Twelve members of Darshan Kaur’s family were killed outside her home in India’s capital New Delhi in 1984. They were beaten with rods, doused with petrol and then burned alive.
Kaur is just one of thousands of Sikhs who saw loved ones die and their houses looted and burned over four terrible days as rampaging mobs reacted to the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31.
Over 3,000 members of the Sikh community were killed in the national capital as an inactive police force and administration looked on. Another 4,000 are estimated to have been killed in towns across India.
Depositions by victims and non-Sikh witnesses before numerous commissions of enquiry into the riots name several local leaders of Gandhi’s Congress party as leading mobs of rioters.
Witnesses say they saw trucks being loaded with rods and petrol, they saw people distributing voters’ lists that identified Sikhs and their addresses.
Felt like a refugee in my own country: Kushwant Singh
In his deposition to the Nanavati Commission in 2001, writer Khushwant Singh called it a pogrom. “I felt like a refugee in my country. In fact, I felt like a Jew in Nazi Germany,” Singh told the commission.
There have been nine commissions of enquiry into the events of 1984. In the 25 years since, just over 20 people have been convicted for the murders.
For most of this period, India has been governed by a Congress party government which has been accused of a cover-up, of protecting its leaders and sympathizers involved in the anti-Sikh riots.
Witnesses have been largely deemed unreliable by Indian courts hearing cases years after the events.
Journalists covering the horror have given lengthy depositions before the enquiry commissions on how the police failed to take action even after they were repeatedly alerted.
“It is widely accepted that it was an organized massacre,” says Harvinder Singh Phoolka, Delhi-based lawyer who has been fighting a long and frustrating battle for justice for the riot victims.
The first conviction for murder came nine years after the riots.
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“Evidence was systematically destroyed in the immediate aftermath. It is difficult to prove things now, so many years later. All we can hope for is a symbolic justice,” Phoolka says.
Some form of that symbolic justice came in 2005, when India’s first Sikh prime minister and Congress party leader, Manmohan Singh, apologised in Parliament for the events of 1984.
Sikhs feel the apology should have come much earlier. “It is the government’s duty to provide protection to its citizens. If it failed it must apologize. But an apology is not a substitute for law. There cannot be a different law for different people and different incidents,” Phoolka says.
Several senior Congress party leaders who allegedly led mobs became ministers in Congress party governments, among them the late H.K.L. Bhagat and Jagdish Tytler.
Senior police and bureaucrats accused of neglecting their duties have retired after due promotions.
But for hundreds of families the shadow of the riots can never fade away. Many migrated to Canada, Germany, Britain and the United States.
A widows’ colony
Others remain, a large number of them in Tilak Vihar in western Delhi, where hundreds of Sikh families were relocated after the riots in very basic housing provided by the government.
Most of the men in Tilak Vihar, often referred to as the Widows’ Colony, are in the age group 25 to 35. Older male members of most of these families were killed.
For the widowed women it has been an unending struggle to rebuild their lives. Most of their men ran small businesses. Overnight they were left with nothing. The compensation was meagre — 10,000 rupees (833 dollars) for each relation who had died, another 10,000 for a home destroyed.
The women were offered government jobs. But they had little education and were eligible for the most menial tasks with meagre salaries — like that of gardeners and cleaners. After two decades most of them are still far from achieving the quality of life they had before 1984.
Drug addiction is a major issue among the young men. Many traumatized children grew up unattended playing on the streets and grassless parks while their mothers tried to eke out a living.
But if the riots still cast a shadow over hundreds of Sikh families, it haunts the Congress party as well with a wide perception that justice has not been done.
Tytler and another accused, Sajjan Kumar, were forced to withdraw their candidature after protests when they were given party tickets to contest parliamentary elections from a Delhi constituency earlier in 2009.
There are only a handful of riot cases left in the courts. Phoolka and his team diligently fight them at every step. “The Sikh community is resilient. They have fought back from within the system and outside the system,” he says. The community comprises less than 2 per cent of India’s population of 1 billion.
Search for justice continues
The constant search for justice helped channel the Sikhs’ anger.
They formed groups, many of them supported by eminent non-Sikh citizens and jurists.
“We keep the issue alive and that contains too many people from going out of the system,” Phoolka says, adding that immediate and stern action against the rioters may well have prevented subsequent events like the Mumbai riots of 1992-93 and the one in Gujarat in 2002.
Does he get disheartened by the long haul? “But that is what they want. That we should give up.” Neither Phoolka nor the victims are ready to do that, yet.