What was Kamal Nath, Congress’s new Punjab head, doing with mobs during the 1984 anti-Sikh riot?

In his book, Sanjay Suri recounts how the Congress leader appeared to be controlling the crowd outside Delhi’s Rakab Ganj Sahib gurudwara.

I wasn’t expecting to find Kamal Nath by the screaming crowd outside Rakab Ganj Sahib gurdwara, where two Sikhs had only just been burnt alive. But there he was, a little to a side, in bright white kurta-pajama, not far from the usual white Ambassador car with its mounted red light and mini flag post by the front bumper announcing its ministerial, or at least officially important, credentials.

The white of Kamal Nath’s kurta and pajama was standard for a Congress-I leader. Not exclusive to the Congress, of course, leaders do wear it as near-uniform on occasions where they wish to appear leader-like in public. That day the white no doubt doubled appropriately as mourning dress.

It was the afternoon of 1 November, Indira Gandhi had been assassinated the previous day. Her body lay for darshan in Teen Murti Bhavan close to Rakab Ganj gurdwara. Mourners had been filing past all morning crying “khoon ka badla khoon (blood for blood)”.

Rakab Ganj gurdwara was the nearest target from Teen Murti Bhavan where the cry for blood could be turned into action. There were certain to be Sikhs there, and there was the gurdwara itself to attack. At the gurdwara groups heading out from Teen Murti found the blood they had been crying for.

Police indicate a wave of attacks on the gurdwara, and that someone within had fired to try to scare the attackers away. The firing in the air caused no reported injury. This was before I reached; when I arrived on my scooter, the crowd was advancing menacingly again towards the gurdwara.

But that wasn’t the only shocking sight. What stunned me was that alongside the screaming men advancing upon the gurdwara stood a neat formation of policemen watching the crowd. And in this neat formation they continued to stand. Screaming men were advancing again and again towards the gurdwara – and the policemen just stood there, in a disciplined and very static column.

The policemen were from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). The additional commissioner of police for New Delhi range, Gautam Kaul, stood by the side of the policemen standing in two or three rows, one behind the other. Kaul stood as static as the policemen, carrying a bamboo riot shield to protect himself.

He was the second in command of policing in the area after the commissioner of police, the New Delhi range equivalent of Hukum Chand Jatav from Delhi range; the charge of these ‘ranges’ Delhi was divided into devolved to Kaul and Jatav from the police commissioner.

The sight of the still policemen assaulted my sense of what should be. The gurdwara was being targeted in the presence of a large force of disciplined spectators from the police and I didn’t think it should be so. The designer platoon made no move to stop these men advancing on the gurdwara, Kaul made no move to order them to do so.

Within minutes of my arrival, some from the crowd rushed down the road again towards the gurdwara. Gautam Kaul saw them come and scampered to a side. By “scamper” I mean a sort of sprint that lasted just a few steps. Those steps he took remarkably rapidly for a fairly senior person; I’d never seen Kaul run before.

I felt embarrassed for him, and I can recall that feeling of embarrassment distinctly, for some reason it has remained for me an enduring experience of 1984. Here was an officer who had the command of a police force by his side. In the face of an advancing move by a murderous crowd, he issued no orders to the police, he ducked and ran.

Kaul later denied this; of course he would. Put to it, he could no doubt line up a neat formation of witnesses from the CRPF to “confirm” the “denial”. And who among that crowd would come up ever to say they saw the police officer in charge duck to a side the moment they took some steps forward? None of this silence alters the fact that I saw what I saw.

And Kamal Nath? My reporting from Rakab Ganj that day, and the affidavits I filed before the Misra and later the Nanavati commissions of inquiry seem to have pleased no one. I was told by lawyers speaking up for Sikhs that my affidavit was not “very strong” or “very clear”, that it was not good enough to “nail” Kamal Nath, that I had been wishy-washy.

On the Congress side, I was told I had made allegations against Kamal Nath that I could not substantiate. The Nanavati Commission noted that my affidavit had not been “very clear”.

I found these complaints and counter-complaints disappointing, and not because they took a position critical of my submission. I had turned up at Rakab Ganj as the beat crime reporter of The Indian Express, I was out in the city to cover events as far as information, time, and my scooter could take me.

I had no idea before I turned up that I would run into Kamal Nath, or Gautam Kaul, or anyone else. I have neither friendship nor friction with Kamal Nath, or with Gautam Kaul. My responsibility was to report fairly what I saw, and not tailor that to fit one set of interests or another. I didn’t go there to “nail” Kamal Nath, I wasn’t out there to defend him.

Did I see Kamal Nath physically and obviously leading a mob, commanding them to kill Sikhs? No, I did not. If to that extent the affidavit was “weak”, so it was and so be it. But it is just as true that what I had seen raised disturbing questions about just what Kamal Nath was doing there. These were questions the commissions of inquiry did not probe at any length.

