“Who Are the Guilty?” That was the provocative title of a report published by two Indian civil libertarian groups in the aftermath of the November, 1984, riots in India that killed over 3,000 Sikhs.
The People’s Union for Democratic Rights and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties probed the anatomy of the massacres. They concluded that what initially seemed spontaneous mob violence a wave of Hindu communalism precipitated by Indira Gandhi’s murder by her Sikh bodyguards was in reality a sinister conspiracy executed with official assent.
In New Delhi, the mobs were led by men identified by some of the victims as local leaders of the ruling Congress Party and Delhi administrative officials. They burned down houses, and murdered Sikh males either burning them alive or hacking them to pieces while female members of their families were stripped and made to watch.
The perpetrators of these atrocities were well led, well-armed and well informed about where Sikh families lived. They usually arrived in Delhi municipal buses or in vans and trucks ordinarily used by local Congress Party workers. The police stood idle while the brutality proceeded or else arrested Sikhs who tried to defend themselves with weapons.
During Mrs. Gandhi’s lying in state, the government run television flashed provocative slogans such as “blood for blood”. Delhi policemen cruised through certain districts spreading false, inflammatory rumors that trainloads of murdered Hindus had arrived from Punjab and that Sikhs had poisoned the city water supply.
Rajiv Gandhi, hastily sworn in as Prime Minister to succeed his martyred mother, placed the army on alert, but mysteriously it was not called out to restore law and order for several days. It is implausible that lapses so conducive to criminality would have occurred without orders from political leaders. Who are the Guilty? Pointed an accusatory finger at several prominent Congress Party activists. Two of them are currently Cabinet ministers.)
Mr. Gandhi’s response was initially to ignore the report. Not a single individual was arrested in connection with the massacres. Finally, under the pressure of Sikh violence in Punjab, the government appointed the Mishra Commission, headed by a Supreme Court Justice, to inquire into whether the violence was organized.
Numerous complaints from Sikh groups and civil libertarians surrounded the inquiry. Initially, the Commission lacked its own investigatory arm. Hearings were held in camera. Some victims of the violence were afraid to come forward, while a number of local Congress Party workers submitted false affidavits (which were eventually discredited under cross-examination).
When the Commission eventually finished its work, Mr. Gandhi suppressed its findings. This week, however, an anticlimactic report was finally made public. The Commission ruled that 19 low-level Congress 2arty functionaries took part in the ritos and should be punished, but rejected the notion that they were organized. No Cabinet Ministers or senior party officials were implicated.
This dubious verdict is unlikely to convince the Sikhs, or fair minded Indians of any faith. At a time when Punjab is aboil, the report will feed Sikh unrest. At a time when India hopes to extradite terrorist suspects from Canada and Britain, the report casts doubt upon the independence of the Indian judiciary. And two years after the barbrisim that dishonored the world’s largest democracy, it leaves unresolved the vexed question: “Who are the Guilty?”
Article extracted from this publication >> March 20, 1987