In the latest episode of his Mann Ki Baat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalled the massacres of Sikhs in 1984 in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. For somebody who has a penchant to claim a first in anything he does, communal violence is one issue on which Modi actually followed precedents set by Rajiv Gandhi.

The precedent of being a prime minister with “blood on his hands”, the blood of innocent members of a minority community massacred on his watch.

The precedent of leading his party to an electoral victory for the first time in his career, whether at the state or national level, on the back of a massacre and a campaign designed to leverage it.

The precedent of being exonerated by a commission of inquiry, without even being summoned to answer the allegations against him.

For all these similarities, there is a major difference in the extent of evidence available in each case. Though the scale of Delhi 1984 was greater than Gujarat 2002, there is more damning evidence on the record against Modi than against Rajiv Gandhi. This is mainly because of the Supreme Court’s intervention in Gujarat 2002, leading to a wealth of testimonies and reports being recorded by a special investigation team on a complaint specifically about political and administrative complicity. Though the SIT ended up facilitating his elevation to the prime minister’s post, its farcical interrogation of Modi and a slew of contradictions between its conclusions and its own evidence have raised serious questions about his exoneration.

The performance of the two commissions of inquiry, set up by the respective governments, was more compromised as they made no pretence of putting the leader concerned in the witness box. Conscious as he was of this infirmity, Rajiv Gandhi did not allow the Justice Ranganath Misra Commission report to be discussed in Parliament after it had been tabled in 1987. The Justice GT Nanavati Commission report, which was submitted two years ago after a protracted 12-year probe, is yet to be tabled in the Gujarat Assembly, despite a statutory stipulation of doing it within six months. Thus, the whitewash by both commissions turned out to be apparently so indefensible that each government deviated from the norm in its own evasive way.

On the 32nd anniversary of the Delhi carnage, here’s an attempt to convey a sense of the errors of omission and commission that betrayed Rajiv Gandhi’s culpability, the vital aspects of the pogrom and its cover-up for which he escaped accountability in his lifetime, and the parallels between 1984 and 2002.

1. Monumental failure on the part of the police and Army leading to a slaughter in three days of 2,733 Sikhs, right in the capital of the country.
While unofficial estimates were higher, the official death toll announced three years later – 2,733 – was itself so staggering. A law and order breakdown of such mammoth proportions could not have occurred anywhere in the country, least of all in Delhi, without the collusion of the state machinery. The provocation for it was of course grave: the first ever assassination of a prime minister, on the morning of October 31, 1984. But the will to deal with its fallout was conspicuously absent.

The first stirrings of retaliatory violence began the same afternoon, the most audacious one being a mob attack on the cavalcade of President Zail Singh on the way to the All India Institute of Medical Science. The police did little to stop the rioting or take action against the assailants. The conduct of the police became more brazen after Rajiv Gandhi had been sworn in the same evening to succeed his deceased mother. They remained passive even when the rampaging mobs had turned murderous early next morning.

In the massacres that followed, the police in some localities openly served as accessories to the crime, by disarming Sikhs or firing at them or forcing them out of gurdwaras. Though the Army had been deployed in stages from the afternoon of November 1, it proved to be so ineffective that the jurisdiction of the Delhi Cantonment police station was among the worst affected areas in the capital. Irrespective of the forces involved, the Army or police, there was hardly any instance of uniformed personnel firing at mobs. And then, following Indira Gandhi’s cremation, the massacres ended suddenly on the afternoon of November 3, as if someone had turned off the tap. To put this in perspective, it may be recalled that the violence in Gujarat 2002 dragged on for almost three months, although it was not so one-sided and the incidence of police firing increased after the first three days.

2. At his first public meeting, Rajiv Gandhi justified the pogrom with his infamous tree metaphor
When a group clash at the Godhra railway station had led to the horrific train burning incident on the morning of February 27, 2002, Modi escalated the situation the same evening by calling it a terrorist act. Even after post-Godhra massacres targeting Muslims had taken place the next day at Gulberg Society and Naroda Patiya, with a much higher death toll, the peace appeal recorded by Modi at 6 pm for repeat telecast condemned only the killing of Hindus at Godhra.

Though Rajiv Gandhi had not made any such divisive statements during the Delhi carnage, he came up with a justification for it a fortnight later while addressing his first public meeting as prime minister. Likening the pogrom to the reverberations of the earth when a big tree had fallen, Rajiv Gandhi made no bones about his attempt to whip up a majoritarian frenzy, in what was the run-up to the Lok Sabha election. Throughout his speech near India Gate, Rajiv Gandhi did not bother to express even a token concern for the plight of the thousands of Sikhs who had just been orphaned, widowed, grievously injured or rendered homeless in the very city in which he was speaking.

