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1984 Redux

Rereading the Riot Act 25 years after the anti-Sikh riots that left thousands dead in Delhi, memory and forgetting battle it out in the minds of those who survived the trauma

AP Images

Sonam Joshi

Police use water cannons to disperse Sikh riot victims at the India Gate in New Delhi on Nov. 4,1992

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n a warm September afternoon, two old women sit outside the building of Delhi’s Karkardooma court, the expectation of justice – being delivered after 25 years of waiting – writ large on their wrinkled faces. They are accompanied by others whose lives had been caught up in, and by, the anti-Sikh pogrom in 1984 that followed the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi. Inside the court, a

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familiar ritual is being played out: the court is adjudicating the Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) decision to give a clean chit to Congress leader and former minister Jagdish Tytler earlier in the year. The decision is only one of a series of legal about-turns in the case. The CBI’s lawyer is questioning the testimony of a witness, Surinder Singh (who died in July this year), before his case could be heard and his testimony verified. This is symbolic of the official apathy that has plagued the legal proceedings involving the anti-Sikh riots. Singh, a granthi who worked at the Pulbangash gurudwara in 1984, had migrated to the US. In 2002, he gave his first testimony against Tytler before the newly appointed the Nanavati Commission, that he had seen Tytler leading a mob that attacked and set fire to the gurudwara, killing two persons. In subsequent testimonies, however, he withdrew his statement, claiming that he was not aware of the contents of his earlier affidavit before the Nanavati Commission, since they were in English. It was a course of recanting known to many of those attending the hearing. There is a lull as the judge takes a break to view a CD that evidently contains visual evidence that Tytler was with the body of Indira Gandhi, placed at Teen Murti house, during the riots. When the judge returns, the case is deferred to October 31,2009. It is an irony that nobody misses, for it was on that day 25 years prior that Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards. The assassination had spiralled into the violence being debated. owhere else in the world did the year 1984 fulfil its apocalyptic portents as it did in India,” writer Amitav Ghosh recalled in

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an article on the anti-Sikh violence. It was the year that life changed for 16-year-old Nirpreet Kaur. In the courtroom, I notice Nirpreet Kaur, dressed in black, sitting in the front row, anxiously speaking in a hushed voice to the lawyer Vrinda Grover. “I have seen both the tragedies of the anti Sikh riots and the Khalistan movement. I have known the pain of both,” she says later, when I meet her at her home in west Delhi. In 1984, Nirpreet lived with her parents and two younger brothers at Raj Nagar in Palam Colony near Delhi’s international airport. “We lived like royals in those days,” she says, recalling her father’s long association with the local gurudwara and the neighbourhood, and his taxi business. When she shows me an album of old photographs, it is with a certain pride that she points to her parents and her home. On October 31, shock at the prime minister’s killing soon gave way to practical considerations. “My father came home early and hid the taxis,” Nirpreet tells me. “Soon after, Balwan Khokhar, the Youth Congress leader, visited our family. The news of Sikhs being attacked was on TV, and when my father asked him how the situation was, he said that he had spoken to Sajjan Kumar, and that no harm would come to our locality.” The next morning, on November 1, however, a mob gathered to torch, first, the gurudwara and, then, the locality. The Sikhs tried to defend themselves. Following a pitched battle four hours long, the police called for a compromise. According to Nirpreet, Khokhar persuaded her father, Nirmal Singh, to come along. Nirpreet ran after them but could only watch helplessly as her father was captured and burnt alive. Nirpreet breaks down when she recalls seeing her father trying to The Caravan, November 2009

