Uncovering the truth
The 1984 carnage and its aftermath
BY MANOJ MITTA & HS PHOOLKA
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 Gandhi’s 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 mother’s 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 Indira’s 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 India’s history its prime
minister made no bones about the fact that he was only reaching out to –
or harvesting, with an eye on the upcoming election – 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
Gandhi’s 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 president’s address, the two
Houses separately adopted a common "resolution" the same day expressing
condolence for Indira Gandhi’s 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 government’s decision to reject the
Justice GT Nanavati Commission’s recommendation to take action against the
minister for overseas Indians, Jagdish Tytler. But the Congress party
president, Rajiv Gandhi’s 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 government’s 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
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.)