November-December  2004 
Year 11    No.103

Cover Story

1984: Remembrance, Restitution, Justice

Punishment of the guilty is necessary not because we are brooding over the past but because we are worried about the future


Should we leave behind the 20-year-old massacre that took place in November 1984? Should we not move ahead in life and forget about this horrifying past? Why should the peace attained and maintained among communities now be disturbed by talking about the genocide that happened two decades ago? These are some of the questions that are repeatedly put to me by the media as also the public in general. They often ask that now, since a Sikh has become Prime Minister of the country, should not the Sikhs be happy, and pardon the Congress party for what happened in 1984?

The persons asking these questions are themselves confused, treating such genocide as the problem of one community alone. Sikhs being the victims, it is normally treated as a Sikh problem. In asking these questions there is one that is completely forgotten – in our country, which is governed by a strong system of the rule of law and the biggest democracy in the world, should culprits of the genocide of 7,000 innocent citizens, whichever community they may belong to, go unpunished? Does our system accept a dual system of law, one for the normal citizen and another for the politicians in power? Should persons in power consider themselves above the law and get away with such heinous crimes?

In November 1984, 4,000 innocent citizens belonging to the Sikh community were massacred in the capital of the country, Delhi, and another 3,000 were massacred in other parts of India. The government recorded a figure of 2,733 deaths for Delhi alone, while no official figure for the rest of the country is available to date. Even after the horrendous task of pursuing the cases for 20 long years, only nine murder cases have resulted in conviction, which is not even one per cent of the official figure of killings.

If we allow ourselves to forget these heinous crimes with the mere passage of time, we will never be rid of this menace. It will keep recurring. Since the culprits of the November 1984 Delhi massacre are yet to be punished, we have witnessed the Gujarat massacre, which took place 18 years after the massacre in Delhi. If we forget the Delhi episode now and the Gujarat episode a few years later, there will be another massacre waiting to happen in the near future. Constant follow-up of cases to ensure that the guilty are brought to book and the political leadership responsible for these heinous crimes is punished, is the need of the hour. It is always the effort of the people in power to tire out volunteers who pursue the cases or to level allegations against them, to dissuade them. Wherever large-scale killings take place, it is, by and large, with the help of the police and political leadership; the nexus between the politicians and the police is responsible for such large-scale killings. It is absolutely necessary to instil fear in the minds of the police as also the politicians that they cannot get away with their role in such mass killings, that they will not be spared. Only then can this menace be checked.

In a recent judgement in Delhi, the additional sessions judge, SN Dhingra convicted the accused and directed them to restore a shop to the complainant, Prakash Kaur and her husband Inder Singh. After 20 years of trespass and occupation, the shop in the Bara Hindu Rao locality of Delhi has been restored to its owners, sending the right message to all culprits. Prakash Kaur had filed her affidavit in August 1985 before the Misra Commission. No case was registered by the police. After continuous follow-up, ultimately the Jain Aggarwal Committee (appointed by the central government and comprising Justice GD Jain, a retired high court judge and DK Aggarwal, retired director general of police) directed registration of the case on the basis of the complaint filed by Prakash Kaur. The case filed in 1993 has been decided in December 2004! For 20 long years, Prakash Kaur and her husband had to await restoration of the shop, first looted and then forcibly trespassed by the accused persons.

Official documents that came to light for the first time during the proceedings of the Nanavati Commission in the year 2002 demonstrate widespread police complicity in the carnage.

The proceedings before the Nanavati Commission, years later, have helped uncover this vital evidence. Fresh inquiry has shown that police officers from the rank of commissioner downwards behaved in much the same way almost everywhere in Delhi, indicating a clear pattern to their complicity in the carnage.

The police officers responsible for such a large-scale massacre still occupy high positions. Three of them are currently joint commissioners of police in Delhi. Even 20 years later it is difficult to forget the partisan manner in which the police acted, not merely as silent spectators but as connivers in the killing of Sikhs.

