India's Justice System Has Failed Victims of the 1984 Anti-Sikh Massacre

Collusion between the police and the ruling Congress grounded the law-enforcing machinery to an administrative halt.

A girl and her father pray at the 1984 martyrs museum in Tilak Vihar, New Delhi.

Thirty-three years ago, organised armed mobs freely roamed the streets of Delhi, killing Sikhs and looting them of their possessions. The official death toll was 2,733.

Today, forgetting is unforgivable. Silence is complicity. And averting our gaze away from the pages of history that name the killers is inhuman.

Rajiv Gandhi, an average pilot with a not-so-average surname, was the prime minister of the country. P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was considered to have the acumen of Chanakya and was fluent in 17 languages, was his darling home minister. C.R. Krishnaswamy Rao, the 1949 batch Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of the Andhra Pradesh cadre, was the cabinet secretary. S.C. Tandon was the chief of Delhi police who had once accepted before a commission that he didn’t know how many fire service stations he had at his disposal. Delhi police had 35 deputy commissioners and six additional commissioners when the massacre took place. Most of them were from the Indian Police Service (IPS).

“When a big tree falls, the earth shakes,” Rajiv Gandhi had said when he was asked about the organised killings. He had then been prime minister for all of one day. Such was the arrogance, the dynasty-driven disdain.

Also read: Photo Essay – Thirty-Three Years on, Wounds of the Anti-Sikh Massacre Are Still Fresh

Surinder Singh, who was the head granthi of gurudwara Pul Bangash near Delhi’s Azad Market, narrated what he saw:

On the morning of November 1, 1984, a big mob which was carrying sticks, iron rods and kerosene oil attacked the gurudwara. The crowd was led by our area’s member of parliament of Congress (I) Jagdish Tytler. He incited the crowd to set the gurudwara on fire and to kill the Sikhs. A few people were holding the flags of the Congress party and were raising slogans such as, ‘The revenge of blood will be taken by blood, the Sikhs are traitors, kill them, burn them’. Five to six policemen were also with the crowd. On incitement by Tytler, they attacked the gurudwara and set it on fire. Thakur Singh, who was a retired inspector of Delhi police and an employee of the gurudwara managing committee, was killed by the crowd. Badal Singh, who was the sewadar of the gurudwara, was burnt alive. I witnessed this incident helplessly from the upper floor of the gurudwara. The gurudwara too was set on fire, but the fire did not reach the upper floor.

Also read: It Is Time IPS Officers Stood Up to the Political Machinery

After the massacre abated, many committees and commissions were set up to find the specifics of the killers. The Marwah Commission was set up in November 1984 to inquire into the role of the police in the killings. It was abruptly told by the central government to stop the probe and records were selectively passed on to the next commission. The Misra Commission was set up in May 1985 to probe if the violence was organised. Its August 1986 report recommended the formation of three new committees: Ahooja, Kapur-Mittal and Jain-Banerjee. The Dhillon Committee was set up in November 1985 to recommend rehabilitation for victims. It asked that insurance claims of attacked business establishments be paid, but the government of the day rejected all such claims. The Kapur-Mittal Committee, set up in February 1987, enquired again about the role of the police. Seventy-two policemen were identified for connivance or gross negligence, 30 were recommended for dismissal. No one was punished. The Jain-Banerjee Committee, established in February 1987, looked at cases against Congress leaders Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, and recommended cases be registered against both. Later, the Delhi high court quashed the appointment of the committee. The Ahooja Committee, set up in February, 1987, was told by the Misra Commission to ascertain the number of people killed in the massacre in Delhi. In August 1987, Ahooja’s report put the figure at 2,733 Sikhs. The Potti-Rosha Committee was appointed in March 1990 as a successor to the Jain-Banerjee committee. Potti-Rosha also recommended registration of cases against Kumar and Tytler. The Jain-Aggarwal Committee was appointed as a successor to Potti-Rosha in December 1990, and also recommended cases against H.K.L. Bhagat, Tytler and Kumar. No cases were registered and the probe stopped in 1993. The Narula Committee, set up in December 1993, was the third committee in nine years to recommend registering cases against Bhagat, Tytler and Kumar. The May 2000 Nanavati Commission – a one-man commission appointed by the BJP-led government – found “credible evidence” against Tytler and Kumar. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) later tried to give them a clean chit.

Also read: The Many Criminal Injustices of India’s Police and Investigating Agencies

Justice Ranganath Misra, son of a celebrated Odia poet and then the chief justice of India, who had headed an inquiry commission into the 1984 anti-Sikh massacre, after retiring, became a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha. Ved Marwah went on to become the chief of Delhi police for three blissfully long years of 1985 to 1988. Marwah later became the governor of Manipur, Mizoram and Jharkhand, and wrote a book on terrorism. Between that fateful day in 1984 and today, India has had nine prime ministers, 14 home ministers, 16 cabinet secretaries and 16 Delhi police chiefs. The might of the Indian state has failed to bring justice to the doorsteps of the victims and their loved ones.

Credit: Reuters

The Delhi police had facilitated the massacre by driving the Sikhs out of the gurudwara and leaving them at the mercy of the mob. In several places, the police had even disarmed the Sikhs before the mob took over. The collusion was so pervasive that it took over 36 hours for the Block 32 of Trilokpuri massacre to come to light, although it was barely ten km from the Delhi police headquarters. But only one police officer, Maxwell Pereira, stood up for the victims in his jurisdiction and proved his mettle as a police leader. The rest of the top brass bowed to the party in power and grounded the police machinery to an administrative halt.

For our political parties and their legacy-fixated mighty leaders, democracy will always be about party interests, not public issues; about carefully calibrated winnability of the candidates, not constitution-mandated accountability of the elected representatives; about the percentage of votes in the electoral arena, not justice for the nameless, faceless victims in the courtroom. India’s democracy needs a better criminal justice delivery system. India’s citizens, shorn of caste, creed and visible and invisible colours of religion, deserve better public institutions. India’s future generations are entitled to more humane memories. Not 1984, Delhi. Not 2002, Gujarat. Not 2013, Muzaffarnagar.

Basant Rath is 2000 batch IPS officer who belongs to the Jammu and Kashmir cadre. Views expressed are personal.