Rakab Ganj Gurudwara, despite being across the street from Parliament House, was subjected to a prolonged siege in which its periphery was damaged, and two Sikhs were roasted alive. The attack on Rakab Ganj Gurudwara was also remarkable for the fact that it was probably the first, and so far, the only instance in the history of mass violence in India, where a political leader admitted to being on the spot. And such an instance ironically occurred in the immediate vicinity of India’s parliament.

The leader in question was Kamal Nath, who was at the time of the 1984 carnage, an up and coming Congress MP from Madhya Pradesh, and is now a cabinet minister holding a key economic portfolio in the Manmohan Singh government. In a siege that lasted over five hours, Kamal Nath is said to have been there for over two hours.

Given the strategic location of Rakab Ganj Gurudwara, Kamal Nath’s presence there was confirmed by two of the senior-most officers, Commissioner Subhash Tandan, and Additional Commissioner Guatam Kaul, as also by an independent source, The Indian Express reporter, Sanjay Suri.

This is more than could be said about any of the Congress MPs from Delhi, whether HKL Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar or Dharam Dass Shastri, as the charge of their complicity was based entirely on the testimony of victims...

That he [Nath] was there at all, for whatever reason, was extraordinary, given that the other Congress leaders were discreet enough not to hobnob with mobs in places where they were liable to be noticed by journalists...

Since Kamal Nath spent two hours in front of Rakab Ganj Gurudwara on November 1, The Indian Express reported the next day that he had led the mob. The inference of his complicity was no reflex action, as made clear by journalist, Sanjay Suri, in his report as also in his affidavit before the Misra Commission, and oral deposition before the Nanavati Commission. Suri found that Kamal Nath was “controlling the crowd” which he said was “looking to him for directions.” Though he could not vouch for what exactly Kamal Nath had told the crowd, Suri said that “some mobs had charged at the gurdwara” in the Congress leader’s presence. Equally significant, he testified that while all that drama was going on, the bodies of those Sikhs were “still burning on the roadside.”

Thus, the Rakab Ganj Gurdwara episode provided the first and perhaps the only contemporaneous report of a Congress leader’s involvement in the carnage. A day later, on November 3, The Statesman referred to Kamal Nath’s presence at Rakab Ganj while analysing the carnage: “Policemen criticised the role of politicians too. Several councillors, they alleged, interceded on behalf of violent mobs when policemen tried to stop arson. Officers wondered what Mr Kamal Nath was doing at Rakab Ganj.”

Such public exposure of Kamal Nath ensured that Tandan and Kaul had no option but to admit his presence at Rakab Ganj, in their reports, which were placed before the two judicial inquiries. Incidentally, Kaul disclosed that Kamal Nath had turned up at Rakab Ganj saying that he had been sent by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. And when Kamal Nath himself was served a notice by the Nanavati Commission almost two decades later, by when he had become commerce minister in the Manmohan Singh government, he too acknowledged his presence at the scene of crime. But Kamal Nath, of course, denied the allegations of journalist Sanjay Suri; and victim, Mukhtiar Singh, that he had led the mob or had any control over it.

The Nanavati Commission on its part held that Kamal Nath’s reply was “vague”. The Congress MP was unable to explain why he was in front of the gurdwara for about two hours, which, as the commission said, was “quite a long time”. The commission also found it “a little strange that he left the place abruptly without even contacting the police officers who had come there.” If he still escaped indictment, and the Manmohan Singh government averted a major embarrassment, they should consider themselves lucky.

Reversing a principle of accountability, the commission chose to limit the blame for the entire Rakab Ganj episode to the junior-most police officer on the spot, Sub-Inspector Hoshiar Singh, and his constables. The commission did not deign to explain how the buck stopped with the lowly sub-inspector, when the two senior-most officers of Delhi Police, Tandan and Kaul, were directly involved in an operation in which the siege went on for five hours, the gurdwara was damaged, and two Sikhs were killed, and yet, no action was taken against any member of the mob. But then, had it extended the responsibility to those senior officers, as was logically expected of it, the commission could not possibly have spared Kamal Nath either.

To be fair, the commission did not quite exonerate Kamal Nath. “In (the) absence of better evidence,” it said, “it is not possible for the commission to say that he had in any manner instigated the mob or that he was involved in the attack on the gurdwara.” In other words, it only gave him the benefit of the doubt. And it did so mainly on two grounds. Since he was called upon to explain his conduct at Rakab Ganj Gurdwara after a gap of about twenty years, the commission felt that “probably for that reason he was not able to give more details as regards when and how he went there and what he did”. But then, by that logic, the commission could well have let off other leaders too, which it did not. The likes of Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar cannot be blamed if they felt that the commerce minister got preferential treatment although the evidence against him was stronger.

The other major ground cited by the Nanavati Commission to let him off was, ironically, the very testimony that damned him the most: namely, the evidence adduced by journalist Sanjay Suri. The independent witness who corroborated the allegation of victims that Kamal Nath had led the mob at Rakabganj was also found to have said a thing or two in his favour. The commission held that it would “not be proper” to come to any conclusion against the MP since “Shri Suri has said that Shri Kamal Nath had tried to persuade the mob to disperse and the mob had retreated for some time.” That was, however, a selective reading of Suri’s evidence. He did say in his affidavit of 1985 that he had seen Kamal Nath keeping some of the members of the crowd “under some control” when they made “weak attempts” to enter the gurdwara. But the same affidavit disclosed that what he had seen outside the gurdwara was “a crowd of about 4,000 men led by Congress-I leader Kamal Nath.” Further, when he deposed orally in 2001 before the Nanavati Commission, Suri said that Kamal Nath “was controlling the crowd and the crowd was looking to him for directions” and that even in the leader’s presence “some mobs had charged at the gurdwara”.

On balance, there was enough evidence before the commission to recommend a CBI probe into his role. Having spent two hours with the mob in front of Rakabganj Gurdwara, having done nothing to help the two Sikhs lying in a critical condition, having allowed the mob and the police to carry on with their hostilities against the targeted community, Kamal Nath was clearly part of the problem, not the solution. The unanswered questions about his role in the Rakabganj Gurdwara episode might well hold the key to uncovering the high-level conspiracy behind the 1984 carnage.

Also see: What was Kamal Nath doing with mobs during the 1984 anti-Sikh riot?

Excerpted with permission from When A Tree Shook Delhi, Manoj Mitta and HS Phoolka, Roli Books.