…The mobs carried iron rods, knives, clubs, and combustible material, including kerosene. They used voters’ lists, allegedly provided, by the Congress Party politicians themselves, to identify houses and business establishments owned by—The mobs swarmed into—neighborhoods, arbitrarily killing any—they could find. Their shops and houses were ransacked and burned. In other incidents, armed mobs stopped buses and trains, in and around Delhi, pulling out—passengers to be lynched or doused with kerosene and burnt…

…Before they could realize what was happening, a huge mob broke down the door of their house and dragged all the men folk out. Before their eyes, their husbands were torched to death, women sexually abused and houses set on fire…

…I saw with my own eyes my husband being taken out and then set on fire. After all the men in the house were set afire, the mob then targeted the women who were hiding. They were dragged out and sexually abused. I saw one of my relatives being raped. And the mob did not spare me and molested me…
You may think that I am talking about the Godhra riots, and it would be no fault of yours. Because, in India, violence is only committed by the Sangh Parivar against Muslims – or so the English news media would have you believe. The statements above describe what happened a full 18 years before Godhra in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. According to official sources, some
2,733 Sikhs were massacred in what can only be called a pogrom though H. S. Phoolka, a high court lawyer who has been representing the riot victims and is a representative of the November 1984 carnage justice committee, claims that the figure is closer to 4,000. In New Delhi alone, about 600 cases of arson, killing and rioting were registered (The Jain-Aggarwal committee had recommended about a thousand), but police closed half of them, ostensibly for lack of evidence. Police complicity was also alleged (investigated by the Kapoor-Mittal committee). Hundred were rendered homeless, and thousands fled the North, where the riots were concentrated. The anti-Sikh riots were the worst religious riots in India since independence in 1947. In May 2009, a petition filed by advocate MS Butalia said that hundreds of anti-Sikh riot cases were still pending in the court, 25 years after the fact. Several members of Parliament belonging to the Congress Party have been accused in these cases – HKL Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, Dharam Das Shastri, and Jagdish Tytler. The Nanavati Commission (2004!), in addition to finding evidence against these MPs, also held the then police commissioner SC Tandon directly responsible for the riots.
[DIVERSION 1: The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) told a court in September 2009 that witnesses who deposed against former union minister Jagdish Tytler for his alleged role in a 1984 anti-Sikh riot case are unreliable and made false statements to implicate him. “During investigation, only two persons came forward to depose against Tytler and both Surinder and Jasbir Singh are unreliable. They have made false statements to implicate Tytler,” Additional Public Prosecutor Sanjay Kumar contended before Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Rakesh Pandit. Kumar further contended that Surinder, who died recently, gave contradictory versions of the 1984 incident allegedly involving Tytler.
The CBI, which had on April 2 sought to close the case against Tytler claiming there was no sufficient evidence against him, had questioned the jurisdiction of a magisterial court and sought the matter to be transferred to a sessions court. The agency claimed as the matter involved the offence of murder, it should be transferred to the sessions court. The court, however, was not convinced with CBI’s arguments and decided to hear the closure report]
The anti-Sikh pogrom broke out after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of the Indian National Congress had been assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for Operation Blue Star, in which Indian troops stormed the Golden Temple (one of Sikhism’s four most sacred sites) to flush out Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (As a side note, it is interesting to remember that Bhindranwale was Indira Gandhi’s man against the Shiromani Akali Dal and he had actively campaigned for the Congress Party in the 1979 general elections). The excessive and perhaps not properly planned use of force by the Army resulted in more casualties than were strictly necessary. For example, the attack was timed to coincide with an annual Sikh festival. Further, although Lt. Gen. Sinha had advised against the tactics of the Operation, the Government replaced him with Gen. Arun Vaidya and went ahead anyway (it was indeed possible to execute the mission with more care as Operations Black Thunder I & II proved). The official casualty figures were 83 dead and 248 wounded for the Indian Army and 492 dead and 86 wounded for the Sikhs (unofficial figures stand at about 500 Army and 5,000 Sikh dead and wounded). Brahma Chellaney, the only journalist who managed to stay behind despite the media blackout, telexed 780 militants and civilians and 400 troops killed in fierce gunbattles. Chellaney also reported that “several” (later confirmed at eight to ten) suspected Sikh militants had been shot with their hands tied.
In response to the riots, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made a statement at Boat Club in New Delhi
on 19 November 1984, on the birthday of Indira Gandhi, “Some riots took place in the country following the murder of Indiraji. We know the people were very angry and for a few days it seemed that India had been shaken. But, when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.” Indeed! It was only in 1998 that Sonia Gandhi expressed regret (but stopped short of an apology) for the happenings of 1984, perfectly timed, of course, for the general elections barely a month ahead. The reality of the sentiment is made clearer by the statements of some of the victims: “I made desperate attempts to locate my husband, but there was no news. Today, I cannot even claim compensation as I don’t have any evidence or certificate showing that my husband is dead,” said one Sail Kaur, who had lost 12 members of her family in the violence. Se
venty-year-old Mitha Singh was able to get a compensation of Rs. 350,000 in 1999 only after several rounds of the city court. Singh lost his only son who was burnt alive in their factory that day. For Gurdeep Singh, memories of his mother are still strong. Even after 25 years there is no news of his mother, Vimlesh Kaur, who disappeared after the riots.
