Gurpreet Singh: Rajiv Gandhi is guilty—and nearly 35 years later, India's Congress party needs to admit this

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      On December 17, two very conflicting signals emanated from the world’s so-called largest democracy.  

      While the Delhi High Court pronounced one accused involved in the 1984 Sikh massacre guilty, another who's at the centre of similar allegations was sworn in as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh.

      Thousands of Sikhs were murdered all over India following the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards at her official residence in New Delhi on October 31, 1984. 

      The assassins were enraged at the army attack in June of that year on the Golden Temple complex—the holiest shrine of Sikhs. The controversial military operation was ordered by Gandhi to flush out a handful of religious extremists who had stockpiled arms inside the place of worship.

      Following her murder, activists belonging to Gandhi’s Congress party organized an anti-Sikh pogrom in different parts of the country. In New Delhi alone, close to 3,000 people died.

      Congress leaders were seen instigating mobs that were supplied with kerosene and tires to burn Sikh men alive. Sikh women were gang-raped during the violence. Their homes, businesses, and gurdwaras were burned.  

      While Sajjan Kumar was convicted and given a life sentence—after 34 years—for conspiracy in the murders and sacrilege of a Sikh temple, Kamal Nath wasn’t even charged. This in spite of the fact that both were seen at the trouble spots.

      Nath has now taken charge of chief minister’s office in Madhya Pradesh.

      Notably, the police that shamelessly connived with the mobs tried to shield all Congress leaders involved. They either refused to file criminal cases against senior politicians or tampered with evidence and testimonies. That is the reason, why it took so long for the courts to finally convict Kumar, whereas Nath remains unpunished.

      Long-time Congress politician Sajjan Kumar could spend the rest of his life in jail for his role in an anti-Sikh pogrom.
      NDTV screen shot

      Why did Rajiv Gandhi not intervene?

      But someone remains unindicted who is much taller in stature and position than these two individuals. 

      There is enough evidence available in public domain against the late Rajiv Gandhi, son of Indira Gandhi and who succeeded her as the prime minister. His complicity made it even more difficult to bring people like Kumar and Nath to justice.

      That explains why Rahul Gandhi, his son and the current Congress party leader, continues to be on then defensive whenever his party is grilled on the inconvenient issue of the 1984 massacres.

      That he refuses to acknowledge the party’s involvement in the massacre has to do with his own father's links to one of the worst massacres in post-British India. By admitting that, Rahul Gandhi would not only rupture the reputation of his father, but also the image of his party, which claims to be secular. This is often held up in contrast to the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).

      Recent developments have only made matter worse for Rahul Gandhi. Though Kumar has resigned from the party after his conviction in an attempt to save it from embarrassment, Nath’s appointment as the chief minister has eclipsed the “secular" image of the Congress.

      While it is obvious that Rahul Gandhi would never admit that his father was involved in crimes against humanity, the facts speak for themselves.

      Firstly, when Rajiv Gandhi went to see his mother at the hospital where she was admitted after being shot, low-intensity attacks on Sikhs had already begun. So much so, the car of the then turbaned Sikh president Zail Singh was vandalized. Rahul Gandhi did not show any leadership by standing up for innocent Sikhs being punished by the angry mobs.

      The most glaring instance of Gandhi’s approval of violence was the chanting of the slogan “blood for blood” in his presence by people who had come to pay last respects to Indira Gandhi as her body lay in state.

      This was something that was relayed live on the public broadcast and many people, including this writer, witnessed it on TV. There is no evidence that Gandhi did anything to stop such provocative sloganeering.

      While he was being sworn in as prime minister, Sikhs were being targeted by the goons of his party. He did not find time to press the paramilitary forces into service to stop the bloodshed.

      He never used the power of the prime minister’s office to save a minority community that needed the protection of the state. He never found time to go out and rescue citizens of his country from the mobs.

      It is well documented how his office remained unresponsive to calls made for assistance by the president and the then home minister who was in charge of law and order. 

      Zail Singh revealed in his autobiography that the PMO did not show any interest in stopping the violence when he approached it on behalf of Sikh citizens who had called him for help.

      Similarly, the then home minister, P.V. Narsimha Rao, failed to get any favourable response from the PMO when he called it after being approached by several activists for immediate intervention. The ultra-powerful PMO thus completely failed to act and save the country from such a disgrace.

      Former Indian president Zail Singh wrote that he tried without success to get the Indian prime minister's office to protect Sikhs in 1984.

      Targeting a minority won an election

      Rajiv Gandhi, being head of the nation throughout the first week of November 1984, clearly bears responsibility for what happened in New Delhi and elsewhere. 

      A few days later while addressing a big public meeting, he openly justified the anti-Sikh violence by saying that when a big tree falls, earth around it shakes a bit.

      Although he acknowledged that the assassination of his mother was followed by mayhem, he never condemned the killings of ordinary Sikhs. Notably, when he himself was assassinated by the Tamil separatists in 1991, there was no such violence directed against Tamils in India.

      His statement about a big tree falling wasn’t just an emotional outburst. It was aimed at covering up the fact that it wasn’t a natural reaction to his mother’s death, but a well-calculated mob attack against a particular community.

