delhi High Court Judgement has proved beyond doubt that the police have been protecting Kumar all these years by failing to register a case against him and even going to the extent of tampering with the evidence. The details in the judgment suggest that the police either remained indifferent to the violence by refusing to protect the victims, or they shamelessly participated in the massacre. Contrast this against the extrajudicial murders of Sikh extremists by the police in the name of national security right under the patronage of the state. It is well documented how the police and security forces wiped out Sikh militancy in Punjab by using excessive force and killing the alleged extremists in staged shootouts.
Secondly, Kumar has been convicted after 34 years, whereas the assassins of Gandhi were convicted within five years. While Beant Singh was shot to death immediately after the murder of Gandhi, Satwant Singh was hanged alongside the conspirator Kehar Singh in 1989. That the entire Sikh community was punished is a different story.
Notably, Kehar Singh wasn’t directly involved in the assassination. He was the uncle of Beant Singh. It is believed that he had provoked Beant Singh to murder her, even though the evidence against him wasn’t conclusive. Yet, he was hanged to death for conspiracy. This was despite the fact that his guilt wasn’t sufficiently proven.
The question, therefore, arises that if Kehar Singh could be hanged for conspiracy, why Kumar did not receive the death sentence. This is not to suggest that I support the death sentence. But I do want to question the double standards. How could someone accused of conspiring in the murder of one political leader get a death sentence; while someone who masterminded the mass murders got life imprisonment?
In fact, Human Rights Lawyer H.S. Phoolka who has been spearheading the campaign for justice all these years does not support his execution. Phoolka was in the forefront of the judicial fight against Kumar. Some other Sikh activists, such as Canada-based author and co-founder of World Sikh Organization Gian Singh Sandhu have also rejected the demand for hanging Kumar. Sandhu insists that there was no capital punishment in the Sikh empire led by Ranjit Singh, so why should Kumar be hanged?
Thirdly, for all these years the victims’ families have been forced to live in penury and many orphaned kids took to drugs or petty crime. The women who were raped during the violence hardly got any justice. The social trauma had resulted in broken homes, domestic violence and substance abuse. No court of law can ever compensate for this loss.
Lastly, the massacre fuelled more political violence. Some of those who survived were forced to join militant ranks. Nirpreet Kaur herself joined an extremist group that wanted to establish a separate Sikh state. She once told me during a radio interview that she wanted to avenge the death of her father and that prompted her to join a militant organization. During her incarceration in Tihar Jail, she came under the influence of a senior jail police officer Kiran Bedi – who tried to reform prisoners through a more humanistic approach. This had changed the course of her life and once she was out, Kaur established an NGO to help the victims’ families.
The ugly events of 1984 had alienated the Sikhs from the national mainstream and had galvanized the movement for a separate Sikh homeland. Overseas, the Air India Flight 182 was bombed mid-air in June 1985. 329 people had died in the blast. The crime was blamed on Sikh separatists based in Canada. Some of those charged, but later acquitted, were deeply hurt by the developments of 1984. The delay in justice to the victims of 1984 has further widened this gulf as the movement for a separate Sikh state refuses to die in Canada.
Kumar, his party and the Indian state, in general, need to take moral responsibility for the damage caused by the Sikh militants. You cannot squarely blame them for violence and extremism when you yourself have created an atmosphere for hatred and animosity. If that is not enough, the people abroad who ask for justice for 1984 are quickly labelled as separatists or extremists, whereas the Indian officials are themselves to be blamed for breeding violence by killing their own citizens in the streets of the national capital and elsewhere.
On top of that, the 1984 episode laid the foundation for the 2002 anti-Muslim massacre. Kumar’s party, that wants to run against the presently ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 general elections on the plank of secularism, have to acknowledge that it was they who introduced an era of impunity to Indian politics by engineering the Sikh massacre.
Scores of Muslims were murdered across the state of Gujarat in 2002 following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. Over 50 passengers had died in the incident that was blamed on Muslim fundamentalists by the BJP. The current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat back then. A similar method was applied to target the Muslims all over the state, just like it was used against Sikhs in 1984. Many believe that had justice been done in 1984, 2002 riots wouldn’t have happened. The legitimacy given to the anti-Sikh massacre because of the involvement of the state gave BJP an excuse to organize a similar pogrom.
Today, under the BJP government, the attacks on almost all religious minorities have grown. Like it or not, the process of turning India into a majoritarian state had begun in 1984. No amount of justice through courts can ever fix that.
Those who continue to trust the Indian system and its judiciary and often give the rationale that the wheels of justice are slow, need to ask themselves why only for minorities? Kumar’s conviction is just another reminder that minorities in the world’s so-called largest democracy have never been treated with respect.