The shadow of 1984: Sajjan Kumar’s conviction

Sajjan Kumar’s conviction reignites hope of substantial justice for riot victims

December 18, 2018 12:04 am | Updated December 03, 2021 10:03 am IST

Five years ago, there wasn’t even a sliver of hope that any influential Congress leader would be brought to justice for the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. A trial court had acquitted former MP Sajjan Kumar, rejecting the testimony of witnesses who said he was seen instigating riots in the Raj Nagar area of Delhi Cantonment on November 1, 1984, in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. In reversing the acquittal and sentencing Kumar to imprisonment for the remainder of his life, the Delhi High Court has reignited hope for substantial justice. The 207-page judgment by a Division Bench, comprising Justice S. Muralidhar and Justice Vinod Goel, is proof, if any were needed, that the Delhi Police and its Riot Cell had failed to carry out a genuine investigation. From the deliberate failure to record any untoward incident in the station’s daily register to avoiding the examination of key witnesses, there is a long trail of evidence that points a damning finger at the police and the state machinery. This case is an example not only of the slowness of judicial processes but also of derailed investigations. It was only after the Central Bureau of Investigation entered the scene and revived this particular case related to the murder of five members of a Sikh family in 2005 — based on a recommendation by the Nanavati Commission — that the investigation made meaningful progress.

The entire CBI case turned on the testimony of Jagdish Kaur, who is described by the High Court as a “fearless and truthful witness”, and its corroboration by two others. Her deposition was sought to be impeached on the ground that she had not named Sajjan Kumar before the Ranganath Misra Commission. As it turned out, she may actually have done so, in Punjabi; the English version of her statement did not have it. In addition, the court found that Kumar had been named in nearly a dozen affidavits in 1985 itself, but none had been investigated. In one case, a prepared charge sheet had not been filed in court. Such was his influence that in 1990 when the CBI went to arrest him, the officers were held hostage until an anticipatory bail order was obtained, even as their vehicles were burnt by his supporters outside his house. The 73-year-old former strongman may now pin his hopes on an appeal to the Supreme Court, but there is little doubt that judicial decisions such as this reinforce the hope that political patronage, administrative complicity and plain muscle power cannot prevail over the truth all the time. The court has also flagged the need for a separate law for punishment for crimes against humanity and genocide, both seen so far as part of international law but rarely invoked in domestic crimes. Given the major communal flashpoints in recent history that have been cited by the court, the issue is worth positive consideration.

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