The first priority of police officers seemed to be to disarm Sikhs, even though it was they who were under attack and as such had a legal right to act in self-defence. There were innumerable instances during the carnage when police officers ordered their men to divest the Sikhs of their traditional kirpans and licensed firearms. At several places the police even arrested such Sikhs and booked cases against them while doing nothing to the miscreants. In their written statements, top police officers, including commissioner SC Tandon, admitted to taking action against Sikhs during the carnage.

What made Sikhs all the more vulnerable to the mobs were the attempts by police officers to disperse their gatherings and force them to return to their houses. In many places this prevented Sikhs from putting up any collective resistance. And soon after they were forced to return to their houses, these Sikhs fell prey to mobs, often under the gaze of the police.

There were also instances when the police went out of their way to break up inter-community peace committees set up in some localities. The object of the police was clearly to remove all hurdles from the path of marauding mobs. In the few places where Sikhs or peace committees refused to disperse, they succeeded in driving away rioters and protecting their localities. This underlines the fact that the police was often as much a threat as the rioters themselves.

The first FIR registered during the carnage in almost every police station was against Sikhs. The arrests made initially were also of Sikhs. In fact, in most places, including the worst affected East Delhi district, only Sikhs were arrested on November 1, the first day of the carnage. All this despite the fact that the killings were one-sided.

The following are a few instances that bear out the above-mentioned pattern of police complicity. Let us begin with the role of the then police commissioner, SC Tandon. Police records say that on November 1, two Sikhs fired at a mob from inside Motia Khan gurdwara in the central district of Delhi. They also state that Tandon reached the spot with two battalions and both the Sikhs were arrested and booked under section 307 IPC, i.e. attempt to murder, although nobody from the mob was injured. Mahinder Singh Chikara, who was SHO of the Desh Bandhu Gupta Road police station in the central district at the time, told the Nanavati Commission that the gurdwara was burnt by the mob but only four out of some 4,000 rioters were arrested.

Events that took place at the historic Rakabganj gurdwara on the same day conformed to the pattern. Tandon arrived there as well but by the time he did so the mob had already burnt two Sikhs alive. Tandon was present at the spot with a large force, along with the additional commissioner, Gautam Kaul, yet not a single member of the mob was arrested. Instead, a Sikh found in possession of a licensed weapon was arrested on the spot.

An incident at Patel Nagar was even more revealing. A mob attacked the house of Group Captain MS Talwar, a Maha Vir Chakra winner in the 1971 war. Talwar fired in self-defence. Police records show that Tandon and DCP Amod Kanth reached the spot. The police seized Talwar’s gun and ammunition and arrested him on the charge of murder as two members of the mob died in the firing. Though Talwar was admittedly firing from inside his house, he was detained in Tihar Jail, in the ‘C’ class, for over a fortnight before he was released on judicial orders. SHO Amrik Singh Bhullar admitted before the Nanavati Commission that though there was a 2,000 strong mob near Talwar’s house, none of them was arrested because the police were outnumbered.

Police officers fared even worse in East Delhi, where government figures indicate that 1,026 Sikhs were killed. In the Kalyanpuri locality of East Delhi, DCP Seva Dass ordered the arrest of 25 Sikhs on November 1 while no one was arrested from the mobs operating there. In Seelampur, located in the same district, one Ram Singh was arrested simply because he fired in self-defence. No one from the mob was touched. In Trilokpuri, Sikhs gathered in a large number at a gurdwara on November 1, but SHO Soorvir Singh Tyagi forced them to return to their houses. Tyagi’s action paved the way for the massacre of over 300 Sikhs in Block 32 of Trilokpuri.

The posh South Delhi area demonstrated a similar pattern. Bhogal has a sizeable number of Sikhs, many of whom are involved in the transport business. They collected in front of their houses and were able to resist the mobs despite a lot of stone throwing. The policemen present communicated the situation to DCP Chandra Prakash who ordered two platoons to be sent to the area and directed that the Sikhs be sent to their houses and that, if need be, the police should open fire at them. The directions recorded in wireless messages were silent on the need to take action against rioters. The police opened fire in the air, forcing Sikhs to return to their houses. No action was taken against the miscreants who burnt over 100 trucks and buses and several houses and shops.

