As India stands on the threshold of yet another general election — 16th to be precise – the issue of communal riots is back again on prime time television news debates.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s admission in a television interview last week that some members of his party may have been involved in the 1984 pogrom that claimed the lives of 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi and 8,000 across India — in the aftermath of former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by two Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984 — has stirred a hornets’ nest. It offers yet another entry point to critics of the then Congress government’s inept handling of the violence in the national capital, with Rahul’s father and former prime minister, late Rajiv Gandhi, being at the helm during those tumultuous hours following Indira’s demise.

That a 30-year-old issue can still be fodder for heated political debate, even prompting the current Delhi Government to consider constituting a special investigation team (SIT), is in itself a sad commentary on the state of affairs in a country that prides itself on its secular credentials. From November 1-3, 1984, mayhem ruled the streets of Delhi, in collusion with a section of Delhi Police, even as the Union Home Ministry dithered to deploy the Army to protect innocent lives from a marauding mass of murderers. And it is indeed shocking that even after three inquiry commissions and as many as seven probe committees, some of the principal perpetrators of bloodletting are roaming free. There are some who may question the efficacy of trying to breathe fresh life into a three-decade-old wound, but accountability has to be fixed somewhere — something that periodic governments and probe bodies have failed to achieve. It is surprising that even after three decades, Congress leaders like Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler, who had their names mentioned in several eye-witness accounts and whose alleged role in the riots had been deliberated upon at length by various inquiry commissions, have not been indicted in any court in India.

Not just that. No inquiry commission has ever come out with any conclusive remark on the shocking nonchalance displayed by the Union Government in tackling the crisis during those dark days. To make matters worse, what still sticks out like a sore thumb is Rajiv’s infamous comment: “When a big tree falls, the earth below shakes.”

The Delhi High Court, while pronouncing its verdict on a riots-related case in 2009, had this stinging observation: “Though we [India] boast of being the world’s largest democracy and Delhi being its national capital, the sheer mention of the incidents of 1984 anti-Sikh riots in general and the role played by Delhi Police and the state machinery in particular, makes our heads hang in shame in the eyes of the worl polity.”

If the Delhi riots are a blot on India’s ethos of plurality, no less shocking are the mass murders of Muslims in Gujarat in March 2002, in the immediate aftermath of the Godhra incident, in which 58 people, most of them Hindu pilgrims, were burnt alive inside a train compartment. In hindsight though, the burning of the compartment of Sabarmati Express seems to have served as an excuse to unleash a reign of primal horror on hapless men, women and children, lasting for nearly three weeks and resulting in the deaths of nearly 1,050 people.

Criminal conspiracy

Yes, many critics would say that there is a qualitative difference between Delhi in 1984 and Gujarat in 2002. While the Delhi riots are yet to see any sentence being handed out to any of the prime culprits, the Gujarat pogrom resulted in the arrests of several hundreds and even the sentencing of a minister to 28 years in jail. Moreover, no court of law in India has found Narendra Modi, the Gujarat Chief Minister, guilty of any wrongdoing – the latest clean chit coming from a metropolitan court in Ahmedabad that rejected a petition to prosecute him for criminal conspiracy in the 2002 anti-Muslim carnage. Yet, it is unfortunate that the Modi administration allowed the carnage to continue for three weeks. If it was honest and sincere enough to prevent innocents from being butchered in cold blood, then why didn’t it act sooner than it did? Why did the Gujarat administration not step in and prevent mob frenzy with an iron hand at the very outset, when trouble started brewing in and around Ahmedabad and other areas of the state?

Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party — the two major national parties — will keep exchanging blows over who is more at fault, even as more innocents become victims of communal frenzy — as the recent incident in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, has shown.

But make no mistake, whether it is Delhi or Ahmedabad or Muzaffarnagar ... there is only one common denominator binding all such incidents: Human life, the lives of innocents to be precise. And there can be no qualitative classification as to which is a bigger or lesser loss. It’s a loss all the same – an irreparable one. Governments come and go, elections are won and lost, one inconclusive finding by one probe panel makes room for the next one to once again sift through the tell-tale remains ... the charade is enacted over and over again as members of the victims’ families silently suffer in memory of their loved ones, dying a hundred deaths daily under a leviathan of a state machinery that promises little and delivers even less to mitigate their woes.

A strong social fabric and the aspirations of a modern-day average Indian – whose quest for the ‘good life’ far outsmarts his or her communal affiliation — are factors that act as buffers against crosswinds of communal disharmony and religious fanaticism in India. That is why there is still reason to keep faith in India’s socio-cultural plurality – even in the worst of times. But a section of India’s politicians are guilty of letting the genie of communal disharmony out of the bottle, every now and then, for petty political gains and later offering to apply a Band-aid to a wound of gangrenous proportions. This hypocrisy must stop now.

Perhaps it is poignant to note what a victim, whose husband was burnt alive during the 1984 Delhi riots, had to say: “It is easy for Rajiv Gandhi to say, ‘When a giant tree falls, the earth below shakes’. Our trees fell and we can still feel the tremors.”