Ved Marwah’s Abiding Legacy as Police Chief is His Failure to Punish the Guilty of Nov 1984

Years later, he acknowledged the ‘shameful role’ of the Delhi Police in the killings. Yet, in his three-year tenure which began soon after, he did nothing to punish the dirty cops and deliver justice to the victims.

Ved Marwah’s death earlier this month has led to an outpouring of praise from fellow police officers. The 1956-batch officer held a number of key posts, including commissioner of police, Delhi, for three years, from 1985 to 1988.

In keeping with the Indian tradition, the praise has been fulsome and unstinting. Sample this:

“In Ved Marwah’s passing away,” a 1960 batch IPS officer wrote in an-all police Google group, “the Indian police has lost an outstanding leader of highest integrity and competence. In every sense, he was a police Titan, who left a lasting imprint on any assignment he took up…He was also a police intellectual par excellence’.

A 1970 batch IPS officer wrote, “[Marwah] reconstructed and transformed the Delhi Police out of shambles into a police force to be reckoned with. He not only converted this completely demoralized and devastated force into a confident service-oriented force befitting India’s capital city but also changed it into a professional organization.”

While Marwah– as per conventional career metrics – went on to bigger and better things like the governorship of Manipur, Mizoram and Jharkhand – it is his work as head of Delhi Police that is the reason most police officers put him on a pedestal. This is ironic, since his stint as police commissioner ought to have marred his reputation beyond repair in any society that cares about professional policing, not to speak about democracy and the rule of law.

Marwah knew the enormity of his professional responsibilities and the political climate of Delhi when he took the baton as Delhi police chief. Within a few kilometres of parliament house, an officially estimated 2,733 Sikhs – in reality many, many more – were murdered by rampaging mobs over four days in November 1984.

Also Read: Delhi HC: ‘1984 Massacre a Crime Against Humanity, India Must Plug Legal Loopholes’

The butchery took place with the direct or indirect connivance of the police. This has been well documented by many

S.C. Tandon was Delhi police chief when Delhi burnt under his nose, and the noses of the home minister, Narasimha Rao, and prime minister of the day, Rajiv Gandhi.

After the riots, Rajiv had the audacity to say at a public gathering: “We must remember Indiraji. We must remember why her assassination happened. We must remember who could be the people behind this. When Indira’s assassination happened, there were riots in the country. We know that the hearts of the Indian people were full of anger and that for a few days people felt India was shaking. When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.”

Rajiv removed Tandon within days of the riots and airlifted S.S. Jog from Bombay (as it was then called) and made him Delhi police chief. Jog tried his best to stay loyal to Rajiv’s political enterprise. Rajiv sent him back within six months and Jog became the police chief in Maharashtra after his ghar wapsi. Rajiv’s Congress party was in power in Maharashtra.

Then, Rajiv handpicked Marwah.

Right before he became Delhi Police chief, Marwah headed a commission that was tasked by Rajiv’s government with enquiring into the role of the police during the riots. Rajiv’s act of appointing an enquiry commission was actually a ploy to hoodwink the opposition leaders who demanded a full-fledged judicial enquiry into what the government machinery – Delhi police included – did (and refused to do) when some Congress leaders and their goons killed and maimed tens of hundreds of innocent Sikhs. As Marwah was completing his inquiry in mid-1985, he was abruptly directed not to proceed further. The Marwah Commission records were appropriated by Rajiv’s government, and most (except for Marwah’s handwritten notes) were later given to the Ranganath Misra Commission.

Also Read: Thirty-Five Years On, Sikh Survivors of India’s Deadliest Massacre Await Justice

Twenty-nine years later, on the 30th anniversary of the massacre, Marwah would go on to recall that the Delhi Police had “played a shameful role” during the anti-Sikh violence. “During my inquiry, I went to the police stations in East and South Delhi and found that the police did not even go to the spot at the time of the clashes. There were records which proved the same. I took those records with me and wrote my report according to that… Ideally, there should have been legal action against the police officers found guilty of not performing their duty, but it was the other way round. A man who was trying to do his job was stopped mid-way…”

Why these words of lament from a man selected to head Delhi Police within six months of the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres, and who had a stable tenure of three long years? Knowing what he knew then about the role of the police, there couldn’t have been an officer better placed than he to use all the administrative, investigative and legal authority at his disposal to root out these rotten elements from the police force and prosecute them along with all others who had been involved in the genocidal violence against the Sikhs.