      In the general election that took place in December 1984, his party won with a huge majority in the parliament on the plank of national unity.

      Those involved in the Sikh massacre received massive support from the electorate. Rajiv Gandhi succeeded in polarizing the Hindu majority. It is well known that the BJP vote bank also shifted to the Congress.

      We don’t need to be rocket scientists to understand why the BJP only got two seats in the parliament. After all, several BJP supporters also participated in the massacre.   

      Those who played a significant role in the violence were rewarded with ministerial positions; leaving aside the question of punishing them and the police officers complicit in the carnage.

      It is pertinent to mention that one of the senior police officers who remained indifferent to the mobs gathered outside a historic gurdwara to target the Sikh worshippers was Gautam Kaul, a cousin of Rajiv Gandhi. It was the same location where Nath was allegedly seen hanging around a mob that killed two Sikhs. 

      Another cousin of Rajiv Gandhi was instrumental in allegedly gaining access to the voters’ list of Sikhs, which was allegedly used by mobs to identify their homes during the violence.

      Initially, Rajiv Gandhi remained adamantly resistant to demands for an inquiry into the massacre. He declined to order one, claiming that this would disturb peace.

      Nevertheless, his government was forced to constitute a first commission of inquiry into the anti-Sikh violence under former chief justice Ranganath Misra as part of a political understanding with the moderate Sikh leadership of Punjab to end the Sikh militancy in that state.

      Misra, who cleared the Congress party and the government of wrongdoing, was later rewarded with a seat in the upper house of parliament.

      A retired police officer from Punjab, Julio Ribeiro, writes in his memoir that as a security adviser, he suggested to Rajiv Gandhi that he must take action against some key Congress leaders involved in the massacre to win over the confidence of the Sikh community and defeat the militancy.

      Ribeiro claims that when he did this, he was scolded by an infuriated prime minister.

      In one media interview, Rajiv Gandhi also tried to blame Sikhs for the violence, as he said that most killings took place in areas where the Sikhs celebrated the murder of Indira Gandhi. Such rumours were commonly spread by Congress supporters to create an atmosphere of hatred against the Sikhs.

      Human rights lawyer H.S. Phoolka has spent much of his working life trying to obtain justice for Sikhs who were targeted across India in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination.

      BJP learned from Congress's tactics

      It is high time that the Congress party comes out of denial and honestly admits that Rajiv Gandhi was culpable in the anti-Sikh violence if it wants to go into the election this year promising a secular India free from the clutches of right-wing forces.

      His indictment is important to settle everything.

      Let him be charged and tried posthumously and go down in history as a villain like Hitler, targeted a minority to retain power. If the present Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, can be described as merchant of death by the Congress for his involvement in a 1984-like pogrom against Muslims in 2002—and that, too, despite not being charged—Rajiv Gandhi does not deserve to be seen as a stainless prime minister.

      It is a fact that attacks on religious minorities have grown under the Modi government ever since it came to power with a majority in 2014. But the process of picking on a minority group and scapegoating it to promote majoritarianism started much earlier with men like Rajiv Gandhi much earlier.

      Had the 1984 mob attacks not happened, Modi's BJP wouldn’t have dared to repeat 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat with impunity.

      Modi was chief minister of the state when the anti-Muslim pogrom broke out following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. Over 50 people died in the incident, which was blamed on Muslim fundamentalists by the Modi government in Gujarat.

      The methodology that was once used against Sikhs in 1984 was reapplied to Muslims in Gujarat by BJP leaders with the help of the police.

      The BJP wouldn't have ascended to power by creating an us-versus-them divide and "othering" minority communities if the Congress, under Rajiv Gandhi, had not started an era of impunity for mass murderers.

      In 1984, it was mainly the Sikh community that was subjected to state violence, while today all minorities have become vulnerable under an outright communal government.

      Rumours are more frequently spread today by supporters of the BJP to spread fear and stir mob lynchings of Muslims, Christians, Dalits (so-called untouchables) and tribal people.

      Similarly, rape is used as a weapon against women in minority communities to humiliate them. These communities' prayers and rituals are constantly disrupted under one pretext or the other. To understand present-day India, we need to analyze its past with honesty.

      That requires indicting Rajiv Gandhi for his original sin, which laid the groundwork for violence against minorities in India.

      It’s a shame that he was given the Bharat Ratna, which is India's highest civilian award. That needs to be revoked.

      An attempt was made in the Delhi legislature to bring forth a motion asking for stripping Gandhi of the honour. The ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which claims to be an alternative to both the Congress and the BJP, failed to make the case due to the reverence of some of its members toward Rajiv Gandhi.

      Harvinder Singh Phoolka, a human rights lawyer who has been fighting for justice to the victims of 1984, has announced his resignation from the AAP for this reason.

      By holding Rajiv Gandhi accountable, we can certainly defeat majoritarianism, which is the root of India's current problems.

      Simply seeking a replacement for Modi and his BJP would only provide a temporary peace under a party that has lost every moral right to question the ruling party on sectarian politics. 

      Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine. He's also the author of Why Mewa Singh Killed William Hopkinson: Revisiting the Murder of a Canadian Immigration Inspector and Fighting Hatred With Love: Voices of the Air India Victims' Families. Both were published by Chetna Parkashan.