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escape. Soon after, the family managed to escape to a neighbouring Air Force station. “The next day, I was coming back to help with the rescue of the other families in the neighbourhood when I saw Sajjan Kumar on Dada Chhatri Marg standing next to a police jeep instigating a crowd which had gathered around him”, she says. The car she was travelling in turned back. When she went back to Palam Colony the fol- A younger Nirpreet Kaur, her hair tied in a turban, (middle in the second row) with her parents and brothers, beofore the riots lowing day, a few Every time someone enters or families were rescued; but her The Punjab that she went to was leaves, Nirpreet makes sure that house was burning. She rememseething with radical Sikh militanthe entrance door is shut again. bers that threats followed soon cy, which had been on the rise after, including one of poisoning since Operation Blue Star, the govurning 18 in 1986, she marher. Nirpreet recollects trying to ernment-ordered attack on the ried Gulshan Lal Bairagi, file a complaint with the local Golden Temple in June 1984, who had been actively police station, and seeing it torn human rights violations by the involved in the Khalistan movebefore her eyes when she took the army and the police while repressment. “I wanted revenge and name of Sajjan Kumar as an instiing the militancy, and the antidecided to marry whoever would gator. Twenty one years later, in Sikh riots. Her anger led her to take avenge my father’s killing,” 2005, the Report of the Nanavati take an unusual step: she joined she says. “It was a compromise Commission stated: “Many perthe All India Sikh Students marriage. I decided that if was sons from Raj Nagar, Palam Federation, a banned organisaever caught, it would be better to Colony, have spoken about the tion. “There was a searing anger be called someone’s wife rather participation of Shri Sajjan Kumar within me then,” she says. She than being called his mistress.” and Balwan Khokhar in the riots in smiles frequently when she talks Twelve days later, her husband their area. They have stated that of her experiences and escapades disappeared after being arrested the mobs indulging in riots were during the Khalistan movement. in an encounter. Soon after, the led by Shri Balwan Khokhar and With her local guardian, an uncle, police found their marriage other Congress leaders.” Kumar often warning her mother of the album, and declared her an has been an MP twice since 1984, dire consequences of being absconder. Nirpreet, expecting her while Khokhar is an office-bearer involved in the movement, she had first child, went into hiding in of the Delhi Pradesh Congress some close shaves with being Amritsar. Her mother, Sampooran Committee from Palam Colony. caught by her mother. Kaur, was arrested on charges of Threatened repeatedly, As we talk, there is a trickle of sheltering her. “She had no idea Nirpreet shifted to Jalandhar in visitors to her house asking for what I was up to,” says Nirpreet. 1985 to study in Khalsa College. help in solving their troubles.

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Sonam Joshi

Commission had asked for this, stating that “there is credible material against Shri Sajjan Kumar and Shri Balwan Khokhar for recording a finding that he and Shri Balwan Khokhar were probably involved as alleged by the witnesses”. Recent media reports suggest that the CBI might soon file a chargesheet against Kumar, who had been acquitted in 2002 after a protracted case. ill now, 10 commisNirpreet Kaur working at her home, with a photograph of Jarnail SIngh Bhaindranwale above her sions and committees have during her second stay in the been appointed to look into the “She did not even know until much Tihar Jail. However, photographs anti-Sikh riots but the rate of conlater that I had married.” of her days in the Khalistan moveviction is abysmal. According to In 1987, the government ment are absent; she destroyed official figures, 2,733 Sikhs were launched Operation Black them. Her memories of the movekilled in Delhi alone, but just over Thunder to flush out perceived ment are still ambivalent. “We 20 of the accused have militants from the Golden Temple. cannot be called militants,” she been convicted. . Nirpreet, along with her year-old says. “I can’t say whether what I In the year of the riots, civil son, was among those hiding in did was right or wrong. There society had responded fervidly to the Temple at the time. After was anger flowing in that young the violence. A detailed report on being arrested under the Terrorist blood and I had not got the riots that was quickly brought and Disruptive Activities justice from here.” out by the People’s Union for Civil (Disruption) Act, they were lodged For many years, seething with Liberties (PUCL) and the People’s in Tihar Jail in Delhi. She was the anger, she refused to testify Union for Democratic Reform released in 1990 on bail and went before the court. Post 1999, she (PUDR) indicted the police, the into hiding. She was arrested had begun to be actively involved administration and the political again in 1993 and released in in working with the riot victims, authorities. There were also other 1996. “The second term in the starting an NGO called Justice for reports and articles that sought to Tihar Jail and the vocational Victims. It was only a year ago that investigate, understand and critraining that I received made me a she came forward, along with 11 tique the nature of violence seen in calmer person when I was other witnesses, to give their testithose three incendiary days. “It released,” she says. mony against Sajjan Kumar. All was the first time since the partiWe leaf through her old phothese witnesses are part of the tion that communal violence was tographs. Till 1984, Nirpreet tied three cases that were registered registered in a big city like Delhi her hair in a turban; in her schoolagainst Kumar on the recommenand in the psyche of the urban days, she took active part in the dations of the Nanavati middle class,” says Uma National Cadet Corps. There is an Commission report in 2005. The Chakravarti, a historian and image of a visibly happier Nirpreet

