Twenty-eight years ago in New Delhi, Kanpur and Bokaro, a murderous attack was launched against Indians of the Sikh faith by mobs organised and instigated by Congress politicians bent upon using the tragic assassination of Indira Gandhi as an occasion for political manipulation and gain. In the capital, the police stood mute witness to the killing of 2,733 Sikhs. That inaction and the failure to register cases or properly investigate those that were eventually filed are testimony to the official patronage the killings enjoyed. Rajiv Gandhi, who was Prime Minister at the time, made light of the pogrom, describing them as a reaction — “the earth always trembles when a big tree falls” — to the killing of his mother. Senior Congress leaders like H.K.L. Bhagat who were identified by survivors and eyewitnesses as instigators of the violence were rewarded with ministerial berths. A Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice Ranganath Mishra concluded, astonishingly, that the organised massacre was a spontaneous and “involuntary reaction” by ordinary citizens stricken by grief at Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. Subsequent commissions indicted the police for acts of commission and omission but the bitter reality is that the victims of the massacre are no closer to justice today than they were in 1984.
The issue at stake is not simply a moral one. The fact that the politicians and police officers responsible for 1984 not only escaped indictment but actually prospered had grave implications for minorities elsewhere in India. The riot system perfected by the Congress on the streets of Delhi was unveiled again in Bombay in 1993 and, finally, by the Bharatiya Janata Party government of Gujarat in 2002. The parallels between 1984 and 2002 are striking. Like Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘Newtonian’ logic, Chief Minister Narendra Modi described the killing of innocent Muslims in his State as a spontaneous reaction to the burning of Hindu train passengers at Godhra. BJP and sangh parivar activists led the mobs in various places and were rewarded, like Maya Kodnani, with plum jobs. The Gujarat police used the same tactics as their Delhi counterparts to ensure the criminal investigation of major riot cases went nowhere. The big difference between now and then, of course, is the vigilance of the Supreme Court, which intervened when it became apparent that Mr. Modi’s government was not going to provide justice. Difficult though it seems, therefore, judicial intervention is needed even at this late stage to punish the guilty. In the absence of justice, the least the country can do is build a fitting monument in Delhi to honour the memory of the victims. The government may frown on such an act of remembrance but future generations of Indians must never forget there was a time the state looked away while innocent citizens were killed in the very Capital of the Republic simply because of their religion.