‘The fight for justice for ’84 is bigger than just resolving a personal injury’

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Yet another powerful politician has got away, at least for now, from the law. On 30 April, Sajjan Kumar was acquitted, while five others were found guilty of their role in the brutal attacks on Sikhs in 1984.  Scanning the newspapers, it appears that the charges against Kumar were dropped on a technicality.  Those very witnesses, who were found to be entirely believable in the case of the other five, were found to be unconvincing in Kumar’s instance. I am neither a lawyer and nor do I have access to the legalities in this case, but what hits me like a knock on the head are the numbers.

Twenty-nine years.  Twenty-nine years of a patient and persistent struggle and keeping alive in memory the most horrific details for the sake of justice.  Details such as, Jagdish Kaur’s testimony about her husband, elder son and three cousins being burnt alive; and Nirpreet Kaur’s account of watching her father being murdered the same way. Law may have taken effect that day in court, 29 years later, but justice certainly did not.  Kumar could simply walk away from that court.  No remorse.  No apology.  The original injury was opened once again.

The other number I can’t believe is ‘five’. The trial was about the murder of five Sikh men. Five? I was in Delhi in 1984, lived through that time, and it is still broken up for me into painful fragments I can’t bring together to consider as a whole. This is in spite of the fact that we were a fortunate Sikh family. One of our neighbours, the Ghosh family– in fact, the outsiders in our middle-class post-partition Punjabi “refugee colony”- invited us, at risk to their own safety, into their home when we could hear the eerie shouts of the mob approaching. For some inexplicable reason, the mob did not turn into our own street.  Then there were friends who dropped in as soon as they could, finding a way to get there via roads where young men drunk with the power to kill, roamed.

But, I was to learn of the full depths of human cruelty upon starting to work in Farash Bazaar Camp, where the dazed, injured, torn survivors of the carnage in Trilokpuri were gathered. A makeshift camp in a war zone, it had, in the early days, no support from the administration but was run by all of us. Nagrik Ekta Manch had sprung up overnight. I remember an old Sikh doctor and his daughter-in-law tending to wounds. I remember going to the homes with the victims to see the condition they were in and to pick up what was valuable in what remained. The neighbours’ stares and their silence opened up these gulfs between us and them, as if the victims needed to be ashamed of what they had gone through. And then there were the children’s schools. Thinking that we would bring some normalcy by starting to teach the children, we went to their schools to ask for books. And the principals refused, saying they had to wait from instructions from above before they could give us books, because they did not want to expose the other children to terrorism. Tears and anger came finally when, one day, the authorities showed up and wanted us to clear out of the rooms so that they could be painted. The point of all this recollection is to say that you could not have been a Sikh in Delhi or a critically thinking person and not known that those on the rampage had the backing of the authorities. The police did not interfere or stop the rioters, the rioters knew where the Sikh homes were, Congress Party leaders were inciting mobs as well as abetting them, and the rioters were basically given the green light for three days. The PUCL-PUDR report, Who are the Guilty produced an excellent record of this collusion. So ‘five’ seems abysmally low for what happened then, with about 2,000 dead given as an estimate in Delhi alone. The fact that there is no official figure for the number of people dead speaks for itself. In other words, the number ‘five’ is a classic case of too little too late.

The PUCL-PUDR report recounts that when Sajjan Kumar visited the Mangolpuri police station, victims confronted him. When he visited the Punjabi Bagh camp, they refused to touch the food he had brought with him.  H K L Bhagat had come to Farash Bazaar and he too met with angry words. We stood together, shaking with grief and anger. He was there in front of us, hands folded, mumbling something and I felt this boiling rage, barely holding back from pushing him out of the camp gates. Here he was, pretending to be a benefactor amidst people whose lives he had helped destroy. Perhaps, for people like Bhagat and Kumar, the pain facing them means nothing; it is just collateral damage in a bid for power and climbing the political ladder. We will never know. But it is the stubbornness of those who have persisted in seeking justice for the victims of 1984 that restores our faith in humanity and in our future. The hope for justice is, perhaps, the most beautiful of human attributes. While it is nurtured by loyalty to the past, its eyes are on the future. People do not forget because they do not want what happened to them to happen to someone else. Ever again. And so, the fight for justice becomes bigger than resolving a personal injury. It turns into a question about what it means to be human itself and, quite simply, gives life meaning. The fight for justice for 1984 is also about Gujarat 2002 and what is at stake is quite simply, our future.

(The author is a Professor of Cinema Studies and Sociology at the Southern Illinois University)

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