These terrible events have long been forgotten in India because it is more convenient to pick on someone like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whose public relations skills are appalling if not non-existent. The Godhra Affair has been in the spotlight of the “secularist” press for the past seven years. The violence was sparked off by a Muslim mob of more than 500 stopping and storming the Sabarmati Express on its return from Ayodhya. The assailants burned 59 Hindus passengers, mostly women, children and seniors, alive. In immediate retaliation, riots erupted across Gujarat in which 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed. Police firing claimed the lives of 93 Muslims and 77 Hindus (this militates against the notion of police complicity). Thousands of Hindus and Muslims were preemptively arrested.
The Indian Supreme Court, strongly critical of the state government’s investigation and prosecution of those accused of violence during the riots, directed police to review about 2,000 of the 4,000 riot related cases that had been closed citing lack of evidence or leads. Following this direction, police identified nearly 1,600 cases for reinvestigation, arrested 640 accused and launched investigations against 40 police officers for their failures. After a local court dismissed the case against her assailants, Bilkis Bano appealed to the Supreme Court through the National Human Rights Commission. The Supreme Court granted the motion and transferred the case out of Gujarat – charges were filed in a Mumbai court against nineteen people as well as six police officials and a government doctor over their role in the initial investigations. In January 2008, eleven men were sentenced to life imprisonment for the rape and murders and a policeman was convicted of falsifying evidence. Eight people, including a VHP leader and a member of the BJP, were convicted for the murder of seven members of a family and the rape of two minor girls in the village of Eral in Panchmahal district.
The Nanavati Commission of 2008 exonerated the Gujarat Government, given evidence of the acquisition of 140 litres of petrol hours before the arrival of the train and the storage of the said petrol at the alleged key conspirator’s, Razzak Kurkur, guest house. This was further corroborated by forensic evidence showing fuel was poured on the train compartment before being burnt. The alleged mastermind was said to be the cleric Maulvi Husain Haji Ibrahim Umarji and a dismissed CRPF officer by the name of Nanumiyan, from Assam, who had instigated the Muslim crowds. Furthermore, two Kashmiris, Gulamnabi and Ali Mohammed, were in the same guesthouse for a fortnight prior to the event speaking about the Kashmir liberation movement. The CPM and the Congress party both came out railing against the exoneration of the Gujarat government by the commission citing the timing of the report (with general elections months away) as evidence of unfairness. Congress spokesperson Veerappa Moily commented at the strange absolvement of the Gujarat government for complacency for the carnage. He also said the report reinforced communal prejudices. In 2005, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was denied a visa to the United States upon the strong lobbying of “secularist” groups.
Without getting into tit-for-tat arguments or into a spiralling blame game, a few things are clear from an examination of these two cases of violence against religious minorities: (1) Muslims are more important than Sikhs, (2) the Congress can do no wrong, (3) when in doubt, it is convenient and safe to blame the Sangh Parivar, (4) Congress MPs are above the law, (5) justice means the subordination of every community’s interests to those of the Muslim community. If the law were applied equally to all sections of society, this discrepancy in the way Sikh cases have been handled in the aftermath of the 1984 riots as compared to the Muslim cases in the aftermath of Godhra would not have existed. Further, there has been constant pressure on the Central Government to ‘mete out justice’ in the Godhra Affair but no such pressure exists in the case of the anti-Sikh riots. In fact, the Government has worked quite hard against publicising the events of 1984 – in the case of the film Amu, a story about a 21-year old Indian-American who visits India only to get flashbacks of the 1984 riots she had been made to forget in America, the censor board refused to pass the film. The Board cleared it only with six politically motivated cuts, including a 10-minute cut and the removal of all verbal references to the riots. Says Ellora Puri, a Political Scientist at the Punjab University in Chandigarh, “Indian social commentators – media, cinema, writers or academia – have been fairly amnesiac about the 1984 Sikh killings.”
This is not the only thing India’s social commentators have been amnesiac about – the Emergency (June 25, 1975 – March 21, 1977)
is another dark chapter in Indian history that had best not be disturbed. Other than the rampant corruption in Indira Gandhi’s regime, she was also accused of sanctioning (1) Wanton detention of innocent people by police without charge or notification of families, (2) Abuse and torture of detainees and political prisoners, (3) Use of public and private media institutions, like the national television network Doordarshan, for propaganda, (4) Forced vasectomy of thousands of men under the infamous family planning initiative, and (5) Arbitrary destruction of the slum and low-income housing in the Turkmen Gate and Jama Masjid area of old Delhi. It is not easy to find exactly how many people perished during the 21 months of Congress dictatorship, and given Indian policy on the declassification of documents and opening of archives, we may never know. However, a glimpse of life in Emergency Rule India can be had from TV Eachara Varier’s heart-rending memoir, Memories Of a Father.
This is the Party we are asked to vote for, the Party that will save us from the Hindutva brigade – it is like the Soviets telling the Poles in 1939 that they will save them from the Germans! These are the double standards we are meant to acquiese to or we are communalists, fascists, and Hindu fundamentalists (regarding the inaccuracy of these terms, refer to my post, Lotus Blooming, of August 23, 2009). In terms of damage to the people, to communities, and to the individual, in terms of damage to institutions and to the rule of law, the Congress Party has done more and more thoroughly than any BJP Government can ever do – and we
are still restricting the topic to domestic affairs. There is an expression in Konkani – when someone is angry beyond comprehension, one says that one is so angry that it feels like one’s liver is being boiled. I find it very apt in this instance. But then again, are we not complicit too? I do not remember anyone, whether it be Human Rights organisations, Lok Ayukt, or other political parties, raising these issues.

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    Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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