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25 years since the 1984 carnage in Delhi

India allows the murderers of thousands of Sikhs to roam scot-free

by Manoj Mitta, 13 November 2009

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From: Communalism Combat, November 2009

Communalism Combat, November 2009
Cover Page

No accountability

The following is the text of a speech delivered before the All-Party Human Rights Group of the British Parliament on November 4, 2009 at an event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Sikh massacre of 1984:

The debate raging in Britain over MPs’ expenses is an indicator that accountability is "work in progress" even in an advanced democracy. Different countries however have different levels of accountability. The 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi shows that India, a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy, has a rather low level of accountability – or, conversely, a high level of impunity.

That mobs were allowed to have the run of India’s capital for three days in the wake of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination raises serious questions about the autonomy of its law and order machinery. That in his first public meeting barely a fortnight later, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, rather than condemning it, likened the carnage to the reverberations caused by the fall of a mighty tree betrays the illiberal character of India’s democracy. That he did not permit Parliament to debate the whitewash carried out through an in camera inquiry conducted by a sitting Supreme Court judge and that Parliament never even offered a condolence motion for the victims of the 1984 carnage expose the disdain for human rights displayed by the highest institutions in India. That barely 20 persons have been convicted for murder in these 25 years as against the official death toll of 2,733 is a poor reflection on the integrity of India’s criminal justice system. That the manner in which the investigating agency, prosecution and courts colluded to acquit Congress leaders HKL Bhagat and Sajjan Kumar, despite all the evidence against them, rips apart India’s pretensions to the rule of law.

The gap between the precept and practice of the rule of law is so wide in India that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself acknowledged in Parliament four years ago that even after a dozen official inquiries into the 1984 carnage, "We all know that we still do not know the truth and the search must go on." Despite such an exhortation by the prime minister to continue the search for truth, the official meetings in Delhi, corresponding to this event in the British Parliament, have been confined to commemorating 25 years since Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Given the complicity of its own leaders, dead or alive, the government remains trapped in the mind-set that any formal expression of sympathy for the victims of the 1984 carnage would insult the memory of Indira Gandhi.

On behalf of human rights defenders in India, I deeply appreciate your gesture of remembering the 1984 carnage, which set a dangerous precedent as an avowedly secular political party reaped an electoral harvest for engineering sectarian violence. This resulted in similar impunity and electoral rewards for the communal parties that organised the killings of Muslims in Maharashtra in 1993 and Gujarat in 2002.

You have set a moral example for India by commemorating 25 years since the 1984 carnage. It is apt that you did so because even the Raj had set a higher standard of accountability when a British army officer, General Dyer, had in 1919 ordered the massacre of a peaceful crowd at Jallianwala Bagh. The colonial rulers held a public inquiry in which General Dyer was grilled not only by British but also Indian members of the Hunter Committee. The House of Commons debated and endorsed the Hunter Committee’s indictment of General Dyer, who was removed in disgrace from the army. But independent India, as evident from the cover-up of the 1984 carnage, failed to measure up to the benchmarks set even by the colonial administration. Such is the magnitude of the impunity crisis facing the people of India.

(Manoj Mitta is senior editor, The Times of India.)