Thirty four years after her husband and son were killed by a mob in attacks on Sikhs in Delhi on November 1, 1984, octogenarian Jagdish Kaur sat calmly on a pavement outside the Delhi High Court on Monday. An hour earlier, the High Court had given former Congress member of parliament Sajjan Kumar a life term for orchestrating the brutal murders over three decades ago, reversing a trial court judgement of 2013.

The violence followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. More than 3,000 people are estimated to have died in the attacks.

Wearing a cream-coloured sweater, Kaur helped herself up using a walking stick and headed towards a car some relatives had arranged for her. She expressed both contentment and dismay – contentment over Kumar’s conviction and dismay that another Congress leader, Kamal Nath, was being appointed the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, a state in which the Congress was elected to power on December 11. Nath, alleged to have been one of the men behind the riots that killed 2773 persons, was to take oath of office in a few hours.

“Sajjan Kumar is a murderer and so is Kamal Nath,” said Jagdish Kaur

Jagdish Kaur outside the Delhi High Court on Monday. Photo: Abhishek Dey

Kaur had lost her husband Kehar Singh and son Gurpreet Singh in the attacks. While Singh was employed in the electrical and mechanical engineers unit of the armed forces, his 18-year-old son was a college student. Over the last 34 years, Kaur had testified, with great consistency, before several courts and commissions about how her son and husband had been dragged out of their house on Delhi’s Shiv Mandir Marg. When her son tried to escape the mob, he was set on fire.

Soon after the Delhi High Court convicted Kumar, around a hundred members of the Sikh community gathered in New Delhi’s Man Singh road to protest against Nath’s appointment as chief minister.

Collusion and pattern

In its judgement on Monday, the Delhi High Court pointed out that there was deep collusion between the political establishment, the rioters and the police. The police initially refused to register cases. When this was eventually done, several disparate attacks were clubbed together under one first information report. No proper statements were taken from the complainants. As a result, in some of these cases, the first round of acquittals came as early as in 1986.

However, based on the recommendations of the Nanavati Commission. which was appointed in 2000 to investigate the violence, the Central Bureau of Investigation in 2005 had taken up four cases. Three of them named Congress leader Sajjan Kumar as a suspect. One of the cases was closed for lack of evidence in 2012. In another, Kumar has been identified by two prime witnesses as the main conspirator but the trial is still underway.

Monday’s case concerned the killing of five Sikhs in southwest Delhi’s Palam area on November 1 and 2, 1984. They were Kaur’s husband, her son and three of her cousins. During the violence, a gurudwara in Palam’s Raj Nagar locality was burnt down by a mob. The Sikhs were left defenseless after the police took away their kirpans, weapons they hold as part of their religious obligation. The case listed six accused including Sajjan Kumar, who is now 73 year old. The chargesheet in the case was filed in 2010. Three years later, the trial court convicted five of the six accused people, except Kumar.

While the trial court accepted Jagdish Kaur’s statements about the murder, it was not satisfied with her testimony that she heard Sajjan Kumar exhorting the mob to ensure that not a single Sikh survived in Delhi. “Sikh sala ek nahin bachna chahiye, jo Hindu bhai unko sharan deta hai, uska ghar bhi jala do aur unko bhi maro,” Kumar had said. No Sikh should survive. Hindus who give them refuge, burn their houses and kill them too.

The trial court found that this part of her statement alone was inconsistent from what she had said before the Nanavati Commission in 2002, when she did not name Kumar. It concluded that her court testimonies seemed to be based on hearsay. The Delhi High Court, assessing her statements, pointed out that she made her statement in Punjabi before the commission but Kumar’s name seemed to have slipped out of the document in the English translation.

The court said:

“As far as her affidavit before the Justice Ranganath Misra Commission is concerned, PW-1 stated that she had made the statement originally in Punjabi and that the contents were also recorded in Punjabi, but a person again came with an English translation and she signed it believing it was true. Obviously, the statement was not read out and explained to her. This explains how she claimed that she had named A-1 in this affidavit but when confronted, it is found absent.” 

Apart from Kumar, the Delhi High Court sentenced former MLAs Mahendra Yadav and Kishan Khokhar to 10 years’ imprisonment and upheld the life sentences of Balwan Khokhar, Bhagmal and Giridhari Lal.

Political patronage

The Delhi High Court has made scathing observations about how the attacks were unleashed on the Sikh community in 1984. Law and order broke down. The bench said:

“What happened in the aftermath of the assassination of Smt. Indira Gandhi was indeed carnage of unbelievable proportions in which over 2700 Sikhs were murdered in Delhi alone. In the present case, we are only concerned with five of such killings in one particular area, viz., Raj Nagar within the jurisdiction of PS Delhi Cantonment. The law and order machinery had clearly broken down and it was literally a “free for all” situation which persisted. The aftershocks of those atrocities are still being felt. 

The court said there was clear collusion between politicians and the police that facilitated the carnage. The police miserably failed to come to the aid of those attacked and there was clear pattern emerging in attacks on minorities across the country, exhibited in what transpired in the mass killings in Mumbai in 1993, in Gujarat in 2002 and in Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh in 2013.

The court added:

“Common to these mass crimes were the targeting of minorities and the attacks spearheaded by the dominant political actors being facilitated by the law enforcement agencies. The criminals responsible for the mass crimes have enjoyed political patronage and managed to evade prosecution and punishment. Bringing such criminals to justice poses a serious challenge to our legal system. As these appeals themselves demonstrate, decades pass by before they can be made answerable. This calls for strengthening the legal system. Neither “crimes against humanity” nor “genocide” is part of our domestic law of crime. This loophole needs to be addressed urgently.”

Special investigation team

Monday’s verdict is only a small step in the quest for justice, given the enormous number of persons killed in 1984.

In December 2014, the Narendra Modi government had formed a three-member Special Investigation Team to look into the attacks. The team had taken up files pertaining to 293 cases for re-investigation, said advocate H S Phoolka, one of the petitioners in the cases.

In August 2017, this special investigation team set up by the BJP-led government reportedly told the Supreme Court that it had decided to close as many as 199 cases. The Supreme Court then appointed a supervisory body comprising two retired Supreme Court judges to scrutinise the SIT’s decision.

However, Phoolka said that the SIT set up by the government did not make any progress in as many as 280 cases and has actually investigated only 13 of them. Out of 13, the special investigation team has so far filed chargesheet in five. The November 20 death sentence, the first such related to the 1984 riots, concerns one of the five chargesheet filed by the government-appointed SIT.

Kumar has been named as an accused in three of the 13 cases in which the this SIT is yet to file chargesheet, Phoolka said.

In January 2018, adhering to the recommendations of the two-member supervisory body, the Supreme Court appointed a fresh three-member SIT to investigate 186 cases in which the government appointed SIT could not make much headway. However, the new SIT is yet to start functioning as one of the members failed to join the investigation. His replacement is still awaited.