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activist who worked with the riot victims in the months following the riots and author of The Delhi Riots: Three Days in the Life of a Nation (1987). “The subsequent report by PUCL-PUDR that revealed the state sponsored nature of the violence and the simultaneous relief work meant that the anger of the Sikhs was directed against the state, and not against another community.” Relief work had been started at the various camps, and the testimonies of the riot-affected were being recorded. Among the volunteers was Harvinder Singh Phoolka, then a junior lawyer in Delhi who decided to help with drafting the affidavits of the riot victims. He became closely associated with the setting up of the Citizens for Justice Committee, which works to help riot victims with legal procedure and has been connected with the legal battle since then. Phoolka, currently an advocate with the Delhi High Court, has been the person most closely involved with the ups and downs of the long and halting march towards legal justice. “Earlier, we thought that there was only discrimination against the Sikhs,” says Phoolka from his office in the South Delhi residential area of Defence Colony. “Now we know that the system itself is like that, and that other communities also suffer. In the legal system, things move only when the people in power are interested. It is very easy to paralyse the system.” Behind him, a wall bookshelf is filled with legal books. Indeed, a copy of LK Advani’s autobiography, My Country, My Life (2008), and a couple of books on Sikh history are conspicuously the only non-legal books in the room. A picture of Maharaja Dileep Singh sits on the mantelpiece; another of the Golden Temple hangs on the wall. Does the denial of justice bother him? “There have been some very 30

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disillusioning phases,” he says. “Now, I consider it my duty to follow the cases and prepare myself for any result that may come. If one has decided to live in the country, one has to work with the system and work to improve it.” n 2007, Phoolka recounted his experience of being associated with the legal procedure of the 1984 riots in a book, When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath, that he coauthored with journalist Manoj Mitta. He recalled the biased nature of the first commission, the Ranganath Misra Commission, and pointed to the fact that a majority of the 2,905 affidavits filed before the commission were “affidavits against victims” that, in Phoolka’s words, “did not just refute that the carnage was organized and insist that it all was a spontaneous backlash to Indira’s murder. They also asserted that the immediate provocation was the sight of the Sikhs celebrating Indira Gandhi’s murder by distributing sweets. This was as close as those deponents could have come to justifying the massacre.” One of these ‘affidavits’ was cited by the commission to exonerate HKL Bhagat, the then Congress member of Parliament from East Delhi, which had the largest number of Sikh killings. “The informers of those accused would be present in the court and pass on vital information about witnesses, while the press was debarred from it,” says Phoolka. “However, the last straw came when we realised that the commission had conducted the inquiry of the officials mentioned in the affidavits separately without informing us. Subsequently, we decided to withdraw from the commission.” In its final report, the Misra Commission held that neither the Congress party nor its leaders was involved in organising the massacre, which it attributed to

