India today stands more divided by engineered communal hatred and normalised, valorised communal attacks by vigilante groups, openly supported by the ruling establishment, than ever since Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. At this moment, as the country approaches its midsummer general elections in 2019, the Indian National Congress is holding out a promise to restore harmony, peace and the rule of law if it is brought back to power.

But the credibility of this claim is eroded first by its silence in all the state elections it has fought about the grave dangers posed to India’s social fabric and, indeed, to its survival as a secular and humane country. It seems unwilling to publicly acknowledge the rising tide of hate that is submerging kindness and goodwill between people, and its resolve to frontally combat this. If it does not want to be seen openly defending the rights of the religious minorities to live as equal citizens protected equally by the state, then how can it be seen as decisively joining the battle to restore India to the pathways of its secular principles?

However, a much greater blow to its integrity as the defender of India’s secular constitutional values against the vicious majoritarian onslaughts to which it is exposed today is its morally indefensible decision earlier this month to install Kamal Nath as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. Even 34 years later, the soul-wounds inflicted by one of the largest, most gruesome communal massacres since the Partition riots, of around 3,000 Sikhs in the country’s Capital, have not healed. They cannot, without justice.

A building belonging to Sikhs burns in Daryaganj on November 2, 1984. Few could believe that the sprawling metropolis of Delhi in free India was capable of such unbounded cruelty. (Credit: AFP)

‘Seen in mob’

Sikh survivors of the 1984 carnage named several prominent leaders of the Congress who they claimed were physically present during the slaughter, leading the marauding mobs that butchered innocent Sikhs. Among them, HKL Bhagat is dead, Lalit Maken was killed in the summer of 1985, Jagdish Tytler has been politically side-lined, and Sajjan Kumar was convicted and punished with imprisonment until the end of his life on December 17. Nath, on the other hand, has been hand-picked by the Congress to lead one of the country’s largest states.

Monish Sanjay Suri, who at the time of the 1984 carnage was a staff reporter with The Indian Express, and Mukhtiar Singh, who lived in the quarters of the Gurdwara Rakab Ganj, testified to the Justice GT Nanavati Commission about Nath’s alleged role in violence outside the gurdwara. The Indian Express recounts that Mukhtiar Singh had reported that a mob attacked the gurdwara on November 1, 1984, for half an hour, with policemen standing by. He said an elderly Sikh man and his son were set on fire by the mob when he was persuading them against attacking the gurdwara. He claimed Nath and his Congress colleague Vasant Sathe “were seen in the mob”. Suri told the commission the mob that attacked the gurdwara was led by Nath, and that Nath “did not make any attempt to control the situation near the gurdwara”.

The commission, for its part, found the reply filed by Nath “vague”, that the evidence “discloses” he was “seen in the mob”, and that he had “not clearly stated” the time he went there and how long he remained there. But it concluded that in the “absence of better evidence it is not possible” to say that Nath had, in any manner, instigated the mob, or that he was involved in the attack on the gurdwara.

The defence of Kamal Nath’s selection by the Congress is vigorous and insistent: Nath was only charged with the crime of instigating mobs to kill Sikhs, he was never held guilty in a court of law. Nath himself claims he was absolved of any crime. But this is as thin a defence as maintaining that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is innocent of any role in enabling the 2002 communal massacre in Gujarat, when he was the state’s chief minister, because the Special Investigation Team absolved him of any guilt. The journalist and author Manoj Mitta has extensively documented many flaws and failings in this investigation that contributed to Modi’s “clean chit”.

Sajjan Kumar has been convicted and sentenced to life in prison – a rare and significant conclusion in a case of a communal crime. (Credit: IANS)

India’s judicial system has also singularly failed to punish people in political authority for their role in communal crimes. And not just in the 1984 massacre. A singular exception was the August 2012 judgement by special court judge Jyotsna Yagnik convicting a minister in the Modi cabinet in Gujarat, Maya Kodnani, of instigating and leading the mob that killed women, children and men in Naroda Patiya, a suburb of Ahmedabad, in the single biggest massacre in Gujarat in 2002. Kodnani was also, like Sajjan Kumar, awarded the punishment of spending the rest of her life in prison. But she was granted bail soon after Modi swept to power in 2014, and acquitted by the Gujarat High Court in April this year.

The conviction of Sajjan Kumar is, therefore, rare and significant. It is the outcome of an epic, brave and tireless battle for justice by a woman who saw Kumar lead a mob that killed her father and son. Kumar had been acquitted by the lower courts but the 1984 survivors finally got justice three and a half decades later from the Delhi High Court.

