Note: This article was first published on August 27, 2018 and is being republished on December 18, 2018 in light of the Delhi high court’s verdict finding Congress leader Sajjan Kumar guilty.
The only thing more shocking than Rahul Gandhi’s attempt to deny the involvement of the Congress party in the 1984 massacre of Sikhs is the cynicism with which so many of us speak of one of independent India’s most heinous crimes after being complicit in its cover up for 34 years.
Consider this. Despite the truth of the involvement of Congress leaders in the mass murder of citizens, the party won the largest number of seats in the Lok Sabha elections that were held barely four weeks later. Even if we assume “sympathy” over Indira Gandhi’s assassination trumped all basic considerations of humanity, the collective failure to recognise the need for justice has lasted much longer – and runs far deeper – than we would like to admit.
From 1985 to 1989, the media and the middle class provided uncritical adulation to Rajiv Gandhi. Remember, this was a prime minister who made light of the massacre with his crack about the earth shaking when a big tree falls and then employed every administrative and legal trick in the book to ensure there would be no effective criminal prosecution of the politicians, police officials and street thugs who had the blood of thousands on their hands. When Rajiv Gandhi’s public stock eventually fell, it was not because of his culpability for the 1984 massacres and the denial of justice which followed but because of the Bofors corruption scandal.
His rule was followed by V.P. Singh, who had the support of both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left, and then by Chandrashekhar. It is a matter of record that nothing substantial was done during these two years to punish those responsible for the massacre. The BJP, in any case, was more interested in fighting over something Babur had done in the 16th century to bother about a crime committed in more recent times.
In 1991, P.V. Narasimha Rao – who as Union home minister had presided over the November 1984 killings and subsequent cover-up – became prime minister, to be followed by H.D. Deve Gowda, Inder Gujral and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Manmohan Singh became prime minister in 2004 and Narendra Modi has led the country since 2014.
At various points, non-Congress prime ministers, especially Vajpayee and Modi, have paid lip-service to the idea of justice for 1984, only to end up appointing toothless and ineffective commissions and committees.
Enhanced relief packages – arbitarily designed to favour the victims of certain massacres as against others – are no substitute for the criminal prosecution of those involved.
It is worth asking why non-Congress governments have consistently failed to deliver justice despite the obvious political advantage this would yield.
The answer is simple. Because it would require attacking and dismantling the impunity granted to the police – and to supporters of the ruling dispensation – to commit crimes against the people without fear of legal sanction. What India needs is a doctrine of command responsibility – a concept well understood in international criminal law – but neither the Congress nor the BJP will ever risk such a provision on the statute books.
In the years since 1984, India has seen large-scale communal killings in Malliana and Hashimpura near Meerut (1987), Bhagalpur (1989), Bombay (1992-93), Gujarat (2002), Kokrajhar (2012) and Muzaffarnagar (2013). In all of these instances, the state’s failure to control the violence or arrest and prosecute the perpetrators after it was over is writ large.
Among these, the one incident which bears striking similarity to Delhi is Gujarat. The administrative and political technology that the Congress used after Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984 served as a direct inspiration for what the BJP did after 58 Hindu passengers were burned alive on February 27, 2002. The manner in which the legal cases were wilfully sabotaged by the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat was also a carbon copy of what the Delhi police did under Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao.
The only difference between the two massacres was the role played by the Supreme Court. After 1984, the highest court of the land remained a mute spectator to the denial of justice. But thanks to the role played by National Human Rights Commission in 2002, the Supreme Court not only got involved but actually took concrete steps to ensure the delivery of basic justice in at least the most high-profile of the massacre cases. The court, which had no faith in Modi as chief minister, did so by either transferring some cases outside the state or directly monitoring the progress of others.
The victims of November 1984, sadly, received no such help. The BJP and other parties continued to speak of the massacres, but only in order to score points over the Congress and not out of any commitment to delivering justice. Such is the BJP’s cynicism that its top leaders were happy to unveil a plaque at the Bangla sahib gurudwara in Delhi calling the mass killing of Sikhs a “Genocide” but as a government they now insist the G word does not apply.
If Rahul Gandhi were really serious about being in politics and about making a positive difference, he would stop repeating worn-out denials to a truth the whole of India knows. He would instead have the courage to say something along the following lines:
“Yes, the massacre of innocents happened when the Congress was in power. Yes, it happened while my father was prime minister, Yes, the Congress and its leaders – many of whom were involved in the violence – cannot escape the blame for this. Culpability cannot be limited to the guilt of someone being established in a court of law. When you are a leader and people are killed in large numbers on your watch, you cannot escape responsibility for failing to save lives. At the very least, you cannot escape blame for failing to deliver justice to the victims. It is because of this failure that innocent people have continued to fall victim to communal violence.
“Manmohan Singh apologised to the nation as prime minister but this did not satisfy the victims or the nation, nor could it. The time for an apology can only come after justice is done, after the guilty have been punished, and after we have ensured that such heinous crimes can no longer happen in our country. If only the media of this country had questioned my father when he was prime minister on what happened in 1984, things might have been different. Democracy can only survive and be strengthened if journalists have the right to ask questions to politicians and officials and fearlessly exercise that right. When the media fails to do its job, politicians will fail to do theirs.”
I doubt Rahul Gandhi will ever be able to make a speech like this, even though it would be in his political interest to do so. The moral compass he has inherited will warn him against moving in that direction. After all, Modi who has the same compass – and obtained it not through inheritance but by his own exertions –has done pretty well for himself.