Repeated setbacks in the search for justice are prompting questions about poor support for riot victims
With the recent acquittal of Sajjan Kumar by a Delhi court which sent a wave of dismay among Sikhs in Punjab and across the world, the realisation has started to grow that the Sikh community as a whole, barring a few exceptions, has done little to lend a helping hand to those seeking justice for the 1984 riots.
The anger and frustration at repeated setbacks in courts is no less than the sense of collective shame that is beginning to pervade sections of the community at not being able to bring the key perpetrators to book. This is partly why the demand to reopen and investigate afresh the hundreds of cases that were closed due to lack of evidence is gaining resonance.
Until 2007, when the Central Bureau of Investigation filed the first closure report in a case against Jagdish Tytler stating that it could not contact any of the witnesses, the complainants were mostly fighting the cases on their own with very little resources or support. It is well known that many key witnesses were either purchased or coerced into giving contrived testimonies, often changing what they said, contributing to the perception in the courts that their statements were unreliable.
On Tuesday, when District and Sessions judge J.R. Aryan acquitted Sajjan Kumar, he did so on the ground that the prosecution’s star witness, Jagdish Kaur, had not named him in her statement before the Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission in 1985.
The 2007 setback in Tytler’s case however proved to be a watershed in the legal battles of the 1984 riot victims. For the first time it drew the attention of a group of U.S.-based Sikh lawyers to what was happening here. Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a New York-based attorney, who later formed the Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), helped trace Jasbir Singh in the U.S, one of the witnesses who the CBI said could not be traced.
Another witness, Surinder Singh, who had resiled from his previous statement before the Nanavati Commission, was also located and persuaded to depose again. The CBI sent a team to the U.S. to record their statements, but later told the court that they could not be relied upon because of inconsistencies. Similarly, 17 other witnesses were located by the combined efforts of the SFJ, H.S. Phoolka, the Delhi-based lawyer who has taken up the cases of the riot victims, and Navkiran Singh, a Chandigarh-based human rights lawyer.
It took an appeal by the SFJ for the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) to offer protection for these witnesses. Surinder Singh who had served as a granthi in several Delhi gurdwaras (he died a couple of years ago), told this correspondent in 2008 that for years, he had lived in fear of goons who used to harass him for implicating Tytler. In 2008, after the CBI recorded his statement afresh on the killing of three Sikhs outside Gurudwara Pul Bangash on November 1, 1984, he was a terrified man, unwilling to return to Delhi and take up his old job.
Today, the overwhelming sentiment in Punjab is that in the face of a hostile Congress, it was the responsibility of the Sikh political and religious leadership to motivate and help the victims firm up the cases. “This was never done. They always played politics with the issue. If it was the pro-Congress Sarna brothers heading the Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Committee who sided with the Congress and openly intimidated the witnesses, in Punjab, the Akalis only paid lip service because the Delhi Sikhs who suffered the most were not its vote bank,” says Gurpreet Singh of the International Sikh Confederation, an umbrella organisation of Sikh religious and social groups.
It was the small group of Mr. Phoolka, Navkiran Singh and the SFJ that brought to light as late as 2011 the deaths of 51 Sikhs in Haryana during the riots, including the destruction of the village of Hondh Chillar. A fact finding committee of the SFJ found that an FIR registered by the sarpanch after 23 Sikhs of the village were killed and their houses burnt down was never investigated properly. Through an RTI query, they also discovered that there was violence in nine out of Haryana’s 19 districts. Trials were being conducted in only 36 of the 65 cases registered while 29 cases had been cancelled. The activists then moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court and have succeeded in getting a commission of inquiry appointed into the killings in Haryana.
Says Navkiran Singh: “It is unfortunate that the biggest setback to the victims has been the apathy of the Sikh community itself. The well-off Sikhs in Delhi joined hands with the Congress to feather their nests and left the poorer victims to fend for themselves.”
He quotes the example of Badal Singh, who died in the rioting for which Jagdish Tytler was booked. “Badal Singh had run into the house of a rich Sikh to seek shelter, from where he was seized by the mob. That Sikh refused to become a witness.”
“Unlike the Sikhs in Punjab, who stood up against injustice and ensured that perpetrators of human rights violations during terrorism were convicted, nothing of the sort happened with the Sikhs of Delhi. The debate among this section even today is centred around getting compensation and not about getting the accused convicted,” he says.
For the first time, Navikran managed to obtain, again through the RTI, the status of 740 odd cases registered in Delhi in the days after the riots. He discovered that 324 cases had been closed as ‘untraced’; 403 were eventually sent for trial of which 335 ended in acquittal. The fate of 13 is unclear. Just a handful of cases now remain in the courts. Says Mr. Phoolka, “An SIT should be constituted to reopen the untraced cases, where enquiries were never done.”
The SFJ meanwhile is keeping up the pressure on Union Minister Kamal Nath and filed a criminal case against him in New York. It was dismissed last year, but it filed another one in Switzerland when Mr. Nath went to Davos in January. The SFJ ensures that his trips abroad are greeted with protests by Sikhs. The recent convictions of BJP leaders guilty in the Gujarat riots has given hope to Sikh organisations that even after almost three decades they may still be able to get justice.
As Navkiran Singh says, “If this had happened to the Sikhs in Punjab, they would have got justice by now. Though belated, even now if the community leaders raise the pitch and press for an SIT, we might be able to fix a few of the guilty.”