There is hardly anything to celebrate about the recent conviction of a senior Indian politician in the mass murder of innocent Sikhs in 1984.
Sajjan Kumar, a former member of Parliament belonging to the opposition and so-called secular Congress Party, was convicted in the Delhi High Court for complicity in the anti-Sikh massacre.
On December 17, Kumar was sentenced to life imprisonment but is seeking a stay on the verdict being imposed.
Thousands of Sikhs were murdered during the first week of November 1984 all over India following the assassination of the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards. They were enraged by a military invasion on the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in June that year.
Gandhi had ordered the army to flush out a handful of armed militants in the Golden Temple Complex in Amritsar. This came after peaceful agitation by the moderate Sikh leadership in Punjab for greater autonomy and concessions for the Sikh minority in the state. This movement later turned violent.
A spike in the killings of Hindus and critics of extremism culminated in the ill-conceived army attack that left many devotees dead and historic buildings inside the complex destroyed.
This outraged Sikhs, who felt that the action was preventable as alternative means, such as peaceful negotiations, could have been used to deal with the situation.
As a result of this controversial operation, two of Gandhi's bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, shot her in the garden of the prime minister's residence.
Justice delayed is justice denied
Activists belonging to Gandhi’s Congress party were later seen leading mobs that killed Sikhs systematically with the help of police to avenge the murder of their leader. Kumar was one of those high-profile leaders who were witnessed instigating the crowds in New Delhi, where close to 3,000 Sikhs were murdered.
Thirty-four years later, the Delhi High Court pronounced him guilty of conspiracy in murders and for creating enmity between Hindus and Sikhs. He had earlier been acquitted by a lower court.
Not only did the Delhi High Court overturn that verdict, it affirmed its belief in the witnesses, who stuck to their testimonies with courage and conviction. Among them were Jagdish Kaur, who lost her husband and a son, as well as three cousins, and Nirpreet Kaur, who lost her father.
Nevertheless, justice has hardly been done if we consider the quantum of punishment, the time it took to bring closure, and the intergenerational damage that this catastrophe has caused.
First of all, what Kumar and his colleagues did was no less than an act of terrorism.
Though Sikh extremists were dealt with firmly when the army was used to attack the Golden Temple Complex, the police machinery openly sided with the goons who went after Sikhs.
The army wasn’t pressed into service immediately when Sikhs needed it the most.
The Delhi High Court Judgement has proved beyond doubt that the police have been protecting Kumar for all these years by failing to register a case against him and even tampering with the evidence.
Details in the judgment suggest that the police either remained indifferent to the violence by refusing to protect the victims, or they shamelessly participated in the massacre. Contrast this against the extrajudicial murders of Sikh extremists by the police in the name of national security right under the patronage of the state.
It is well documented how police and security forces wiped out the Sikh militancy in Punjab by using excessive force and killing alleged extremists in staged shootouts.
Secondly, Kumar has been convicted after 34 years, whereas the assassins of Gandhi were convicted within four years.
While Beant Singh was shot to death immediately after the murder of Gandhi, Satwant Singh was hanged alongside conspirator Kehar Singh in 1989. That the entire Sikh community was punished is a different story.
Notably, Kehar Singh wasn’t directly involved in the assassination. He was the uncle of Beant Singh. It is believed that he provoked Beant Singh to murder her, though the evidence against him wasn’t conclusive.
Yet he was hanged for conspiracy. This was despite the fact that his guilt wasn’t sufficiently proven.
The question therefore arises that if Kehar Singh could be hanged for conspiracy, why did Kumar not also receive the death sentence?
This is not to suggest that I support death sentences. But I do want to question the double standards being applied in similar situations.
How come someone accused of conspiring in the murder of one political leader gets a death sentence whereas someone who masterminded mass murder gets life imprisonment?
Thirdly, for all these years the victims’ families have been forced to live in penury and many orphaned kids took to drugs or petty crime. The women who were raped during the violence hardly received any justice.
The social trauma resulted in broken homes, domestic violence, and substance abuse. No court of law can ever compensate for this.
Lastly, the massacre has fuelled more political violence. Some of those who survived were forced to join the ranks of militants. Nirpreet Kaur herself became part of an extremist group that wanted to establish a separate Sikh state.
She once told me during a radio interview that she wanted to avenge the death of her father and this is what prompted her to join a militant organization.
During her incarceration in New Delhi's Tihar Jail, she came under the influence of a senior jail police officer, Kiran Bedi, who tried to reform prisoners through a more humanistic approach. This changed the course of her life and once she was out, Kaur established an NGO to help the victims’ families.
Foundation laid in 1984 for future attacks on minorities
The ugly events of 1984 alienated Sikhs from the national mainstream and galvanized the movement for a separate Sikh homeland. Overseas, the Air India Flight 182 was bombed midair in June 1985—all 329 passengers and crew died in the blast.
The crime was blamed on Sikh separatists based in Canada. Some of those charged and later acquitted were deeply hurt by the developments of 1984.
The delay in justice for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres has further widened this gulf, as the movement for Sikh state refuses to die in Canada.
Kumar and his party, in particular, and the Indian state, in general, need to take some moral responsibility for the damage caused by Sikh militants. You cannot squarely blame them entirely for violence and extremism, when Congress officials created an atmosphere of hatred and animosity.
If that is not enough, the people abroad who ask for justice for what happened in 1984 are quickly labelled as separatists or extremists. Indian officials are themselves to be blamed for breeding violence by killing their own citizens in the streets of the national capital and elsewhere.
On top of that, the 1984 episode laid the foundation for the 2002 anti-Muslim massacre in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
Kumar’s party wants to run on a plank of secularism against the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 general election.
But Congress politicians must acknowledge that it was them who introduced an era of impunity to Indian politics by engineering the Sikh massacre.
Scores of Muslims were murdered across the state of Gujarat in 2002 following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. More than 50 passengers died in the incident, which was blamed on Muslim fundamentalists by the BJP.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was chief minister of Gujarat back then. Similar methods were applied to target Muslims all over the state as were used against Sikhs in 1984.
Many believe that had justice been done in 1984, the 2002 attacks wouldn’t have happened.
The legitimacy given to the anti-Sikh massacre because of the involvement of the state in 1984 gave the BJP an excuse to organize a similar pogrom in 2002.
Today under the BJP government, attacks on almost all religious minorities have grown. Like it or not, the process of turning India into a majoritarian state started in 1984. No amount of justice through courts can ever fix that.
Those who continue to trust the Indian system and its judiciary often give the rationale that wheels of justice are slow. They need to ask themselves: why is it so only for the minorities?
Kumar’s conviction is just another reminder that minorities in the world’s so-called largest democracy have never been treated with respect.