After Sajjan Kumar, Time to Hold the Police Accountable for Their Role in 1984 Massacre

India’s future as a democracy depends on a grim determination that such heinous will crimes never be forgotten, and the guilty never escape.

Within a few kilometres of the Parliament House in the national capital, an estimated 2,733 Sikhs – possibly more – were murdered by rampaging mobs over four days in November 1984. Four days of butchery with direct or indirect connivance of the police. Four days of authorities refusing to impose a curfew. Four days without the government of the day deploying the army. Rajiv Gandhi, the then prime minister, said at the time: “When a big tree falls, the Earth does shake a little”. There was no mainstream coverage of the massacre, let alone any on Doordarshan or Akashvani.

After 34 years, on December 17, the Delhi high court convicted Sajjan Kumar in the 1984 anti-Sikh massacre case. In convicting him, the high court overturned a lower court order that had acquitted the Congress leader in the case. The bench of Justices S. Muralidhar and Vinod Goel described the 1984 killings as “crimes against humanity” perpetrated by those who had “political patronage and were aided by an indifferent law enforcement agency”.

The Delhi high court also rapped the Delhi Police for “failing to prevent and control the violence” in the riots case. “The Delhi Police failed to register separate FIRs. There was nothing registered in daily diary by the police,” the court said.

What did the police and their leaders, the members of the IPS, do during those four days and how did they manage to help the perpetrators of the massacre escape with impunity for these 34 years?

Here are the specifics.

One, that the police had full knowledge of the carnage that swept Delhi from the morning of November 1 is documented in the form of FIRs lodged by the police themselves.

Two, on the morning of November 1, a radio order from Delhi Police headquarters instructed all Sikh police officers to “lay down their arms” and stand down. As they left police stations, unaware they were walking into a holocaust, ‘…some were murdered en route to their homes or later on with their families.’ Twenty-nine years later, Cobrapost aired ‘Chapter 84′, an investigation into the violence, where eight former Delhi police officers revealed ‘how they had acted on orders from above,’ implicating the Congress government of the time.

Also read: India’s Justice System Has Failed Victims of the 1984 Anti-Sikh Massacre

Three, as per witness accounts, the police stopped Sikhs from protecting themselves by taking away their weapons. They then allowed the mobs to attack. The police persuaded Sikhs out of hiding, and then stood back as they were murdered. As per one statement, a police officer was overheard saying, “You have 36 hours, do what you want.” Later, even the Delhi Fire Services complained the police had refused to escort them to fires.

Four, the ‘deployment’ of paramilitary forces of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Border Security Force (BSF) announced by the government were nowhere to be seen. “I have called CRPF and BSF control rooms every ten minutes”, said a duty officer at the Nizamuddin police station, “but each time I am told that there is nothing that can be done.”

Five, everything was done leisurely – the killing, the arson, the looting. As per an Outlook report:

“Liquor flowed like water, tea was served to the ‘vigilant’ police sitting on their stools, jokes were shared, there was a lot of laughter and glee, trucks came and went loaded with booty – dispatched unhurriedly to safe place – car loads of well-dressed men stopped for a while to supervise if things were going according to plan.”

Six, 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 a few officers, including one Maxwell Pereira, stood up for the victims. The rest of the top brass bowed to the party in power and grounded the police machinery to an administrative halt. Amod Kanth even got a gallantry award despite Ranganath Mishra Commission saying he was unfit to be a policeman.

Seven, at some places, the “police removed truckloads of dead bodies of Sikhs” in order to destroy evidence. Between midnight and 4 am on the morning of November 2, Tejinder Singh – a 37-year-old resident of Block 29 in Trilokpuri, Delhi’s worst-affected neighbourhood – who was attacked during the massacre, said, “police removed truckloads of the dead bodies of Sikhs of Blocks 30 and 32. I had seen eight such truckloads being taken by the police.”

Apart from Delhi police, the Congress Party got a few willing supporters in the judiciary. That Ranganath Mishra, then a sitting Supreme Court judge who wanted people to forget what had happened in 1984, went on to become the CJI in 1990 and, later, the first chairman of the National Human Rights Commission and then a member of parliament in Rajya Sabha from the Congress Party between 1998-2004, is a matter of national shame.

Also read: Thirty-Four Years On, Long Arm of the Law Finally Catches up With Sajjan Kumar

Is Sajjan Kumar the only politician in the history of independent India who has been instrumental in killings of masses on the streets? Is Congress the only political party that has blood on its hands? Is November 1984 the only instance of a party in power choosing to let the leashes off its followers and instructing law enforcement agencies to stand down?

The answer is no.

India’s policymakers need to make the police and police leaders accountable for their commissions and omissions.

One of the reasons behind these incidents occurring and resulting in deaths so frequently is that more often than not, the leaders of communal mobs go scot-free.

The Indian constitution is as much about making the state machinery – bureaucracy, police, army etc – accountable for protecting the fundamental rights of the citizens as about regularly conducting general elections. This accountability goes beyond the formal legal definition of the concept.

India’s future as a democracy depends on a grim determination that such heinous crimes will never be forgotten, and the guilty never escape. It is not so much the case of the vulnerabilities of a religious minority in an overwhelmingly Hindu state – the true significance of 1984 was to show how insecure an average Indian can be if he or she is identified as a part of a group of people ‘that needs to be taught a lesson’.

What happened to the Sikh community of Delhi and elsewhere in the country in November 1984 could happen to anyone else at any time. Gujarat 2002 riots are a case in point.

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