Similarly, in the adjoining area of Harinagar Ashram, Sikh transporters came together and put up a stiff resistance. The police directed the Sikhs to go back to their houses but the Sikhs did not budge even when the police opened fire at them. Chandra Prakash visited the area but did little to help the besieged Sikhs who were left to their own devices till the evening of November 2. Meanwhile, there were attacks by huge mobs, at times numbering 5,000, but they could not break down the Sikh defence. On the evening of November 2, the army arrived there and erected a picket to protect the Sikhs. Army personnel told the Sikhs that they could not get there earlier because the police had held them back from the area. Nevertheless, this is an instance when the Sikhs managed to defend themselves in the face of several efforts by the police to help the mobs.

There were similar success stories of self-defence from other places, including some in East Delhi. For instance, in the Lakshmi Nagar area of East Delhi about 100 Sikhs assembled near a gurdwara with kirpans and lathis on the morning of November 1. They kept a mob at bay for over an hour while the policemen present watched passively. Deposing before the Nanavati Commission, a riot victim, Gurmeet Singh said that at around 11 a.m., local MP HKL Bhagat arrived there in a convoy and was seen talking to the policemen. Some of his followers remained in that area even after Bhagat’s exit. The policemen then forced the Sikhs to go inside the gurdwara. But when the mob began to attack, the Sikhs rushed out to defend their homes and families. The mob ran away in the face of a strong counter-attack.

Bachittar Singh of Lajpat Nagar described an instance of a Hindu-Sikh joint effort in his locality to repel all attacks by mobs. Deposing before the Commission, he said a policeman tried to separate the Hindus from the Sikhs but standing by their Sikh neighbours, the Hindus told the police to disperse the mob. The police pleaded helplessness saying they had no orders to control the mob.

Damaging allegations against senior police officers were confirmed by two Sikh policemen who are now retired and have filed affidavits before the Nanavati Commission. Harbans Singh, who was a sub-inspector in Jamunapuri police station during the carnage, said he was not allowed to leave the police station during that period, nor was he assigned any duties. When he entered the wireless room he noticed that wherever there were communications saying Sikhs were defending themselves, the police were ordered to take action against them. And where Sikhs were being killed, no direction was given to protect them. His revelations were borne out by entries in the wireless logbooks that were produced subsequently before the Nanavati Commission. Hardhian Singh Shergil, who was ASI in CID, gave an equally revealing account of a visit he made to the wireless room of the Geeta Colony police station. He said he heard a number of wireless messages saying Sikhs were being attacked and found to his surprise that none of them were being recorded. When he queried this, the wireless operator there told Shergil that he had orders not to record messages about the attacks on Sikhs.

Even when the Nanavati Commission was first appointed, 16 years after the events of 1984, questions were raised as to what this enquiry would achieve after the lapse of such a long time. If that argument had been accepted and the demand for enquiry given up, this vital information, unearthed from police records themselves, would have never seen the light of the day.

It has also been placed on record before the Nanavati Commission that the police themselves closed 178 cases as ‘untraced’, and these were never sent to trial. This demonstrates a major failure on the part of the police for having closed these cases without any effort to identify the guilty and send them to trial.

There is, at most, 10 per cent of the population that is either involved in, sympathises with or is in favour of such a massacre. The remaining 90 per cent of people in the country criticise it. Unfortunately, the majority, 90 per cent remain silent while the 10 per cent become so vocal that they are able to have their way. If we want to live in peace and harmony and rid ourselves of this menace of massacres, the silent 90 per cent, the majority of the population will have to put their foot down to ensure that the guilty are not spared and are given due punishment in accordance with the law of the land. Punishment of the guilty is necessary not because we are brooding over the past but because we are worried about the future.

(HS Phoolka is a senior advocate, Supreme Court of India and counsel for victims of the November 1984 carnage in Delhi). 

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