Apply Lessons of 2002 to 1984

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The efforts Civil Society has made to hold Modi accountable must reach back in time to Rajiv Gandhi

The tragic story of 1984 Sikh carnage is still to be concluded as no direct responsibility has been pinned for organising the massacre, nor has anyone dared to address the collective guilt of the Congress party during that tragic period. In 2002, the carnage of Muslims in Gujarat was similar in scale to what happened in Delhi in 1984, but there the main thrust has been to hold the government of the day accountable. The efforts of Civil Society have been directed at trying to hold chief minister Narendra Modi responsible for the event which resulted in hundreds of Muslims being killed, houses destroyed, businesses burnt and women subjected to brutal rapes. Some members of the Gujarat government such as Maya Kodnani and members of the Sangh such as Babu Bajrangi have been found guilty and sentenced. A hundred or so cases are still pending in the courts.

But no political or religious body working on the massacres of 1984 has even tried to bring out the collective responsibility of the ruling party and the government of the time. A few individuals or workers of the congress party have been brought to trial after a long period but as the recent Sajjan Kumar judgment shows, no convictions have resulted. A few minor functionaries have been found guilty but no attempts have been made to frame the question in terms of the primary responsibility the Rajiv Gandhi government, which was to safeguard the life and dignity of its people irrespective of religion or affiliation.

In the thirty years since the gory episode, numerous commissions of inquiry have been appointed. Their findings clearly outline the failure of the Rajiv administration. Today almost no sense of that failure survives in the national memory, even though Sikhs were primarily targeted mainly in those states which were then being governed by the Congress. The failure to act on this may well have allowed similar attacks against people of the minorities in different parts of India. If the gross violation of duty by a government and the overt involvement of a political party could go unpunished then who would ever fear the law in case of similar incidents elsewhere? The chairman of the Press Council of India Markandey Katju has pointed out in a recent article in The Hindu, that a sense of injustice breeds hatred and violence in segments of the aggrieved whether they be Muslims, Sikhs or Christians.

The active interest that many institutions today take in ensuring justice seemed to have been missing in 1984. After the events of 2002 in Gujarat, the Supreme Court did step in and ask the central government to set up a special investigating team but no such thing happened in 1984. After the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, in contrast to 1984, several BJP-led state governments were dismissed, and rightly so, but the Congress government at the Centre which ordered this does not seem to realize the irony inherent in this act.

The immediate effect of the events of 1984 was the widespread alienation and anger among the Sikhs and a resulting cycle of violence. The violence may have been contained but as recent events in Punjab, such as the outpouring of anger at the likely hanging of Balwant Singh Rajoana and Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, show the alienation has by no means disappeared. The question of culpability for 1984 still needs to be addressed in a meaningful manner.

India cannot wish away its past. And this means looking at the dark spots that continue to resonate in the present and facing up to what needs to be done to provide a remedy. Dealing with the legacy of 1984 will help the country end the cycle of targeting minorities for political gains. A few jail sentences awarded to workers or minor functionaries of the Congress doesn't meet this end. The realization of this problem should not be restricted just to the representatives of the Sikhs, though it needs to extend to them as well, but needs to be understood by the judiciary and Civil Society which have played a more active role in the events of 2002.

Ranjit Singh ‘Kuki’ Gill, son of Khem Singh Gill, former Vice-Chancellor of Punjab Agricultural University, was studying for a Masters in Plant Breeding and Genetics at PAU when he was charged with the murder of Congress politician Lalit Maken and his wife Geetanjali soon after the 1984 massacres in Delhi. He escaped to the US, where he spent 13 years in New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center. In May 2000, Gill and his companion, fellow inmate Sukhwinder Singh, relinquished their appeals to remain in the US of their own volition and opted to return to India. Early in 2009, the lengthy trial concluded by reaffirming the life sentence. But finally, almost 25 years after the event, his sentence was commuted by the Chief Minister of Delhi after the intervention of Maken’s daughter Avantika