The 28th anniversary of the massacre of 3,000 Sikh men in New Delhi in retaliation for the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards passed largely in silence again. None of the major political figures from the Congress Party who are said to have been involved in the killings has been convicted, and no one in the administration has been held accountable.
In 2005, while reporting for the newsweekly Tehelka, I met the women of Block 32, in Trilokpuri, one of areas of East Delhi most affected by the violence in 1984. Their husbands and their sons were among those killed by mobs two decades earlier. Jesibai, at 69, the oldest among them, said of the attackers: “They came looking for us. Twenty to a house, pulling the men out, slaughtering them before our eyes. We tried to disguise some of our boys as girls, but even then not all of them got away safely.”
She added: “The violence began only when H.K.L. Bhagat came to the area. He told the mob not to spare a single male. The Sikhs, he said, were like serpents. If you spare the boys, they will grow up to kill you. Days later he came to the relief camp at Shahdara to distribute blankets. We chased him out.” Back then, H.K.L. Bhagat was a member of Parliament for the Congress Party from East Delhi.
After eight commissions were wound up before drawing any conclusions or failed to consider who was responsible for the riots [pogroms], in 2000 a non-Congress government set up the Nanavati Commission to probe the killings. In a 2004 report, it described having found “credible material” against “Congress leaders and workers” in East Delhi establishing that “very probably they were also involved in the anti-Sikh Pogroms [pogroms].”
The report incriminated scores of ordinary party employees, as well as three men who were senior Congress leaders from New Delhi at the time of the killings: Bhagat; Jagdish Tytler, a member of Parliament; and Sajjan Kumar, a local councilor.
Yet the perpetrators rose politically even after their roles in the killings were widely reported in the media. Bhagat became a cabinet minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government, which was in power during the killings and re-elected months later. Tytler became minister of civil aviation in the same government; today, he is in charge of the Congress Party in the state of Orissa. And Kumar became a member of Parliament in 2004.
And though after the Nanavati Commission report old cases were revived and new ones brought against Tytler and Kumar — Bhagat died in 2005 — they have yielded no resolution. The cases against Tytler were closed after theinvestigating agency stated that the witnesses were either dead or unwilling to testify or that their testimony would be unreliable so many years after the riots [pogroms]. The most that has come out of any legal proceeding to date is a statement by the prosecutor in the case against Kumar for inciting a mob to murder.
The prosecutor told the court that “the police acted in a pre-planned manner, and every policeman was keeping his eyes closed” during the 1984 riots [pogrom]. “Whatever action was taken by the police was taken against the people who helped the Sikhs. Police did not take action against the main culprits.” Considering that in New Delhi the police are, by special dispensation, under the control of the central government, the prosecutor was in effect indicting the administration of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Congress Party bigwigs have occasionally expressed remorse for the killings. In 1999, Sonia Gandhi, the head of the Congress Party, said after a visit to the Sikh monument of Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar: “I have prayed at the shrine that such events must never happen again. We are entering a new millennium. Let us do so in a spirit of forgiveness.” In 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Parliament: “I have no hesitation in apologizing to the Sikh community. I apologize not only to the Sikh community, but to the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our Constitution.”
But neither acknowledgment came anywhere close to recognizing the role that the Congress Party’s faithful played in the massacre. Congress often invokes the violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 to attack the main opposition party, the rightist Bharatiya Janata Party, and the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, for failing to protect a minority community. Yet it conveniently ignores that a similar argument could be raised against Rajiv Gandhi. It has been able to maintain this self-serving contradiction because the violence in Gujarat in 2002 seems consistent with the B.J.P.’s pro-Hindu stance, while the violence of 1984 seems to defy the Congress’s stance that it represents all communities.
That the Congress could get away without noting the massacre on its 28th anniversary this year is a reminder that the pretense of apology by the guilty may be the most effective way of denying justice to the victims.