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unnamed “antisocial elements”. No policeman or Congress party member was indicted. Phoolka believes that the inadequacies of the legal system in dealing with communal riots and violence have remained unaddressed over the past 25 years. “While the Nanavati Commission was more open than the Misra Commission, the change lay in the attitude of the judges rather than any changes in the legal system,” he says. The Nanavati Commission, established in 2000 by the Bharatiya Janta Party-led National Democratic Alliance, gave access to all records except a few that related to aspects such as the deployment of the army and disciplinary proceedings against police officers. In their book, Mitta and Phoolka accessed police records to reveal the role of the police in “neutralising” Sikh resistance during the riots. Perhaps the most explicit example of this resistance neutralising is Block 32 in the resettlement colony of Trilokpuri in East Delhi. According to several witnesses, the station house officer, Soor Veer Singh Tyagi, ordered the Sikhs of the block, who had converged in the local gurudwara to defend themselves with their arms, to disperse and return to their homes. He took responsibility for their protection. Subsequently, a mob broke into the Sikh houses, looting, killing and burning. Joseph Maliakan of The Indian Express, who, along with another reporter, got wind of the events at Trilokpuri and tried to enter the colony on November 2, remembers that the army was called in late. ”The army had no power by itself, they were under civil powers,” he says. “They had no maps and no powers to shoot to control the violence.” The two reporters went on to write an application for an inquiry into dereliction of duty by the police. Somewhat cynically, Malakan


Sanjay Ghosh

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recalls, “The police inquiries began as late as six years after the riots. I remember being asked the most irrelevant questions in court, and the process almost seemed to be reduced to farce.” In Trilokpuri, 292 people were killed, but only one first information report (FIR) was lodged, on November 3. Only in 2005 was it split into 70 cases in order to speed up justice. None of the police officials at East Delhi were indicted. Phoolka is critical of the role of the police in the investigation. “It almost seemed as though the accused was investigating the cases,” he says. “In fact, following the riots, the police officers whose districts saw the maximum killings were given rewards and plum postings. Recently, while giving recommendations for the Communal Violence Bill, I suggested that that the control of violence should not be left to the discretion of the police officer in charge of the district. In case of any mass violence, the army should be called in immediately without any discretion. In case the deaths exceed a certain number, there should be a provision by which the police official in charge is not given plum postings for the next five years as deterrence.” The Ved Marwah Commission, the first commission appointed (in November 1984) to look into the role of the police, was abruptly directed not to proceed further. Two committees were subsequently appointed, one to look into allegations against police officials, the other to follow up on allegations that the cases had not been properly registered. The second of these committees recommended action against Congress leaders such as HKL Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler. Phoolka has witnessed many cases being upended by loopholes in the system. A recurrent problem is that of witnesses altering their

Bhagi Kaur with her grandchildren, outside her house in West Delhi’s Tilak Vihar

statements or turning hostile. He argues that there is a need for a witness protection programme. “It should have provisions for keeping the identity of the witnesses a secret,” he says. “The witnesses should be rehabilitated to a different place so that the others do not know where they have been rehabilitated.” He recalls a case where a witness confessed the reason for having changed her testimony. “The widows are poor and vulnerable, and can be pressured by their local leaders to change their testimony. A witness who had recanted later recalled that she had been

threatened that if she accepted their terms she would live like a queen, otherwise her children would be in danger.” t is hardly a new thing that witnesses in communal riots cases are vulnerable. In the case of the 1984 riot witnesses, this vulnerability is linked to class and gender. Many witnesses are women, often widows of riot victims. The worst violence in 1984 was seen in the resettlement colonies inhabited by the urban poor, located at Delhi’s outskirts: Trilokpuri and Kalyanpuri in East Delhi,

