ANYONE who was in Delhi in those traumatic hours and days after Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984, will know how the capital then was a vision of hell. Bloodthirsty mobs roamed the streets looking to death, Sikhowned taxi stands were a shower of splintered glass. Overturned cars and trucks were ablaze in street after street.
To ride through the city was to run a gauntlet of vigilante checkpoints manned by hooligans armed with a battery of weapons and forcing every vehicle to stop while they scrutinized its occupants. In area after area, selfappointed lynchers of the Sikhs, to whom the assassination was collectively attributed by these mobs, picked out houses known to be Sikh and attacked them, leaving non-Sikh ones immaculately alone.
The official view is that, at least initially, this outbreak of the worst anti-minority program since independence was “spontaneous”. If this were ever true how could mobs, even on the day of the assassination, have struck fear in a whole city, and that too the Capital, without at least some degree of organization; the method in the madness became only too evident from the morning of November 1.
The Ranganath Misra commission, which has labored to produce a mouse of a report, has unconvincingly put the blame for the organized, as against the “spontaneous”, riots on that hollowed euphemism, “antisocial elements”. The passage is worth quoting for the disingenuousness it betrays: “The change in the pattern from spontaneous reaction to organized riots was the outcome of the takeover of the command of the situation by antisocial elements. It is said that Satan too has a process and when taking to satanic activities, the antisocial elements took to their organized process. This is how — and in the sense —violence in Delhi was indeed organized, but such organization was not by any political party or a definit group of persons but by the antisocial elements which is (sic) quite a formidable and powerful element in the Indian capital”.
The commission judging by press accounts of its report. has gone to great lengths to establish firstly that ‘antisocial elements” are the villain of the piece,
and secondly, that the Congress had nothing to do with organizing the carnage in any significant way.
All it will concede is that “it would not be wrong to say that there was organized violence at Delhi and that was done by the antisocial elements and in the riots thousands of people who do not really belong to the classification of antisocial elements did participate”. The distinction between “antisocial elements” and “thousands of people who do not really belong to the classification” is intriguing. Who are these “thousands of people?”
The commission speaks mealymouthedly of the cataloguing of only “19 instances where people associated with the Congress (I), have been named as organizers. Of them, 14 are described as workers either of the Congress (I) or its youth wing; four are said to be local Congress (I) leaders and the other being the secretary of the Congress (I) MP. Conceding that there is no particular reason to disbelieve the allegations so tabulated, considering the position occupied by these people, the commission is not in position to hold that from their participation, the Congress (I) Party as such can be found to have organized the violence. On the other hand, the details supplied by the Delhi State Gurdwara Management Committee fortify the conclusion that some people of the Congress (I) Party on their own had indulged and participated in the turmoil for considerations entirely their own”.
Only too transparently, the commission is equivocating. It says that the riots were organized. It says that “antisocial elements” were behind them, but it also says that even those who cannot be so described took part. It says that “people from the lower ranks of the Congress (I) and sympathizers” were among the rioters. It then partially takes back this conclusion by holding that they took part “for considerations entirely their own”. And on the basis of the positions the 19 catalogued Congress (I) offenders hold in the party, it concludes that the Congress (I) as a whole cannot be blamed. It did and does not ask whether the 19) actually indicted are implicated in their own right or as flunkies who must take the rap to protect the more powerful and shadowy figures who control them.
The report, as these details show, is an exercise in shirking and fudging, rather than confronting the issues it was called upon to investigate. It implicates the party, but simultaneously clears it by saying that the functionaries involved were minor and acted “for considerations entirely their own”. It says the riots were organized, but dilutes this assertion by simultaneously holding “antisocial elements” responsible. Aware that this holds all description will fool no one, it is then forced to concede that “thousands of people who do not really belong to the classification of antisocial elements did participate”. In a word, it is tying itself up in knots because it will not speak its mind.
The investigation was a misconceived undertaking from start to finish. The commission was not appointed by the government when it should have been, immediately after the demand by the Sikhs for an inquiry was made. For months the government persisted in saying that such a probe would only fan the dying embers of communal conflict. Meanwhile, other, unofficial inquiries by civil libertarian bodies were concluded and made the most damaging exposures. Unable to resist domestic and international pressure from these and other engaged circles, the government finally gave in.
But the way the commission went about its business ensured that it won the confidence of neither the Sikhs nor the civil rights groups prepared to testify before it. While the former wrote it off, the latter withdrew their cooperation. Worse, bodies of dubious repute were allowed to come before it. The government then tried to prevent the report from seeing the light of day. This, inevitably, was attributed to its anxiety to avoid the embarrassment of disclosure. The leaks to the press of the commission’s findings further damaged their credibility even before they became public knowledge. Now that they have been published, sceptism about the government’s and the commission’s bonfires has been reinforced.
In two major respects the commission has failed to satisfy either the Sikh minority or the public at large. It was asked to go into those terrible events and establish the guilt of those responsible. Instead, it has passed the buck. Two committees set up by the government which has “generally accepted”, the commission’s recommendations, are to examine within six months the “delinquencies” and conduct of the Delhi police, and to look into “the grave offences committed during the riots”. The Union government has also, at the Misra commission’s suggestion, asked the home secretary of the Delhi administration to ascertain within three months the exact number of deaths in the Capital (over 2,300 by the government’s tally). But what credibility will these scrutinies have in view of what the Misra panel has come up with? Their exertions will be viewed, even as the Misra commission’s belated labors were, as an official delaying tactic.
Nor will the public feel confident that, whatever, they produce, follow-up action will be taken. Even in the case of the 19 offenders mentioned by the Misra commission, eight have been charged, of whom two have been acquitted, while six are being tried. As for the other eleven, first information reports have been lodged. Most of these cases, moreover, were reportedly filed only days before the report was given to Parliament, occasioning the suspicion that the police were forewarned about the 19 persons included in it. Nearly 2 1/2 years after the events, not a single person has been brought to book. Who is going to believe that the new probes will go beyond the Misra panel’s timorous conclusions?
The Misra commission has also failed to bite the bullet by making the police, whom it stingingly excoriates, the scapegoat for the crimes of their political masters. It says that there is “abundant evidence” that on the whole the police “did not behave properly and failed to act as a professional force”.
This, to put it mildly, is an understatement. The dereliction of duty that the police displayed exposes them to the charge of being sectarian when it was imperative that they are precisely the opposite.
But what the commission chooses to overlook is that the police acted as they did, or failed to act, because they were aware that, in the prevailing atmosphere, permissiveness in the matter of retaliation against Sikhs was the order of the day, however unspoken. They might well have apprehended that had they, in fact, acted professionally and impartially, they would have been taken to task. The police were not acting in a political vacuum. It is the political context of their behavior that the Misra commission should have explored. This it has ignored, preferring merely to critic them severely as if by way of compensating for its pusillanimity in not pointing the finger at those at whose behest they function.