Three events this week are proof of a slender but welcome tenacity in India’s body politic that we can never afford to lose. First, on 11 April, a sessions court reopened the case against Congress leader Jagdish Tytler for his culpability in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, even though the CBI has given him a clean chit twice. Second, Nitish Kumar rebuffed Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial ambition with high-octane criticism of his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, reinforcing his political unacceptability for many. And third, Zakia Jafri filed a protest petition at a magisterial court against the SIT’s closure report that had said there was no prosecutable evidence against Modi in the riots.
There are many who feel affronted with this dogged focus on things past. They would rather everyone just move on and forget. Modi’s defenders, of course, see a motivated campaign in those who resist him and their standard tactic on any debate on the 2002 riots is to bring up the events of 1984, hoping the brazen horror of one will silence the other.
The truth is, it’s an important comparison, and this is a good week to focus intensely on it. The bare facts of the 1984 pogrom are chilling. Close to 3,000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi alone and 28 years later, of the 147 police officers who were indicted for their role in the killings by various committees, not one — and this bears emphasis, not one — has been prosecuted. These officers were not merely negligent, they were evil. They systematically disarmed ordinary Sikhs and allowed rioters to roll over them with sword and fire. Some even took part. Many refused to register FIRs; they threatened eyewitnesses and forced them to sign affidavits favouring the police; they destroyed paper trails, manipulated evidence and reduced major offences to minor ones. One SHO told the Nanavati Commission that senior officers had ordered him to merge 115 complaints into one vague omnibus FIR so none of the complaints would stand scrutiny. The story of Shoorveer Singh Tyagi, SHO of Trilokpuri station, is starkly telling. Nearly 500 Sikhs were brutally killed on his watch. He was described as a “living shame” by several committees, but he was discharged by the court because the police refused to take the home ministry’s sanction to prosecute him. In 2005, he was promoted as assistant commissioner of police. Top cop Ved Marwah was asked to discontinue his probe on police lapses and was specifically instructed to destroy his handwritten notes.
The story of the three high-profile Congress leaders — HKL Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler — accused of leading or provoking mobs is even starker. In each of their cases, despite glaring evidence of their collusion and active participation in the riots, they have walked free for 28 years. Bhagat died before a chargesheet was even filed against him.
The comparison between Delhi 1984 and Gujarat 2002 is important not because one cancels the other but because they are so frighteningly similar. The same story of political culpability; the same brazen subversion of justice; the same refusal to look the crime in the eye.
It is precisely because the horrific crimes of 1984 were not brought to book that 2002 could happen with such sickening similarity and impunity. The argument, therefore, should not be to forget but to pursue with even greater fervor.
TEHELKA’s seminal 2007 exposé of the Gujarat riots has helped bring some justice to the victims of Naroda-Patiya (though vast swathes of that story still remain unattended). But those who revile TEHELKA for pursuing the story forget that in 2005, in a damning investigation, our reporters Ajmer Singh and Etmad Khan had also exposed the dark web of intimidation and enticement that had been used to make key witnesses against the three Congress leaders hostile. In each of these cases, the reporters caught key witnesses or family members on spy camera talking about the money and flats and threats that had made them retract or change their accounts.
In the end, despite the court’s move this week, 28 years may be too late to legally indict those culpable for the 1984 riots. But the moral pressure must remain. That is what has forced Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh to apologise for the blot of 1984, not just to Sikhs but the entire country because, as Singh put it, “what took place was a negation of the entire concept of nationhood enshrined in the Constitution”.
If Modi wants to take his place in history, events this week reinforces that he will have to begin with at least the very basics of a similar apology.