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stalls of the Tilak Nagar market give way to the quiet of smaller kirana shops that are often built into the apartment blocks. Many are run by women, young and old. A part of the locality is lined with mechanics shops lined with autorickshaws under repair. They are driven by the residents. Old women and their daughters and daughters-in-law chat sitting on cots in the shade of their houses. n alley leads me to the home This recreated image of Bhagi and her husband Lakshman Singh hangs in her bedroom of Bhagi Kaur, 50-something years Sultanpuri and Mangolpuri in West For most of the affected in the old and a resident of the infamous Delhi, Palam Colony in South relief camps, returning to the Block 32 in Trilokpuri. She lost 11 Delhi. They were populated by colonies was not an option. They members of her family to the riots, many Sikhs who had fled Pakistan gradually relocated to other localiher husband, brothers and during the Partition, were resettled ties, among which is Tilak Vihar in nephews among them. A garlandon agricultural land in Rajasthan, West Delhi, also known as the ed photograph of a young boy and had migrated to Delhi in search Widows’ Colony. As residential looks out at everyone who enters of work. These resettlement areas go, it is small. It is tucked up the small front room of her two colonies had been set up only a few next to the more upmarket Tilak roomed house. Bhagi Kaur tells years earlier. “There was a flagrant Nagar. I step off the Delhi Metro me that the boy in the photograph collapse of community values in to meet the all-encompassing busis her 22-year-old son who died of 1984 and a testing of the idea of the tle of the Tilak Nagar market, with a drug overdose a few years ago. neighbourhood as a community,” its rows of clothes and sweet shops Her elder son is also addicted to says Uma Chakravarti. “It was and stalls selling cheap clothes, painkillers, a habit that he shares often the poor who attacked the perfumes, plastic items, snacks, with many youths in the locality. other poor Sikhs, which is perhaps shoes and more. A little ahead is There is no de-addiction centre in the reason why looting went alongthe Tilak Nagar residential area, Tilak Vihar, and she has never sent side killing.” Not, she argues, that quiet and with posh-looking houshim to one, she tells me in a this exonerates the state: “The es and children playing in shaded, hushed voice because he is sitting social context could be manipulatgreen parks. You know you are to the adjoining room. The riots ed by the political leadership. For near Tilak Vihar when the road and the subsequent upheaval and instance, the resettlement colonies turns towards smaller, boxlike relocation have generated were often created after taking over flats in a uniform, discoloured immense trauma and a sense of land from the villages around cream shade. The road branches dislocation, much of which Delhi, and had led to easy access to off into narrow alleys that get narremains unaddressed. money, on the one hand, but also a rower as they skirt the dry, dusty Yet it is the inadequate nature loss of livelihood and land and parks where a few children still of the rehabilitation that has been lumpenisation in the long term, manage to play. At noon, children a more pragmatic problem. from where crowds could be are returning from school. The Widows like Bhagi were given mobilised during riots.” big-shop glitter and the bustling class IV government jobs, but

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these were often far from their new houses. With little domestic support, the children, who had been through violence only some time ago, were left alone. They missed out on education and guidance and fell easy prey to drugs. By the time Bhagi managed a transfer to a closer location, it was too late. The demand that the government provide a job each to those who were riot-affected as children is a constant one. In 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised “a life of dignity and self respect” for these once-children, but for the widows little seems to have materialised. The threat of retirement weighs heavy on women like Bhagi. Her salary is channelled into running the households of her son and married daughter. While there has been an increase in the financial compensation given, it has come in a quarter-century-long trickle. In Bhagi’s bedroom hangs a third photograph of a younger Bhagi and her husband against a backdrop of a field of flowers. This photograph exists but was never taken: it is a collage of old, separate photographs of the two, coloured and mated. It is an image pieced together from bits of memory, an image of a dream-world that never was. It’s a strange way of remembering the life that they had together, but perhaps it is the only way. As we talk, her grandchildren run in and out. Frequently, neighbours’ children pass by, sometimes on errands. The women, who have known each other since their Trilokpuri days, join in our conversation. One of them, Nirmal, her voice rapid and low, recalls a muted memory of the trauma of women who were raped during the riots. I ask whether any of these women had filed cases with the police manning the relief camps. “Many of the girls were unmarried, and we did not want more troubles