Lives in ruins

On the 30th anniversary of the carnage, the photographer Gauri Gill released a luminous, heartrending booklet of her photographs of the widows’ colony in Delhi’s Tilak Vihar, with testimonies, narratives and poetry. She wrote:

“There is a kind of silence around 1984, which may follow from an impossibility of comprehension of the violence, and the terrors of reliving it. Perhaps the stone-deaf silence that has been the State’s response to witness accounts makes the futility of summoning a voice stark.”

Gill recorded the voice of Ganga Kaur, who lost her husband, brother-in-law and four nephews in the carnage. Kaur declared, “Every time November returns, we remember. This history will only die with us.”

Journalist Nilanjana Roy spoke of “the official memory of 1984” as “a blank, erased slate”, of “wiped tapes where no voices speak… commission reports that nobody was to blame, nobody would be blamed”.

Writer Pradip Krishen added, “The important thing, surely, is to remember.” It is immoral to just “move on”, he said, “to gloss over the terror and coordinated cruelty”.

Roy recalled, “They had time to create their organised massacre. Time to buy chalk [to mark Sikh homes], to cyclostyle voters’ lists, to organise the necessary supplies. …The end product of this organisation, this careful, unspontaneous massacre, was bodies and blood and then, decades of amnesia and an unspooling list of things undone. FIRs [first information reports] that the police had not filed. Cases against politicians that never went through the courts. Eyewitness accounts blanked out and erased.”

Few could believe that the great sprawling metropolis of Delhi in free India was capable of such unbounded cruelty. Artist Shuddhabrata Sengupta is not alone when he says he has never forgiven this city. He recalled he was a school boy of 16 when he saw Sikh men burnt alive, and that this suddenly turned him into a man. He worked as a volunteer with traumatised children for many months.

Uma Chakravarti and Nandita Haksar wrote what remains the most truthful, unflinching account of this shameful organised massacre. Teachers like Mita Bose and home-makers like Jaya Shrivastava and Lalita Ramdas stepped out of their homes and colleges to run relief camps and document the massacre. They recall running house to house for donations of clothes and medicines. Some opened their purses, other slammed the doors on them, declaring, “They deserved this.”

In Gill’s book ring many voices of the widows and their children. Darshan Kaur recounted, “I have seen nothing of life. I have only cried. But still, you may have noticed, none of us is a beggar. I trekked 35 kilometres to work every day [to save money], but I have not begged.” Nothing had prepared these mostly unlettered working-class women to face the world alone. But they fought valiantly, often heroically, to raise their children and grandchildren, battling profound loss, memory and penury. Gopi Kaur was given a job as a water woman in Kailash Nagar. But “I never knew how to take a bus, had never stepped out of the house… I would first be dropped by my brother, then my son. In the bus I would go crazy, crying right up until Darya Ganj”.

Pappi Kaur was only 15 when 11 members of her family were killed and she hid under a heap of corpses to escape the mobs. Today, she lives by making electrical sockets. Manjit was just a month old when his father, grandfather and three uncles were all burned. His mother died of cancer, and he dropped out of school to work as a driver. Auto-rickshaw driver Gurdayal said, “My father and two brothers were both killed in the 1984 riots, and here I am, uneducated, trying my best to make ends meet.”

Many of their children, especially sons, now middle-aged men, could not cope with the memories of the brutal ways their fathers were killed, and fell into mental illness and drug addiction. Bhaggi Kaur, who lost her husband in 1984, now mourns her son who took an overdose of painkillers eight years ago. “Our lives lie in ruins, as do those of our children,” she lamented. “If we can see any hope in the far distance, it is that maybe our grandchildren will one day be able to see a little happiness.”

Sikh widows, holding portraits of Congress leaders and police officers allegedly involved in the 1984 violence, at a demonstration in Delhi in 2002. (Credit Raveendran / AFP)

It was Delhi’s deliberate amnesia and indifference to the lives mangled by that great frenzy of collective hate that paved the way for other massacres in other cities, including Bhagalpur, Bombay and Ahmedabad.

An undoing

Manmohan Singh was the first Indian prime minister to publicly apologise to the country’s citizens for a communal massacre. In 2005, he declared in Parliament” “I apologise not only to the Sikh community but to the whole nation, because what took place in 1984 is a negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our Constitution. I am not standing on any false prestige. On behalf of our government, on behalf of the entire people of this country, I bow my head in shame.”

This could have marked a new beginning. But once again, 13 years later, as his party seeks power to heal the divides that cleave the country, the sincerity of this regret by India’s oldest political party has been called into question by its selection as chief minister of a man still believed by Sikh victims to have led murdering mobs in 1984. The Congress, which fought the communal hatred that tore the nation apart in 1947, is indeed compromised when it chooses a person tainted by the charge of a role in the bloodbath of 1984, to lead the people of one of the country’s states in which the fragile social fabric is being torn apart.