What’s Next After Sajjan Kumar’s Life Term? Justice for 1984 and 2002 Victims

Politics

What’s Next After Sajjan Kumar’s Life Term? Justice for 1984 and 2002 Victims

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

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hat plans do you have for December 31? If you’re Congress leader Sajjan Kumar, your New Year’s Eve surrendering yourself to the custody of the Delhi High Court. In a landmark ruling, the Delhi HC overruled the 73-year-old’s earlier acquittal by a trial court in 2013, finding him guilty of the murder of a Sikh family and attacks on a gurudwara during the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. Of course, Kumar is already working on filing an appeal before the Supreme Court, due to be heard on January 2 next year, but that doesn’t take away from the momentous nature of the ruling.

It’s taken 35 years, but Kumar’s conviction is a watershed moment for the surviving kin of the more than 3,000 people who lost their lives during the four days of mob violence in 1984. In its judgement, the HC noted that “criminals responsible for the mass crimes have enjoyed political patronage and managed to evade prosecution and punishment.” Senior Counsel for the victims, HS Phoolka, also argued before the court that “[Kumar] has enjoyed impunity and has always been beyond the reach of the law.”

It’s the very same factors that allowed Kumar to evade justice for so long that make his conviction all the more remarkable. He began his political career in Delhi in 1977, and was even a member of the Lok Sabha between 2004 and 2009, long after his involvement in the 1984 violence had been made public. For the law to finally claim its due, even from an individual as politically connected and influential as Kumar, is a pleasant surprise. After all, some of his contemporaries (here’s looking at you, Madhya Pradesh CM Kamal Nath) don’t seem to be doing too badly at all.

Across the aisle, former BJP minister Maya Kodnani was acquitted earlier this year in a case where she was accused of leading a mob that killed 97 men, women, and children during the 2002 violence in Gujarat.

If that sounds cynical, it’s not without reason. Unfortunately, 1984 was neither the first nor the last time that citizens were killed by communal mobs while the state machinery either allowed the violence to take place, looked the other way, or actively participated in it. All too often, the political actors involved are insulated from the consequences of their actions in the aftermath. Following the 1984 violence, 3,163 arrests were made in Delhi, but there have been little more than 30 convictions in the decades since, as reported in The Tribune. Across the aisle, former BJP minister Maya Kodnani was acquitted earlier this year in a case where she was accused of leading a mob that killed 97 men, women, and children during the 2002 violence in Gujarat.

However, newly minted chief minister Kamal Nath might just be the greatest post-pogrom rehabilitation success story of them all, barring another certain barrel-chested former CM. Nath’s political career has resembled a cat’s, with its proverbial nine lives.

Journalist Sanjay Suri offered a first-hand account of seeing Nath controlling a mob that was attacking the Rakab Ganj gurudwara in Delhi in 1984. Somehow, Nath was left out of the initial investigation. Under PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Nanavati Commission was set up to re-examine the case, but once again Nath skirted by on account of the “vague” nature of the evidence brought against him. When he was installed as the Congress party chief in Punjab in 2016, he had to be hastily recalled as Sikh parties expressed outrage. And yet, as the Congress scored its most significant win since 2014 in November, he landed on his feet yet again, pipping the younger and arguably more popular candidate Jyotiraditya Scindia to land the CM’s post.

Continuing to extend its patronage to tainted leaders like Kumar and Nath might be a mistake on the Congress’ part, but even India’s grand old party cannot overrule the courts.

The discrepancy between the fortunes of Kamal Nath and Sajjan Kumar is stark, but it was not always like this. The reason that Kumar’s life sentence is such a twist in the tale is because for the longest time, it seemed that he too would never be held accountable for 1984. Nath being named CM of Madhya Pradesh last month drove home the disturbing point that there are still some actors from that ghastly episode who have avoided paying their dues – and in fact, are actually being rewarded for it. Reacting to his appointment, leader of the Shiromani Akali Dal Manjinder Singh Sirsa said, “Rahul Gandhi wants to give a message that those involved in the killings of Sikhs in 1984 now need not worry… that they are behind them and will reward them instead.”

Continuing to extend its patronage to tainted leaders like Kumar and Nath might be a mistake on the Congress’ part, but even India’s grand old party cannot overrule the courts. Should the Delhi HC’s landmark judgement set a precedent, then who knows how far-reaching the consequences might be? Despite the sometimes glacial speed of our judicial process, it’s encouraging that justice has finally been delivered to some of the victims of 1984. Maybe with the other accused – and for other victims – justice won’t take so long.

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