What I did see then was that when the crowd surged forward at one point, Kamal Nath had only to gesture lightly, and they held back. Does that fact exonerate Kamal Nath? Because, on the face of it, he had restrained the crowd, hadn’t he? By way of some intervention he did at that point prevent the crowd advancing further towards the gurdwara.

Why did the crowd listen to him? Why, in a situation where a murderous bunch was advancing yet again, would the police continue to stand to a side (and the officer leading them duck to a side), and now watch the MP control that crowd?

Why did a word from the Congress MP become more effective than any move from the police? What was the relation between Kamal Nath and that crowd that he had only to raise his hand towards it and it held back?

Were these just people with no party connections who had seen an MP shoo them back, and promptly retreated because they held such innate respect for an MP, just any MP? They did not appear such a respectful lot.

They did not appear like a lot who had killed, who were now out to kill more, but would suddenly hold back because some MP had signalled to them to hold back, a signal they must obey because an MP is necessarily a leader, if not their particular leader.

It is not clear what exactly Kamal Nath was doing there – and he had been there awhile. All that time he was there, the crowds had stayed there, violently and aggressively.

Kamal Nath and that crowd had a connection; he signalled, they listened. And they were only likely to respond to him if they were from the Congress party and accepted him as their leader, not just any leader. I doubt they would have responded with that alacrity to an MP from, say, one of the communist parties.

Given the circumstances, that wasn’t surprising. Kamal Nath had come down from Teen Murti Bhavan, the crowd too had come from there, as the Kusum Lata Mittal report into policing failures categorically declares. That does not of itself add up to a conspiracy or to any inference that Kamal Nath had brought the crowd there from Teen Murti in order to attack the gurdwara.

But it does say that these were men from the Congress party, and that Kamal Nath, as I said in my affidavit then, had control over them.

Kamal Nath said later he was not leading the mob in any attack, that he had, on the contrary, only tried to control the situation. That defence itself betrays a connection. In the sense that he successfully restrained these men at some point and to some extent, he did control the situation.

Kamal Nath could control because he was in a position to control. Kamal Nath’s signal to the crowd, and their response to it, implied a right to instruct and a duty to respond. This understanding arose from a crowd owning a leader, and the leader the crowd.

Why was the controlling left to Kamal Nath? Was that not for the police to do? And if he was at the scene as only some responsible political leader, would it not be proper for him to do all he could to make sure that the police dealt with the situation?

Surely, dealing with that situation must mean quick and effective intervention to disperse the crowd? For the police to be doing what they must, and for the law to mean what it did, it was for Kamal Nath to do his bit to push the police to disperse that crowd.

Instead, he was there in direct communication with the crowd - with the police idle to a side. This was not just some ordinary crowd control situation. Murders had taken place there – committed by members of this very crowd.

If Kamal Nath was playing a role as responsible citizen and leader, he would have wanted later to follow up with the local police to ensure investigation and prosecution for the murders committed. We have seen no evidence he did that.

No one was ever caught and punished for those murders. To all appearances, Kamal Nath was controlling the situation in his own way. That was not the legal way.

In failing to push for police intervention to disperse those crowds, and to push for arrests (if pushing were needed where murders had been committed in the presence of the police), Kamal Nath may well have done something towards making more killings possible. Because these very men were left free to attack Sikhs and kill wherever they went from Rakab Ganj.

They left with the message that the police would not stop them. The crowd did finally go their way, and who could say where they headed. This was the afternoon of 1 November, the worst of the killings was to come that night.

I could not raise such questions about the implications of Kamal Nath’s signals in my affidavit. The stuff of the affidavit had necessarily to be the bare facts that I had witnessed, and I stayed within those limits.

A commission would want to know what I saw, not what I thought about what I saw. It would be well out of the scope of an affidavit to talk of implications; these would be for an inquiry officer or judge to take up. The bare facts had cast their shadows, and in those shadows lay disturbing and unanswered questions.

What did the police know about the crowd that they could stand back and decide to leave it in the hands of Kamal Nath? Indisputably, before their eyes, this was a Congress crowd. Just as indisputably, men from this crowd had killed two people, and were ready to advance to kill again.

For a police force to stand by watching all this was itself illegal. The stillness of the police was actionable. They cannot delegate policing over murder that takes place in their presence. It is outside of law for a police force to stand and watch a political leader make moves to exercise control that was for them to enforce.

A senior police officer later defended that inaction to me. He said the police had been tactful in letting Kamal Nath lead the crowd away; they had taken this course to defuse violent confrontation. But violent confrontation there had been already. I had never before known the police to ignore murders because it might be tactful to. Tact has its limits: it cannot include suspension of law and disregard of murders in police presence.

For how long and how far could they rely on Kamal Nath? Soon after waving the crowds back, Kamal Nath got into his car and left. Soon after, the crowd too began to fade away from the scene – and not because the police had pushed them away. That crowd killed no more that day – not at least at the Rakab Ganj gurdwara.

Excerpted with permission from 1984: The Anti-Sikh Violence and After, Sanjay Suri, HarperCollins India.

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This article was produced on behalf of Siemens by the marketing team and not by the editorial staff.