3. During his election campaign, Rajiv Gandhi rejected the demand for an inquiry into the carnage saying it would reopen wounds
The disdain for Sikhs manifested by his tree metaphor did set the tone for the Congress party’s campaign in the Lok Sabha election held within two months of the Delhi carnage. But there were already less noticed signs of that disdain. The few assailants who had been arrested were all released on bail, while the Sikhs who had been rounded up for exercising their right to private defence continued to be incarcerated. Having registered an omnibus first information report against unknown persons for each of the localities where scores of Sikhs had been killed, the police stations everywhere refused to register cases against specific persons, especially if they were associated with the Congress party. The seeds of impunity were sown right then. When People's Union For Democratic Rights and People's Union For Civil Liberties had come up with a quick investigative report on the pogrom titled Who are the Guilty?, the Congress party brushed it aside as an anti-national activity. It was against this background that in his campaign speeches Rajiv Gandhi displayed no qualms in rejecting out of hand the persistent demand for a judicial inquiry into the Delhi pogrom. Saying it would reopen wounds and inflame passions, Rajiv Gandhi projected the inquiry demand as just another threat to India’s territorial integrity from the Sikh community.

4. Those facing allegations of engineering the violence were inducted into the Rajiv Gandhi government
On winning the 1984 election with a record majority, Rajiv Gandhi promoted the main Congress leader from Delhi, HKL Bhagat, to the Cabinet rank although his East Delhi constituency had seen the largest number of killings during the carnage. Another prominent leader from Delhi, Jagdish Tytler, made it to the government, as a junior minister, for the first time in his career.

A Gujarat parallel to this is Modi’s decision in 2007 to induct Maya Kodnani into his government, despite the incriminating evidence that had come to light in the form of the call data record of her mobile phone corroborating allegations of involvement in the Naroda Patiya massacre.

5. In January 1985, Parliament condoled the death of Indira Gandhi and Bhopal gas victims but ignored the victims of the Delhi carnage
Emboldened further by the electoral harvest reaped in December 1984 from the hate propaganda, the Rajiv Gandhi government took no notice of the victims while moving a resolution the following month in Parliament condoling Indira Gandhi’s death. The intent to disregard the suffering of the Sikh community became more glaring when the government also moved a resolution shortly thereafter condoling the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy. Given that Assembly elections were due in key states in March 1985, Rajiv Gandhi was clearly wary of sending out any signal that would disrupt what had served as a winning formula in the Lok Sabha election.

6. When Rajiv Gandhi finally appointed the Ranganath Misra Commission six months after the pogrom, it came as a political concession to reach an accord on Punjab
Indeed, it was only after the Congress party had won most of the Assembly elections in March 1985 did Rajiv Gandhi switch to governance mode with regard to the pogrom. Even then, his compulsion was the ongoing insurgency in Punjab, which had been aggravated by the Delhi carnage. Rajiv Gandhi was admittedly forced to drop his opposition to a judicial inquiry into the pogrom as the then Akali Dal chief, HS Longowal, had insisted on it as a precondition for talks on Punjab. The reluctance with which the Ranganath Misra Commission had been set up in April 1985 affected the integrity of the inquiry. Despite being headed by a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, the commission from the beginning was engaged in a blatant cover-up. Throwing transparency out of the window, it held all its proceedings in camera. Worse, when it examined a few state actors, the commission did so without informing the counsel for victims, let alone giving them an opportunity to cross-examine those crucial witnesses. (In another tell-tale sign around the same time, the government conferred gallantry awards in the context of the carnage on two police officers, for a shootout in which they had arrested a family of Sikhs firing in self-defence from their own home.) As for Rajiv Gandhi, he was spared the trouble of being called to the commission even for that secret deposition with a built-in immunity against any risk of being cross-examined.

Little wonder then that the report turned out to be a whitewash. Averting the predicament of defending such a travesty of fact-finding, Rajiv Gandhi did not allow any discussion on the report in Parliament when it had been tabled in February 1987. The current dispensation took opacity to a new level by sitting for the last two years on the report of the Nanavati Commission, which had avoided examining Modi despite repeated pleas by the counsel for victims. By contrast, in the inquiry ordered by the colonial government into the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, a multi member body including Indians grilled Gen Dyer in public and indicted him, leading to his resignation.

7. Manmohan Singh’s apology in Parliament in 2005 betrayed Rajiv Gandhi’s responsibility and set a benchmark for Modi
The head of the SIT that exonerated Modi was the very police officer who had been indicted for the security lapses leading to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination at Sriperumbudur. RK Raghavan owed the resurrection of his career to the Vajpayee government which made him the Central Bureau of Investigation director. In another historical irony, the retired judge picked by the Modi government to head the commission of inquiry into Gujarat 2002 was the very one who had already been appointed by the Vajpayee government to conduct a fresh probe into the Delhi pogrom. Unlike his Gujarat report, Nanavati’s Delhi report was duly made public. It fell to the Manmohan Singh government to table it in Parliament in August 2005. And, unlike the Misra report, the Nanavati report on the Delhi carnage was debated in Parliament. That was when Manmohan was forced by the outrage in Parliament to tender an apology, saying that what had taken place in 1984 was a “negation of the concept of nationhood”. Equally significant was this admission of his despite the repeated exoneration of Rajiv Gandhi: “We all know that we still do not know the truth, and the search must go on.” That was as close as he could get to admitting the cover-up by the Rajiv Gandhi regime in the immediate aftermath, when plenty of witnesses would have been available and their memories would have been fresh.

Despite the SIT and Nanavati inquiries, the truth about Gujarat 2002 is also not known. Following Manmohan Singh’s example, Modi would do well to apologise for the massacres of Muslims during his Gujarat stint. It may serve to bring down the communal temperature in the country.

Manoj Mitta co-authored When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath and authored The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra