Some memories do not fade, however old they become. It is really the pain which accumulates because of disappointment and helplessness in not finding justice. I realised this the other day when an old Sikh friend of mine called me from Faridkot in Punjab and cried on the phone. He asked me again and again why the government did not take action against the 1984 anti-Sikh rioters, some of whom he complained were still roaming free.
The simple answer which I gave him was that when protectors become predators, punishment is negated. This is what happened in November 1984, when 3,000 Sikhs were killed or burnt alive in broad daylight. The then Congress government was reportedly accused of being part of the pogrom. Hence, whatever little action has been taken is perfunctory — not meant to bring the culprits to book.
There was the Ranganath Mishra Report and some other assessments. However, they talked more about the assassination of former prime minister Indira Gandhi than the killing of the Sikhs. The only worthwhile probe was that of Justice Nanavati, but he too did not go deep enough and did not apportion blame to anybody specifically. Even when, in an interview, I tried to pin him down to name the person behind the carnage, he merely said: “You know who he was”.
I think the naming of the guilty was important to punish them. Had the law taken its normal course, the killing of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 would not have taken place because the rulers and their associates would have learnt the lesson for complicity. Yet, we must know why the Sikhs, as a community, were targeted and what was the motive behind doing so.
I still think that there is a necessity to appoint a Truth and Conciliation Commission like the one the South African government did when the blacks assumed power under Nelson Mandela. Several white men appeared before the commission and gave gory details of what they did by resorting to untoward and illegal methods to keep the blacks suppressed. The white admitted the abominable role they had played.
None was punished because the very nature of the commission required true confessions to avoid punishment. Similar confessions are required from the Congress leaders and the authorities of those days. Only then will it be possible to reconstruct the tragedy, particularly the participation of the top leadership in the party and the government.
“This is happening because we are only 2 per cent in the country,” said a young Sikh at Jantar Mantar, adding that even the Muslims met the same fate in Gujarat, although they were 17 per cent. His note of helplessness struck me more than his pessimism. His is a telling remark on a polity which takes pride in being democratic and adherent of secular constitution.
The 80 per cent Hindus can brush the criticism aside as most of them do. Yet, the fact remains that the taste of democracy goes sour if minorities feel they are not getting their due. I must admit that the thoughts and conversations I shared with Muslims tell me that they find the millstone of partition still hanging around their neck, even after 65 years of independence. However, some confidence is beginning to build.
In a speech, Jamia Millia Islamia university vice-chancellor, Najeeb Jung, said a few days ago: “…There is need to understand Muslim concerns and address them to give the community greater confidence and ensure its greater involvement in the national mainstream. Two committees appointed by the government, both chaired by retired judges of the Supreme Court, have submitted reports underlining the weak economic and educational standards of Muslims, their inadequate representation in government jobs as compared to their population and suggested means to address them. The Government of India is making the right noises and there is hope that some positive steps will be taken to improve the lot of the Muslims. The Muslims themselves have realised their political power. In almost one third of seats in the Lower House of parliament, Muslim vote can make the difference between winning and losing. The Muslims have gradually understood the value of tactical voting and their sheer numbers will also gradually force the government to take them more seriously than the first 30-40 years of Independence.”
On the other hand, the Sikhs, who consider themselves close to Hindus, are beginning to feel that the relationship does not mean anything if the Hindu community gets worked up as it did in 1984. Maybe, there is a bigger lesson in the tragedies of Operation Blue Star and the killings. Only by delving into them would we understand the killing of General A.S. Vaidya or the attack on Lt. Gen. K.S. Brar, who led the Operation Blue Star against the insurgents entrenched in the Golden Temple.
Whatever the reason, it does not lessen the sanctity of orders given by the elected government to the army commanders who are duty bound to carry them out faithfully, whatever their predilections. It would be a sad day when the military would question the order of rulers backed by parliament.
However, the role of the army takes me to the theatrical posture of the retired General V.K. Singh. There is something called propriety which he has thrown to the wind and has come down to the level of urchins, asking for blockading the parliament. I am shocked that Gandhian Anna Hazare, who shared the platform with him, has not realised the harm he has done to the movement he has initiated to bring back the value system.
See the comparison between the two. One is itching to join politics while the other, Brar, a Sikh, is facing the fallout of political rulers’ order. The real question is not political but human. The Sikhs are voicing their grievance against non-rehabilitation of the victims’ families. “I have been living the horror everyday for the past 28 years. My entire family, including my husband and two sons, were mercilessly killed by the rioting mob. I recount my story every year to the media, but what difference has it made? Have I got justice?” says Surjeet Kaur, one of the victims.
True, one should move on. Yet, it is easier said than done. But punishment to the guilty will serve as a balm. The government has to initiate steps that will instil confidence in the Sikh community which should not feel helpless or abandoned.
Kuldip Nayar is a former Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and a former Rajya Sabha member.