Yet this ‘police Titan’ did nothing of the sort.

As police chief, he supervised and monitored the ‘investigation’ of hundreds of FIRs (First Information Reports) that were registered – before and during his tenure – related to murder, rape and arson. Marwah’s professional credentials can be evaluated be examining the quality of these investigations and what happened to the cases brought to court. How shabbily the anti-riots cell of the Delhi police probed these FIRs speaks a lot about how Marwah did his job. No police chief can claim immunity from vicarious liability – a strict secondary liability that arises from the responsibility of the superior for the acts of their subordinates.

Of the 587 original FIRs registered (as per the Nanavati Commission), only 25 cases resulted in conviction, of which only 12 are murder cases.

What is the exact contribution of Marwah’s three years as police chief in the final outcome of the cases that were registered before and during his tenure? How many criminal complaints lodged by hundreds of victims of riots and their blood relatives were stonewalled and not registered as FIRs) by the Station House Officers (SHOs) under his command?

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

How consistently and effectively the SHOs of scores of police stations in the national capital under Marwah’s legal and operational control and command kept refusing the registration of FIRs related to the massacre is a matter of public record. Under Marwah’s nose, the Delhi police attempted to destroy evidence of its involvement by refusing to record FIRs. The Delhi high court, delivering its verdict in a riot-related case in 2009, said, ‘Though we boast of being the world’s largest democracy and Delhi being its national capital, the sheer mention of the incidents of 1984 anti-Sikh riots in general and the role played by Delhi Police and state machinery in particular makes our heads hang in shame in the eyes of the world polity.’

What exactly is it that Marwah did to punish the senior police officers – some from the IPS and others of SP and DySP ranks of Delhi police – accused of indifference, negligence and ‘I was not there on the spot when the crime took place’ excuses?  In its findings, the Ranganath Misra commission did in fact acknowledge that many of the victims testifying before it had received threats from the local police. Marwah was the police chief at the time when his officers were being investigated for their role in the killings and when they were investigating cases registered in connection with the ant-Sikh violence. What did he do to bring those culprits in uniform to justice? What did he do to punish senior police officers who played with their radio sets when Rajiv Gandhi’s party men burnt human beings in broad daylight? What did Marwah do to ensure that the big fish did not get away scot-free?

Right after Marwah’s stint as Delhi police chief (April 1985 to April 1988), Rajiv Gandhi made him director general of the National Security Guard (1988-90) and gave him the Padma Shri in 1989. Did Rajiv bestow so much love on him for his professional integrity or for having been instrumental in shielding the senior level politicians of the ruling party who organised riots and killed innocent citizens of this country in the national capital just because they happened to be Sikhs?

IPS officers can keep celebrating Marwah’s legacy for his anti-terrorism domain expertise and academic credentials. But they would do well to remember these questions. Why did he fail to put his foot down and make his presence count in the legal-organisational scheme of things in those three years? Bad police officers who helped the politicians and their goons kill around 3,000 people went unpunished. FIRs were never registered. Investigations were never conducted. Overlooking this troubling legacy in the name of hero worship highlights the extent of the democratic deficit that has afflicted India’s police since Independence. Accountability is non-negotiable in a democracy. The 2002 Gujarat riots happened because police leaders like Ved Marwah couldn’t and wouldn’t make Delhi’s big political players and their loyal stooges in uniform pay a price for their crimes. Because politicians in power – irrespective of their party affiliations – know there is no dearth of pliant and pliable officers like him in the IPS.

Basant Rath is in the Indian Police Service and works in Jammu and Kashmir. The views expressed are personal.