Journalist | Writer | Analyst
The Times of India
31 October 2014
When a Big Tree Fell
Today marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most infamous dates in modern Indian history, the day the Republic turned its back on an entire section of its people, abandoning them to genocidal mobs for four days of mass killing, rape, arson and loot.
The massacre of around 5,000 Indians of Sikh faith in the nights and days that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984 was not just a tragedy for Sikhs, a deep wound that may in the fullness of time close but will always cause them pain. It also was, and remains, a malignancy on the body politic of India, a lesion that touches and affects and sickens us all as its symptoms have appeared in other parts of the country from Maliana and Hashimpura to Bhagalpur, Bombay and Gujarat.
How might a clinical diagnostician describe the pathology of ‘November 1984’, as the massacre of Sikhs has come to be remembered?
First, the mobs which assembled in New Delhi, Kanpur, Bokaro and other north Indian cities had the political blessing and backing of the ruling party at the time, Congress. Since there was never a formal criminal investigation into this aspect, we cannot say for certain how the conspiracy was hatched and executed.
The involvement of senior Congress ministers and leaders like H K L Bhagat and Sajjan Kumar has been credibly alleged. However, the moral, political and even legal culpability of the highest levels, including Rajiv Gandhi who was prime minister at the time, may persuasively be inferred from their behaviour after the violence ended.
The fact that Rajiv did not want the massacre probed or investigated and was happy to let the guilty walk tells us their monstrous crime must have had his approval. The judicial commission he set up under Ranganath Mishra was a farce; subsequent commissions and committees established to probe various aspects of November 1984, such as the complicity of police, were either ineffective or had their recommendations brazenly cast aside. Many of the politicians named by survivors and independent citizens’ inquiries all prospered in Rajiv’s time and later.
Second, minorities had always been disproportionately affected by communal violence in independent India but unlike the ‘riots’ of earlier decades, there was no face-off between mobs this time. The November 1984 killings were the result of targeted, one-sided attacks on Sikhs by mobs that could not even summon the fig leaf of a prior or imminent attack on Hindus as a justification.
Third, the mobs operated with a certain amount of planning and precision. They appeared to have voter lists so as to identify individual Sikh homes. They had transport and fuel and arms, all of which was openly on display.
Fourth, the killings took place with the backing of police, which let the mobs go about their business with impunity, refused to offer any protection to the victims, and in some places actively prevented Sikhs from defending themselves. Once the violence ended, police complicity took on a different dimension: across the city, they refused to accept complaints or register First Information Reports. When cases were sometimes opened, police wrote them up and investigated them in a slipshod manner so that it would be impossible for a court to convict the accused.
Fifth, victims were left to look after themselves in relief camps set up by co-religionists and members of civil society, with state administration refusing to provide any assistance.
Sixth, there was no shortage of God-fearing, decent folk – “people like us” – who wilfully ignored the crimes which were committed all around, who found ways to rationalise and justify the violence, who did not see the leader in whom they reposed so much faith as tainted in any way by his moral and political responsibility for what had happened.
It does not take much imagination to recognise several or all of these symptoms in the communal killings that have followed since, especially Gujarat in 2002 and more recently Muzaffarnagar. As Santayana said, those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it.
True, the higher judiciary, which remained singularly unmoved by the gross violation of minority rights that November 1984 came to signify, has since been more mindful of its constitutional duties. And the media, too, which chose not to stay with that story, has learned some lessons of its own. Despite their greater vigilance, however, both of these players seem unable or unwilling to connect the dots and insist on basic legal reform that would end the political abuse of state power that lies at the heart of the worst massacres.
What India needs is reform that will make ministers and police officers legally liable for mass crimes like the communal killings of 1984 and 2002, or the ethnic cleansing of Pandits from Kashmir, which they fail to prevent despite being in a position to do so. The day police officers and politicians are jailed for standing by as innocent people are killed will be the day India can begin to exorcise the ghosts of November 1984.