The conviction of two rioters for their role in the 1984 anti-Sikh violence in Delhi marks a rare success in the long struggle to bring the perpetrators to justice. Of particular significance is that this case, relating to a mob attack on shop-keepers in Mahipalpur, was resurrected after being closed as ‘untraced’ in 1994. The attack with deadly weapons left two Sikhs dead and three wounded. The Central government’s decision in 2015 to form a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to reopen serious cases related to the 1984 riots has yielded results. Yashpal Singh, a goods transporter, has now been sentenced to death, and Naresh Sehrawat, the local postman when the mob attack took place, to life. The trial court has rightly brushed aside minor discrepancies in evidence and technical objections to the fresh investigation being taken up, and concluded that the testimony of key witnesses, who were themselves injured, was cogent and reliable. It is possible to argue that there is little justice, or even meaning, in securing the conviction of those who may have been sucked into the mob frenzy that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination. However, it cannot be forgotten that obtaining a conviction in instances of communal and sectarian riots is quite rare. Investigators and prosecutors seldom succeed in nailing political leaders and their key henchmen. Impunity for participants in pogroms has been the norm, and successful prosecution the rare exception. The last time a person involved in the anti-Sikh riots was sentenced to death was in 1996. But Kishori Lal, known as ‘the butcher of Trilokpuri’, managed to get his death sentence commuted to life.
Investigation into the 1984 riot cases has been severely hampered by the fact that large sections of the police connived with the rioters, who included Congress functionaries and supporters. The slow judicial process was made even more excruciating by manipulated investigation and shoddy prosecution. In this very case, a long-time Congress functionary, Jai Pal Singh, had been tried and acquitted by a magistrate’s court as early as in 1986. However, the witnesses who identified Naresh and Yashpal among the 800-odd rioters at Mahipalpur, had once again said Jai Pal Singh was a prominent participant in the attack. This is just one instance of how influential men have managed to evade the law. An appeal challenging the acquittal of Congress leader Sajjan Kumar is in the Delhi High Court. Apart from the cases that have been reopened by the government-appointed SIT, the Supreme Court constituted a team to investigate 186 cases. The latest verdict demonstrates that the efflux of years need not be an impediment to the project of securing justice. It offers a glimmer of hope for substantial justice despite the passage of 34 years.