The Supreme Court’s decision to entrust 186 anti-Sikh pogrom cases to a new Special Investigation Team demonstrates the superficiality of the NDA government’s promise to ensure delivery of “justice” for the victims and survivors of the 1984 carnage. The court’s directive proves that almost every political party has been complicit in ensuring that no justice is provided and the guilty are not punished under the law. While it has been convenient to target the Congress Party for the unmistakable role of several of its leaders in targeting the Sikhs in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the role of the Narendra Modi government has not come under adequate scrutiny. It must be pointed out that of the 33 years since the carnage, non-Congress governments have been in power for well over a decade.
Political parties and governments have been able to “get away” with this mainly due to the issue fading from public glare and not evoking the indignation that it did in the past. Barring Sikh organisations and the odd human rights and civil society groups, few even organise or participate in commemorative functions that now have ritual status every October-November. The BJP’s institutional absence from these events, much like the Congress, must be read alongside its decision to mark October 31 as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s birth anniversary while underplaying Indira Gandhi’s death anniversary. Over the past decade and a half, especially after charges of being complicit in the 2002 Gujarat riots were levelled against the party and some of its leaders, the BJP raked up the Congress’ involvement in the 1984 pogrom more aggressively than in the past. A perverse argument was inlaid in this campaign — that the 1984 carnage was more heinous than the events in 2002 and till justice was delivered in the former, raising the BJP’s, specifically Narendra Modi’s involvement, was indicative that he and the party were being specifically targeted. However, after it assumed office, the Modi government has been deficient in pursuing punishments for the perpetrators of the pogrom. The Modi government’s insufficiency on this count is not limited to seeking avenues of providing political justice but also ensuring that criminal prosecutions are swiftly concluded.
It is pertinent to recall that the NDA government appointed a three-member SIT in February 2015 just 48 hours after the most humiliating electoral defeat of Mr Modi’s career. Two months prior to this it enhanced compensation for Sikhs. In retrospect, the AAP government in its first 49-day stint in 2013 may have accomplished little except earning the moniker of fugitives, but its recommendation to form an SIT to probe the anti-Sikh riots built public pressure. But law and order was outside the state government’s mandate and the declaration was restricted to political posturing. Sikhs were not too impressed with the NDA’s decision to constitute the SIT. But it was expected that considerable headway towards justice would be made given that state politics was dominated by two parties bitterly opposed to the Congress, possibly the only party with reasons to prevent prosecutions.
However, the SIT’s promptness and transparency came into question within weeks of the team’s formation, and yet the government took no corrective action. Eventually fears of it being nothing but an eyewash came true when it closed 241 cases. The Supreme Court, after being petitioned, formed a supervisory committee comprising some of its former judges to examine whether the step was justified. The court has now recorded that “the SIT has not done further investigation in respect of 186 cases”, consequent to which it asked “a fresh SIT should be constituted for carrying on the further investigation”. While this development warrants a welcome, political pressure must be mounted to ask the government why the SIT it had appointed closed cases without even investigating these.
Quite often, the issue of justice for the 1984 victims is viewed exclusively from the point of view of likely political and electoral inconvenience for the Congress. But it would be foolhardy to view the Supreme Court’s directive solely from this perspective. In any case, the history of court-appointed SITs are not very encouraging as there is no knowing whose turn it would be this time to wave a “clean chit”. The primary problem is that investigations in almost all 1984 cases were bungled at the onset, and after more than three decades not much can be expected by going over these once again. Moreover, fresh investigations are unlikely to yield much except hazy memories because of demographic and topographic changes in the areas most affected by the violence. But this does not mean that procedures to secure criminal justice should be abandoned. However, its pursuit must be undertaken with understanding that eventually political justice backed by enabling victims and survivors to regain personal, social and professional proficiency is what will eventually “settle” this matter.
A beginning must be made by realising that our political institutions have failed. The remarkable decision of the Canadian Parliament in 2016 to apologise for the Komagata Maru incident more than a century ago provides an apt template for both the government and political parties. In that episode in 1914, a shipload comprising hundreds of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu passengers were denied entry to Canada. They were forced to return to British India, only to meet uncertainty and a violent fate. If no action is taken at this juncture, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s words in that extraordinary session will come back to haunt India’s future politicians: “Regrettably, the passage of time means that none are alive to hear our apology today.” It is time for the Indian Parliament to act, and for this all parties must discuss convening a joint session. They must be guided by the realisation that India needs to demonstrate collective shame and express repentance. This ballgame between warring political parties with SITs and inquiry commissions as instruments must end. That is the least respect that the victims and survivors of 1984 can be given by the nation’s political system.