It was a bittersweet moment for victims of the 1984 Sikh carnage as well as British Sikhs, when former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar was convicted by the Delhi High Court, for criminal conspiracy to murder five people of the minority community. The 73 year old who is given a life sentence, has been ordered to surrender by December 31, failing which he would be taken into custody. Reversing Kumar's acquittal by Delhi's Karkardooma Courts in 2013, in a case pertaining to the killing of five members of a Sikh family in Delhi's Raj Nagar, the HC said the trial court failed to address the charges of criminal conspiracy against Sajjan Kumar.
Riots broke down against the Sikh community, after then prime minister Indira Gandhi was shot down by her Sikh bodyguards. The High Court in India said, “The first strategy was to liquidate all Sikh males and the other was to destroy houses, leaving the women and children utterly destitute. The trial court completely omitted to address this charge of criminal conspiracy. The acquittal of Sajjan Kumar is set aside. He is convicted for criminal conspiracy, for abetting the commission of armed rioting and murders and for the offence of delivering provocative speeches instigating violence against Sikhs.”
“The criminals escaped prosecution and punishment for over two decades. It took as many as 10 committees and commissions for the investigation into the role of some of them to be entrusted in 2005 to the CBI, 21 years after the occurrence,” notes the historic 203-page ruling.
Riot equating to 'partition massacres'
The verdict came as a massive relief to riot survivors Jagdish Kaur, her cousin Jagsher Singh, and another survivor Nirpreet Kaur, all three who broke down after the ruling.
Principle complainant, Jagdish Kaur lost her husband Kehar Singh, and teenaged son Gurpreet Singh, and three cousins on November 1 and 2, 1984, in the killings that the HC equated with “partition massacres”. She said that on November 2, 1984, when she went to the police post to lodge a report, she heard Sajjan Kumar delivering a provocative speech, telling people to “murder Sikhs and kill Hindus who shelter them.” Back in 2010, Kaur had told a Delhi court, “When the chowki in-charge asked the mob, “kitne murge bhun diye”, I felt I had lost faith in humanity.” Jagdish said the police post incharge threatened her when she was filing a report. She claimed the cop tried to intimidate her by saying the people she was naming were too powerful and she wouldn’t be able to protect the rest of her family.
Witness number 1 in the Palam Colony case, Kaur's evidence was crucial in the conviction of Kumar and five others. The HC said the accused were brought to justice primarily because of “the courage and perseverance of three key eyewitnesses”. Nirpreet Kaur saw her father being burnt alive at 5.30 am on the fateful day. While he managed to jump into a nearby drain to save himself, he was dragged back out and fatally set on fire again.
The four behind Kumar's conviction
As welcome commendable the ruling is, it needs to be pointed out that it took over 34 years for Kumar and others responsible to be brought to justice. Four people key to the battle; two lawyers and two victims jumped through multiple hurdles and fought in the face of politics and intimidation to put Kumar behind bars.
77 year old Kaur still remembers the carnage as clear as day. Despite being constantly let down by the system, she continued to fight for justice. “I tell them, take to the streets. Fight Crime. We all have to die someday, but we will fight against crime,” Kaur said. She was never deterred by the fact that Kumar was a powerful politician. “They made him a minister. They gave him cars and promotions. Only after fighting for 34 years have I managed to bring him to justice. Kumar's crimes are too great for life imprisonment, he should have been sentenced to death.”
Another eyewitness, and victim of the riots, Kaur is chairperson of Justice for Victims Organisation that was set up to help the survivors of 1984. She was barely 16 when she saw her father set on fire. She claimed that after she named Kumar to the police, a TADA (Terrorist and Destructive Activities Prevention Act) case was slapped on her. The charge was however, dropped. “After 34 years, I have received justice. He will go to jail.”
“This case has been very close to me,” Phoolka said after the judgment. “This judgment is a historic document. It takes note of how for 34 years, the wheels of justice were impeded at each and every stage. These powerful people didn't allow the law to move on, the judicial system to move on.” The 73 year was elected MLA on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket in Punjab last year. However, he was informed that he could not continue his battle for justice for the victims of 1984, if he held a political post. The next day, Phoolka resigned as leader of the opposition.
He said the Special Investigation Team set up by the Supreme Court in January 2018 changed the course of the case. Phoolka believes this is a symbolic judgment that will help them get justice for other victims as well.
Special prosecutor for the Central Bureau of Investigation, Cheema is also the special government prosecutor in the coal allocation cases appointed by the Supreme Court. “Jagdish Kaur kept on giving affidavits. The whole effort was to demolish her statement. But she persisted. We must commend her courage,” Cheema said. “These cases were in Parliament. It was the (Congress-led) UPA government that said it would follow these cases up. The CBI filed a chargesheet in 2010. That’s when the case really began.”
This was the first case, according to Cheema, where the CBI insisted upon the charge of conspiracy. It argued that Kumar and his cohorts had addresses, and were targeting Sikh males, looting and vandalising property. “After time passes, even genuine investigation becomes impossible. Moreover, the fear was live and potent even after two decades,” Cheema said.
“This case is a triumph of justice, its finest hour. It proves for the common man that the arms of the law are long enough and reach the culprit. It sends the message that our culture of harmony and brotherhood is safe as long as the rule of law prevails. Had Delhi riots been dealt with sternly and honestly, we wouldn’t have had similar riots in Gujarat and Orissa.”
Sikhs denouncing Indian identity
British Sikhs, many of who may have lost family members to the riot, have also approached the Conservative government for a deeper probe behind the Operation blue star, which the Thatcher government had allegedly helped Indira Gandhi to put together.
Keeping that sentiment in the heart of their argument, they also wrote to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) that they wanted a separate ethnic identity as Sikhs in the 2021 Census. However, after much survey, the UK body responsible for holding the 2021 census has rejected demands that ‘Sikh’ should be a separate ethnic identifier on the ground that it would “not be acceptable to a proportion of the Sikh population."
In a statement ONS said that they will continue to include Sikhism as a relious option under that religion section but after a survey of gurdwaras on the acceptance of a Sikh ethnic group tick-box “showed a high acceptance for inclusion.”
Bhai Amrik Singh of campaign group, Sikh Federation (UK), said, “The ONS has gone to great lengths to maintain the status quo and continue with reinforcing the institutionalised discrimination of Sikhs by public bodies. We are aware of some of the pressures that have been exerted on them.
“However, these are proposals and the final decision on the Census questions rests with Parliament. Gurdwaras, Sikh organisations and the community are resourceful and will work with the APPG (All-Party Parliamentary Group) on the year-long campaign launched on Saturday. Legal action against the ONS remains an option.”
Preet Kaur Gill, the Chair of APPG for Sikhs, are determined to include Sikh ethnic tick box in the census. They have also decided to run a year long national campaign to 'put this right'.