Gurdip Kaur,65, at her house. Behind her are images of her family members killed in the riots

for them,” says Nirmal. “So we ended the matter then.” et I know of one woman who spoke up. In the course of a legal procedure full of gaps and loopholes, the issue of rape is invisible despite its articulation by a few women. This is one of the most resounding silences surrounding the riots. Soon after, I climb the stairs to Gurdip Kaur’s home, a fellow resident of Block 32, Trilokpuri. The staircase is dark and dingy, and

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the cement is crumbling at places. Gurdip Kaur, 65, is chatting with a neighbour. On a wall are photographs of the four family members killed in the riots: her husband, two sons and elder son-inlaw. Gurdip Kaur retired a few years ago from a hospital she worked in since 1984. She is one of the few women who gave her testimony on being raped. She recalls meeting the feminist, Madhu Kishwar, at the Farsh Bazar relief camp, near Trilokpuri. Subsequently, her story was pub-


tify in court again, but as the years have passed by, I don’t know whether I can remember everything now.” lthough it is the cases against political leaders that make it to the news, there are currently 44 riot-related cases pending in the High Court and 16 in the regular/lower courts. A few days later, at the Patiala House Lower Court in Central Delhi, the judge is due to give her judgment on the killing of 28-year-old Gurbaksh Singh outside his house in Paschim Vihar in West Delhi. The courtroom is tense with expectation. Last year, Gurbaksh’s 83year-old father, Sawarna Singh Bhatia, had come from Canada to depose in the case. Gurbaksh’s brother, HS Bhatia, sits with his brother-in-law in the front row. The three men accused of leading the mob that killed Gurbaksh sit together in the bottom row. Nirpreet and Bhagi stand anxiously near the door. As the judge arrives, everyone surges forward to hear the judgment. “All three of you are acquitted,” the judge says. The next day, I meet Bhagi and Nirpreet and ask them what it is that draws them to the court every time. The cases have dragged, ended, only to be started again, sometimes with newer witnesses. In the meantime, as time goes by, memory lapses, making the witnesses more vulnerable to cross-questioning by the opposition. In a strange way, fatigue and hope coexist. As we talk, Bhagi’s eyes seem weary. I recall her initial reluctance to speak. “Speaking has not got us justice,” she had said. Yet, she misses her work to attend the trials. She is often one of the more vocal demonstrators in the protests organised by the riot victims. “I haven’t left 1984,” she says. “I haven’t got justice, but I still go to court for the sake of those I have lost.” 

Sadanand Menon

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Sadanand Menon

Congress MLA Sajjan Kumar being accused of leading riot mobs by angry victims at Mangolpuri on Nov.3, 1984

The scene at a riot victims relief camp, Punjabi Bagh Police Station

lished in Kishwar’s journal, Manushi. “I had no fear and shame in speaking out when everyone in my family had been killed before my own eyes,” she says. Her words trail off into gestures and tears as she tries to recall the trauma of being raped in front of her younger son, and to see him being burnt alive shortly afterwards. Kishwar filed an affidavit of the account before the Misra Commission and the Nanavati Commission. Little action was taken. All five cases of sexual vio-

lence that were submitted before the Nanavati Commission were overlooked. In his book, Manoj Mitta indicates that this has meant that nobody has been tried for rape and no rape victim has been paid compensation. Gurdip says that she went to court a few times. “Once, they took me for a hearing and got my signatures without my being aware of what I was signing for,” she says. “It was perhaps after that that they stopped calling me to give testimony. If there is a need, I will tes-

The Caravan, November 2009

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Rereading the Riot Act  

25 years after the anti-Sikh riots that left thousands dead in Delhi, memory and forgetting battle it out in the minds of those who survived...

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