Why It’s Unlikely That Political Heavyweights Will be Punished for 1984 and 2002

Politics

Why It’s Unlikely That Political Heavyweights Will be Punished for 1984 and 2002

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Thirty-four long years after the anti-Sikh pogrom took place across north India, a Delhi court delivered the death sentence to an accused in the case. Yashpal Singh was sentenced to capital punishment, while his accomplice Naresh Sherawat received life imprisonment, for killing two men in Delhi’s Mahipalpur during the violence that took place in 1984.

Who are Singh and Sherawat? According to an NDTV report, Singh was a transporter while Sherawat worked in the Mahipalpur post office. They seem like ordinary men, but on November 1, 1984, they were part of a rabid, seething mob that hunted down, tortured, and killed two Sikh men, Avatar Singh and Hardev Singh.

It’s worth noting that the number of victims of the violence is far greater and the pogrom could not have been masterminded by just two men. Reports vary, but estimates suggest anywhere between 3,000 to 4,000 were killed in Delhi, with a similar death toll across other parts of the country. With such a high cost to human life, it’s shocking how few convictions have been made in the cases. As reported in The Tribune, 3,163 arrests were made in Delhi after the killings, but in the three-and-a-half decades since, only 30 convictions have been made, and over 2,000 people have been acquitted. Most of these were arrests of low-level individuals, with no affiliation to the state machinery, which was allegedly complicit in the violence.

Today, conversations about state participation in communal violence naturally flicker to a much more recent flare-up, the 2002 Gujarat riots. However, what tends to get overlooked by our recency bias is that the playbook for governments looking the other way on communal violence was written back in 1984. Sikh diaspora communities worldwide have been campaigning for over 30 years for justice for the 1984 killings, but the investigation was closed in 1994 by the Delhi Police. Atal Bihari Vajpayee instituted the Nanavati Commission in 2000 when he was the Prime Minister, but it was only a Special Investigation Team’s reopening of the case in 2015 that led to yesterday’s convictions.

Kamal Nath is even now leading the Congress’ campaign in Madhya Pradesh in the run-up to the state’s elections, while Jagdish Tytler, another accused, still plays an active role in the party.

Though the SIT’s investigation has yielded its first two convictions, whether any Congress higher-ups, who allegedly orchestrated the killings, will face justice remains doubtful. As Sanjay Suri writes in his book 1984: The Anti-Sikh Violence and After, “I wasn’t expecting to find Kamal Nath by the screaming crowd outside Rakab Ganj Sahib gurdwara, where two Sikhs had only just been burnt alive. But there he was, a little to a side, in bright white kurta-pajama, not far from the usual white Ambassador car with its mounted red light and mini flag post by the front bumper announcing its ministerial, or at least officially important, credentials.”

Despite this, and other damning accounts of the involvement of Congress leaders, there have been no repercussions. Kamal Nath is even now leading the Congress’ campaign in Madhya Pradesh in the run-up to the state’s elections, while Jagdish Tytler, another accused, still plays an active role in the party.

In fact, the 2015 reopening of the case came as a surprise to some who felt that the Congress and BJP were engaged in a quid pro quo situation over their respective history of communal violence. In an interview with The Wire, journalist and author Manoj Mitta, mentions that the BJP is reluctant to bring up the Congress’ failings from 1984, because that would remind the public of their own in 2002, and vice versa. In this prevailing “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” scenario, whether the leader is Kamal Nath, Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar, or Maya Kodani, or Amit Shah, both parties benefit from a code of silence.

It’s not just the Congress that has skeletons from its past tumbling out of the closet. At present, one of the most high-profile cases being heard in the Supreme Court is the petition of Zakia Jafri that challenges the clean chit given to the PM by the Gujarat High Court for 2002. The widow of Congress leader Ehsan Jafri, Zakia’s petition was due to be heard on November 19, but has been moved to November 23. If the court finds Jafri’s claims valid, it would have earth-shaking ramifications for the ruling party.

Yet, it seems highly unlikely that this will come to pass.

The killings of 1984 and 2002, arguably two genocides of India’s modern era, unfortunately serve as political counterweights to each other. Since an impartial investigation into either is so fraught with pitfalls for both leading parties, legal proceedings progress at a glacial pace. This is why it’s taken so many years for so few convictions to be made in connection to 1984, and why 2002 remains the elephant in the room. It might take years before the political establishment is in a state to adopt a bipartisan approach to pursuing justice in both cases. And for the thousands who lost their lives, justice delayed remains justice denied.

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