Acquitting Congress leader Sajjan Kumar in the 1984 riots case by giving him the benefit of doubt, additional sessions judge JR Aryan said, “Jagdish Kaur’s testimony [was] not acceptable and believable.” His verdict questioned why Kaur — who lost her husband, son and three cousins in the riots — did not name Kumar earlier to the police or to the Justice Ranganath Commission. Kaur’s explanation is that while the killings were happening, she ran to the police for help and they refused to budge. She no longer trusted the police. The verdict described the silence of the Delhi Police as a “serious lapse”.
By official count, Delhi witnessed the death of 2,733 Sikhs in 1984. There has not been a single conviction in 29 years. This is why this latest verdict fails to surprise, but remains deeply disappointing. In any civil society, justice should not only be done, but it should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done. We know the acquitted politician has powerful connections. We know the police were complicit in the riots and destroyed the evidence. The more we practise this culture of patronage, the more our society becomes one in which the corrupt, the criminals, the rapists can plunder us with impunity. When the same legal system sends Balwant Singh Rajoana and Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar to the gallows and hangs Indira Gandhi’s assassins, it enables aspersions to be cast that it is partisan. It reaffirms one of the compelling reasons for the emotional tug of Khalistan: Sikhs are disenchanted with India. Who can blame them?
The victims of the riots continue to struggle with a system that has repeatedly betrayed them; but what are the ripples within the Sikh community when such verdicts are passed? After 1984 and the years of the ‘Punjab troubles’, many Sikhs abandoned India. They emigrated through legal and illegal means and severed their ‘social contract’ with India. Having judged India to be unable to ensure their life and liberty, migrant Sikh communities, particularly in the UK and Canada, openly protest for Rajoana and Bhullar, talk about how the Sikhs in India are discriminated against, how unjust the Indian justice system remains. They keep the idea of Khalistan alive. The Internet is full of videos and writings showcasing the real or perceived horrors the Sikh community has faced in the past few decades. To those who stayed behind in India, these arguments can appear valid when a Sajjan Kumar is let off or yet another case fails to bring justice.
Last Sunday, the Sikhs protested to the prime minister. Punjab comes to a boil every time a Rajoana or a Bhullar is invoked; Bhindranwale stickers adorn car windshields and Gurdwara walls. The support for Khalistan enjoys a boost when Indira Gandhi’s assassins are honoured as the community’s martyrs at the Akal Takht or when the 1984 Operation Blue Star martyr’s memorial, Gurdwara Yadgar Shaheedan, is inaugurated next to the Golden Temple. We cannot deny this revival of Khalistan any longer, but do we want to test it? It is with great difficulty and at a high human cost that peace has returned to Punjab.
The riots in Nellie and the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi and other cities like Tata Nagar and Kanpur, in 1984 set a precedent the tremors of which the nation continues to feel every few years: Babri Masjid, Godhra, Kandhamal, Kokrajhar and many more smaller riots. Each riot shows us how the politicians control and misuse the courts and the police to safeguard their interests. It is time we realise that it is we, the people, who are this nation and that we cannot trust politicians to ensure that justice is delivered.
If we are to survive as a civil society, we have to learn to not view the Kumar case in isolation, as an issue of the Sikh community alone. This travesty of justice needs to be linked to other cases of riots in the country to keep the pressure on the courts. We need exemplary cases of rioters being given severe punishments so that it deters other rioters. India can ill afford to keep the Sikhs seething with anger and humiliation.