November 2009 
Year 16    No.145
Cover Story

Uncovering the truth

The 1984 carnage and its aftermath


Dateline New Delhi

19 November 1984: It was barely a fortnight since thousands of Sikhs were orphaned, widowed or rendered homeless in the wake of Prime Minister Indira Gandhiís assassination. Her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, likened the pogrom to the reverberations caused by the impact of a fallen tree: "But when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little."

The statement created a sensation, as it was the first time Rajiv justified the conduct of the mobs which had sought to avenge his motherís murder. The justification set the tone for the cover-up of the massacre as well as the election held a month later.

Even otherwise, the tree-shaking-the-earth metaphor caught the popular imagination because of the occasion on which Rajiv came up with it at the Boat Club near India Gate. It was the first rally addressed by him as prime minister, commemorating Indiraís first birth anniversary after her death.

While paying tributes to his mother, Rajiv desisted from condemning the horrendous reprisal to her murder, let alone promising to take any action against the guilty. The closest he came to expressing any reservations about the massacre of Sikhs was for its strategic repercussions to the nation rather than any human rights considerations.

Referring to the need to ensure peace, Rajiv cautioned, "Any action taken in anger can cause harm to the country. Sometimes, by acting in anger, we only help those who want to break up the country."

Empathising with their krodh (intense anger), as he originally put it in Hindi, Rajiv commended the mobs for ending the bloodshed as they did in three days or so even if they had killed 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi alone by then: "But from the way you put a stop to it, from the way India has again been brought back to the path of unity with your help and is able to stand united together again, the world can see that India has become a genuine democracy." Thus not only did he suggest that the massacre was inevitable, he even found a silver lining to it.

At that traumatic moment in Indiaís history its prime minister made no bones about the fact that he was only reaching out to Ė or harvesting, with an eye on the upcoming election Ė those who were "very angry" with the Sikh community. In his entire Boat Club speech, Rajiv did not say a word about the bereaved families, much less about those conscientious non-Sikhs who had tried to save the Sikhs or believed that the violence had been politically engineered.

17 January 1985: President Giani Zail Singh walked into Parliament House flanked by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had led the Congress party to a landslide victory in the election a fortnight earlier, and parliamentary affairs minister, HKL Bhagat, whose East Delhi constituency was by far the worst affected in the 1984 carnage.

Addressing a joint sitting of the two Houses at the behest of the Rajiv Gandhi government, Zail Singh said, "Disturbances and violence in Delhi and in some other parts of the country following Indira Gandhiís assassination resulted in loss of life and property. Stern and effective action was taken to control the situation within the shortest possible time. My government extends its deepest sympathy to the families which suffered during the violence."

That was the furthest the Rajiv Gandhi government went while referring to the carnage, in a tone that was evocative of his tree-shaking-the-earth metaphor. After the presidentís address, the two Houses separately adopted a common "resolution" the same day expressing condolence for Indira Gandhiís death. Though it said that she "loved India and the Indian people with a passion so sublime that it will live among us for long ages", the resolution expressed no regret about a section of the same Indian people being massacred in her name.

Its omission to offer a token of condolence to bereaved families seemed all the more glaring four days later when the Parliament took due cognisance of another major disaster that befell India in 1984, the Bhopal gas tragedy, and the government responded by promising to take necessary civil and criminal actions against its perpetrators.

10 August 2005: The ghosts of the 1984 carnage returned to haunt a coalition government led by the Congress party as the Parliament debated the subject for the first time in the 21 years that had elapsed. The provocation was the report of a fresh judicial inquiry tabled in the Parliament two days earlier.

Most political parties, including coalition partners and allies, reacted adversely to the governmentís decision to reject the Justice GT Nanavati Commissionís recommendation to take action against the minister for overseas Indians, Jagdish Tytler. But the Congress party president, Rajiv Gandhiís widow, Sonia Gandhi, was evidently in two minds about dropping Tytler from the government, as that was fraught with the risk of reviving allegations of complicity against her late husband. After all, it was Rajiv Gandhi who had made Tytler a minister for the first time, that too within two months of the 1984 carnage.

Unable to come up with a convincing response to the vehement attacks in the Lok Sabha on the governmentís action taken report (ATR), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made the candid admission: "Twenty-one years have passed, more than one political party has been in power and yet the feeling persists that somehow the truth has not come out and justice has not prevailed."

Conceding that "there is something called perception and there is the sentiment of the House", Manmohan Singh gave "a solemn promise and a solemn commitment" to the Lok Sabha to reconsider the ATR. He also promised "all possible steps" wherever the Nanavati Commission had "named any specific individuals as needing further examination or specific cases needing reopening and re-examination."

The message went home the same evening and Tytler finally yielded to the pressure to resign and saved further embarrassment to the government and the Congress party.

Simultaneously, another Congress MP indicted by the Nanavati report, Sajjan Kumar, quit a post given to him by the local Delhi government.

11 August 2005: Emboldened by the resignations of Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, Manmohan Singh was more forthcoming in the Rajya Sabha than he was the previous day in the Lok Sabha. If he had conceded generally in the Lower House that "the feeling persists that somehow the truth has not come out", the prime minister was more categorical in the Upper House in owning up to that feeling: "There were lapses in 1984. Several commissions have gone into this matter. We all know that we still do not know the truth and the search must go on." What he called a "feeling" one day transformed the next day into something "we all know".

Tracing the events that followed the carnage, Manmohan Singh, who is himself a Sikh, said, "It took the Sikh community a lot of time to regain its self-confidence after the tragic events of 1984." Since he did not have to be defensive any longer about having a carnage-tainted person like Tytler in his council of ministers, he himself seemed to have regained self-confidence, literally overnight.

Upping the ante, Manmohan Singh mustered the courage to do the minimum that Rajiv Gandhi should have done in the immediate aftermath of the carnage, namely to apologise to the Sikhs for the 1984 carnage. "I have no hesitation in apologising not only to the Sikh community but the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood as enshrined in our Constitution," Manmohan Singh said, adding, "On behalf of our government, on behalf of the entire people of this country, I bow my head in shame that such a thing took place."

(The above piece is excerpted from the first chapter of When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath, a book written by Manoj Mitta a well-known journalist, and HS Phoolka, a senior advocate, Supreme Court of India, and published by Roli Books in 2007.)

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