On December 17, the same day that Congress leader Sajjan Kumar was convicted for his role in the 1984 anti-Sikh attacks, Kamal Nath was sworn in as chief minister of the newly formed Congress government in Madhya Pradesh. It was a telling juxtaposition. Kumar was handed a life sentence by the Delhi High Court after a legal battle that lasted decades. Nath had been questioned by the Nanavati Commission, which was established in 2000 to look into the attacks. He was let off for want of evidence but not exonerated by the commission. Allegations still linger: eyewitness accounts, including that of an Indian Express journalist reporting on the incident, speak of the leader being present when a mob attacked a gurudwara in Delhi. Kumar’s sentence breaks decades of political impunity. Nath’s appointment speaks of the distance still left to cover.
Nath has defended himself by saying that there is no case or FIR against him, that it is just the Bharatiya Janata Party digging up old charges. But that does not hold water. If any trial shows just how resilient the impunity guaranteed to politicians in this country is, it is the long ordeal that the victims of 1984 have faced in their quest for justic. The Nanavati Commission was formed 16 years after the mass murders. It submitted its report in 2005, over two decades later. Sajjan Kumar had already been acquitted in one of the 1984 cases in 2002 and would be acquitted once more by a trial court in 2013.
It was only the Central Bureau of Investigation’s probe, started at the instance of the Nanavati Commission, that kept the case against him alive. Jagdish Tytler, the other high-profile Congress leader named as an accused in several 1984 cases, still roams free. In the decades after the attacks, Kumar, Tytler and Nath were rehabilitated in the Congress, becoming members of Parliament and getting ministerial berths. Even though the Congress went on to apologise to the Sikh community for the 1984 attacks and appointed a Sikh prime minister, the party did not distance itself from those implicated in the carnage.
Of course, parties across the spectrum have much to answer for. The Delhi High Court, while handing down its judgment on Monday, mentioned Mumbai, 1993, Gujarat, 2002, Kandhamal, 2008, Muzaffarnagar, 2013 – mass killings in which a minority group was targeted, spearheaded or enabled by dominant political actors. One of the main criticisms of the Bharatiya Janata party government is that its leadership is tainted by the 2002 killings in Gujarat, starting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. A special investigation team that is widely believed to be compromised said it could find no actionable evidence against Modi. Maya Kodnani, a senior BJP leader convicted for her role in the killings, was acquitted earlier this year.
Over the last few years, the Congress has often targeted the BJP for its embrace of leaders with a history of violence and hate. It has questioned why so many cases against those close to power lost their way. And it has set itself up as the secular alternative to the BJP’s communal politics, which seems to have thrived on these charges of criminality. But unless the Congress looks within, and reassesses its own choice of leaders, it cannot be a credible counter to the BJP.