“1984: thirty years after” by Dilip Simeon
October 31 2014 will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the carnage in Delhi. Despite the gravity of those events, we refuse to confront the failures of our institutions and significance of those events. It would appear that ‘might is right’ has become our only political principle. We should remember that the hateful language of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a major factor in the political scenario of the early 1980’s, also that the Congress-led central government shared responsibility for the communal climate.
The violence in Delhi in 1984 was a politically sponsored massacre of Sikh citizens because they belonged to the same community as the assassins of the Prime Minister. Many people believed that an entire community must carry responsibility for the crimes committed by some amongst them. Many were indifferent to the takeover of the streets by hooligans. I was a university lecturer. On 1 November, I joined a peace march in Lajpat Nagar. We saw trishul-carrying mobs, taxi drivers weeping in fear and burning gurdwaras. Smoke rose from various areas. I heard about students participating in the violence, and some teachers supporting it. I must add that some students sheltered Sikhs in their hostels.
Citizens set up the Nagrik Ekta Manch for relief work. I was sent to Trilokpuri to rescue a young widow in a middle-class locality. Its one Sikh house had been burned. My colleague and I, along with a constable, climbed up to the barsati. There we saw a young woman, her mother and two small children. When the infant saw the policeman’s lathi she burst into tears, whimpering “meri mummy ko mat maaro”. She had seen her grandfather and father being beaten and burnt to death. I shall never forget the tragedy of that moment.
On 24 November, 1984 some teachers organised a protest. About 5,000 people from all walks of life walked from Red Fort to Boat Club. Passers-by joined in. Our only slogans were the demand for justice. At places, counter-demonstrators on the roadside cursed us for being desh-drohi. I was stunned to see the hatred in their eyes. In their minds, murder was patriotic and the demand for justice was anti-national. The media blacked out our demonstration. Two weeks later an article in The Statesman stated that thousands of Sikhs had marched down Daryaganj demanding revenge. Irresponsible journalism can spread dangerous lies.
The Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan was founded in November 1984 by some activists from the relief camps. It demonstrated repeatedly for the guilty to be prosecuted. We learned of shadowy ‘Shakti Dals’ in east Delhi, formed by leaders implicated in the violence. We also heard about non-registration of FIRs, intimidation of witnesses and hypocritical behaviour by prosecutors. All this was related to the Ranganath Misra Commission of Inquiry, which we believed to be a cover-up operation.
On 6 February 1985, I attended the high court hearing of the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights’ appeal for an order directing the police to file FIRs. When the judge was given a copy of the report Who are the Guilty? he denounced civil liberties organisations. When PUDR president Gobinda Mukhoty reminded him that grave crimes had taken place and that police were bound to register cases, the judge refused, saying “there was a background to it”. His words appeared to justify the idea of collective retribution. Communal hatred was evident in his utterances. He was subsequently elevated to the Supreme Court.
In 1986, the SVA drafted an appeal to the National Integration Council for submission to political leaders. I requested a meeting with a senior BJP leader. The leader was very cordial, but when I tried to discuss the irrational character of campaigns around religious myths, he said, “Indians cannot be mobilised on economic issues”. This implied that the end justified the means. He also said that some of his colleagues had asked him not to ‘inflate’ the number of Sikhs killed. The BJP won two seats in the 1984 elections. Many people said that the ‘parivar’ had shifted its support to the Congress. For the record, RSS/BJP cadres were implicated in cases of arson, murder and dacoity by the Jain-Aggrawal Committee
Communal violence has been part of Indian politics for decades; but a state-enabled massacre led by the Congress party was unprecedented. No longer could we pretend that the politics of revenge was confined to India’s political margins. 1984 inaugurated the phenomenon of mainstream extremism and strengthened criminal elements in politics. Our society is at war with its own diversity. At the heart of the crisis is the breakdown of our justice system. A famous German philosopher has said that when justice perishes, human life loses its meaning. Thirty years after 1984, Indians have to decide whether the dream of development without justice and human dignity is a price worth paying for national glory.