Wednesday 30 July 2008

Column: Sikh Pogrom

Silence over a pogrom
Shivanand Kanavi
Business & Political Observer- November 12,1992

The hanging of Sukha and Jinda, the two convicted for assassinating the Army chief General A S Vaidya in his retirement in Pune, was generally welcomed by people and the press, but some sections of society, however, opposed it. On the face of it, it looked bizarre that anybody in his right senses could oppose the hanging of convicted assassins but various groups in Punjab, including various Akali factions, called a bandh in protest. An even more bizarre sounding news was the bhog ceremony held in the Golden Temple complex for these two. Here the issue is not the success or failure of the bandh or how many attended the bhog ceremony. The government and the organisers will obviously have vastly differing estimates, but the rationale for such views. Or was there no rationale but only fear of terrorists' guns that make people express their opposition to the hanging? I have come to the conclusion that there is a rationale though the Akalis might appear as a caricature of such a rationale.

Two events have had a devastating effect in Punjab in the recent past. One was the army attack on Golden Temple and the other was the pogrom carried out against the Sikhs in 1984 after Mrs Gandhi's assassination. The attack and the damage to Akal Takht enraged many who were in no sense Khalistani terrorists and many youth in Punjab took it upon themselves to avenge it. The method of conspiracies and terrorism to oppose a government's policy, however abhorrent the policy may be, is questionable in principle and has had no practical benefit for the Sikhs. In fact, the escalating violence between the state and the militants, each justifying the other, has led to the hen and the egg syndrome, while the ordinary people of Punjab have suffered enormously in the crossfire. But if Udham Singh, who took great pains to search General Dyer out in imperial Britain and killed him as retribution for Jalianwalabagh, or Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad who killed British officials and looted treasury, or Maharashtra's Vasudev Balwant Phadke and Chaphekar brothers who killed members of colonial administration or tried to raise armed rebellion among the tribal Ramoshis, could be national heroes for us, then will not avengers of injustices be Shahids for those who accuse the central government of oppressive, unjust and near-colonial attitude in dealing with the Sikhs or with Punjab? It is a disturbing question even if you don't agree with the militants in Punjab.

To them the argument given by the court that the General was just doing his duty does not hold much attraction since they say the same justification was oft repeated in the Nuremberg trial of Nazis for war crimes. Viewed thus, the bhog ceremony does not appear all that bizarre.

The issue of the hurried hanging of Sukha and Jinda too appears suspect not in itself but viewed in the background of the machinery of justice that has ground to a halt as far as the '84 pogrom of the Sikhs in Delhi and other places is concerned. Two thousand seven hundred and thirty three Sikhs were killed in cold blood (according to official figures) in 72 hours. That is roughly one person stabbed to death or burnt alive every one and a half minute in the national capital. The orgy went on for three days. What happened to our trigger-happy paramilitary and armed forces or the police? No one could claim that the place (Delhi) was remote and law enforcement agencies could not reach there in time. In fact, Delhi those days -much before these events- resembled an army camp with check posts and carbined troops at each corner - a shocking scene for a Bombayite like me. What has happened to the perpetrators of these crimes? Well, a lot. The then commissioner of police started a departmental enquiry a day after the pogrom: It was abandoned three weeks later. The Ved Marwah committee was set up instead. It too was abandoned when some of the accused police officers moved the court. Then came the Justice Ranganath Mishra commission which made a mockery of justice, by rejecting, without giving any reasons, 2,800 affidavits of victims and accepting only 128. Its proceedings were held in camera and the press was forbidden. The report submitted by the commission in 1986 even had a section on affidavits against the victims of the riots! Committees followed commissions, 11 in all - Ahooja committee, Jain Banerjee commission, Kusum Lata Mittal commission, Justice Potti and Rosha committee, etc. The net result has been zero.

Either thousands of people who witnessed the massacre or were victims of it and gave coherent accounts of it have committed a mass conspiracy to lie, or some very important people should be standing trial for mass murder.

In the midst of all this has a come a most damaging leak by one of the police officers accused of participating in the riots. Chandra Prakash, who was later promoted as Deputy Inspector General in Arunachal Pradesh, has said in a leaked memorandum to the home ministry that the decision not to quell the rioting by imposing curfew or calling the army was taken at a secret meeting at the Prime Minister's residence. This has damned two prime ministers. The late Mr Rajiv Gandhi and the present one. Mr P. V. Naraslmha Rao was then the home minister and according to the memo attended the said meeting.

The septugenarian Mr Rao, the darling of the press as manager of contradictions par excellence, the one who saved India from chaos and economic bankruptcy, the one who tamed the BJP, the one whose pravachanas er .. speeches over-flow with ancient wisdom, the one who speaks endlessly on human rights, etc, was party to the blot on the conscience of all Indians! So far there has been no refutation from the home ministry or the PMO about the leak.

With all this muck and confusion and literally skeletons up the closets of the VIPs, it does not appear so mindless after all, that some people consider Satwant Singh and Beant Singh and Sukha and Jinda as martyrs.

I don't. No doubt they are assassins.

But amidst the extremities, where is the silent majority? And why is it silent?