Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31 October which led to massive communal riots on the following three days.

The 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots Files: 34 Years, 11 Inquiries & Counting

“When a mighty tree falls, the earth around it is bound to shake”

Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s infamous words, spoken at the birth anniversary of his mother Indira Gandhi only a few weeks after she was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, continue to haunt those who were affected by the carnage that unfolded in November 1984. 

Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31 October 1984, a few months after the former prime minister ordered the Indian Army to march into the Golden Temple as a part of Operation Blue Star. The pogrom that continued for the following three days across Delhi and the adjoining areas saw killings, destruction of property and looting that shook the entire country.

“Anger, grief and hatred” in retaliation to the assassination had seen over 3,000 people dead, most of them Sikhs.

Some of the top leaders of the Congress(I) party such as HKL Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler and Lalit Makan, among others, have been accused of inciting violence. Kumar was, on 17 December 2018, convicted by Delhi High Court for conspiracy to commit murder in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots case and sentenced him to imprisonment for life.

And 34 years on, with 11 commissions formed and quashed, the families of most of the victims still await justice. Here’s a look back at all the SITs formed to probe the case.

1984-1985: Marwah, Misra and Dhillon Commission

November 1984: Marwah Commission

A commission led by the then Additional Commissioner of Police Ved Marwah was set up to enquire into the role of the police during the November 1984 massacre. Having almost completed his enquiry by the middle of 1985 he was asked by the central government to not proceed further and hand over complete records to the Misra Commission which had been put in place in the meantime. However, the most important part of the records, which was the handwritten notes of Marwah containing intricate details of the investigation, were not handed over to the Misra Commission.

May 1985: Misra Commission of Enquiry

The commission appointed by Rajiv Gandhi after a lot of public outcry following the riots was headed by sitting judge Justice Ranganath Misra who was asked to “inquire into the allegations in regard to the incidents of organised violence, which took place in Delhi and also the disturbances which took place in the Bokaro Tehsil, Chas Tehsil (both in the present-day Bokaro district of Jharkhand) and at Kanpur following the assassination of the late Prime Minister, Smt. Indira Gandhi, and to recommend measure which may be adopted for prevention of recurrence of such incidents.”

Justice Misra took it in his stride to determine whether the violence was organised or not and ascertained that the violence was initially an involuntary action resulting from anger, grief and hatred for Indira Gandhi’s assassins which then transformed itself into a riot “with participation and monitoring thereof by anti-socials” due to police inaction.

The Commission, in its report, did not point at any particular reason for police negligence in handling the case or in some cases for colluding in the violence. The report gave a clean chit to the Congress party leadership and specifically absolved Rajiv Gandhi and HKL Bhagat from charges of having a hand in this pogrom. At most, the Commission conceded political involvement in this matter by Congress workers who allegedly participated in the violence on their own accord.

While the commission was operational, the Citizens Justice Committee (CJC), a body of lawyers and jurists, was called upon to assist the Committee in its fact-finding but they withdrew, alleging procedural lapses under Misra’s leadership.

1985: Dhillon Committee

This committee was set up to recommend measures for rehabilitation of the victims. Headed by GS Dhillon, the committee’s status report submitted by the end of 1985 suggested that business establishments which could not claim their insurance because the insurance companies denied them on the technical ground that the riot was not covered under insurance, should be paid compensation under the government’s directions. They added that since all insurance companies were nationalised, they be directed to pay the claims. However, the government rejected the recommendation.

1987: Three Committees Set Up

On the recommendation of the Misra Commission, the Delhi administration set up three separate committees in February 1987.

1. The Kapoor-Mittal Committee

Set up to enquire the criminalities and conduct of police officers during the massacre in Delhi, the committee was led by retired Delhi High Court Chief Justice Dilip K Kapoor and retired Secretary to the Government of India Kusum Lata Mittal. But due to the differences in opinions, two separate reports were submitted by the duo. While Mittal was of the opinion that only available records should be examined, Justice Kapoor was more inclined to include materials that were off the record.

The home ministry accepted Mittal’s report and rejected Kapoor’s findings on the ground that they were more of an analysis based on generalities and indicted 72 police officers for their lapses in controlling the violence.

The government press release said, “Ministry of Home Affairs was the disciplinary authority in respect of 6 of them. The Chief Secretary or the Lt. Governor was the disciplinary authority in respect of 14 and the Commissioner of Police for the remaining 52 officers. Out of those 72 officers, 13 had retired and 3 had expired before action could be initiated against them. 12 officers were exonerated. Departmental inquiry was quashed by the Central Administration Tribunal in one case. Pension was reduced in one case and three cases remained pending. As regards the remaining 39 non-gazetted police officers, inquiries were held against 35 officers. Out of them 32 were exonerated, 2 were censured and 1 was warned. Inquiries against 4 officials remained pending.”

2. Jain-Renision Committee

Another committee was established to look into the offences committed during the riots and also direct the prosecuting agency to act as per the findings. But retired IPS officer EN Renision, who was appointed as the head along with retired Delhi High Court Justice ML Jain, resigned from his post and was replaced by another retired IPS officer AK Banerji. The committee looked at cases including the ones against Congress leaders Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar and recommended that charges be levelled against both.

However, the Jain-Banerji committee could not make much headway because the Delhi High Court granted an interim injunction and quashed it on grounds of a conflict with the Delhi Police Act and the Code of Criminal Procedure.

3. Ahooja Committee

A third committee, headed by the then home secretary RK Ahooja , was set up to determine the exact number of deaths in Delhi due to the massacre.

After detailed investigation, the report arrived at the figure of 2,733 deaths in Delhi alone. The committee further recommended relief procedures.

1990-1993: Poti-Rosha, Jain-Aggarwal and Narula Committees

After Jain-Benerji Committee was dismantled, the Delhi administration appointed a fresh Committee with retired Gujarat High Court Chief Justice P Subramanian Poti and retired IPS officer PA Rosha which was further reconstituted and retired Delhi HC justice JD Jain and retired IPS officer DK Aggarwal were brought on board.

669 affidavits filed during the Justice Misra Commission were taken up for review, 415 new affidavits were received and 403 FIRs recorded by Delhi Police were scrutinised.

The committee concluded that:

  1. Separate FIRs for individual cases, case-by-case investigations and evidences for solitary cases were not recorded by the police leading to acquittals in most cases.
  2. The police investigation was cursory and mostly faulty with sketchy or no details in the recorded complaints and no attempts made to find direct evidence.
  3. The police did not try to trace the culprits and in fact they closed over 300 out of almost 700 cases saying they were “untraceable”, partly owing to the police announcement made in the aftermath of the carnage asking people to quietly surrender looted property on the roadside to avoid being prosecuted.
  4. The police did not accept complaints on many cases which named either police high-ups or political bigwigs. Even the complaints that were recorded only sought information on looted or burnt properties instead of specific names of culprits or victims.

Both Poti-Rosha Committee and Jain-Aggarwal Committee had recommended cases against HKL Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar but no action was taken against them. The latter committee also recommended strict action against lower-level police officials and sought an improvement in police administration and training.

1993: Narula Committee

Madan Lal Khurana-led BJP government appointed another committee led by Sardar RS Narula, retired Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court, which also, among other things, sought charges against Bhagat, Tytler and Kumar.

The other things recommended by Narula committee were immediate action in the cases named in Jain-Aggarwal Committee report, independent special prosecutors be appointed for cases related to 1984 carnage and the Delhi’s Special Riot Cell constituted in 1984 November be made more effective.

2000: Nanavati Commission

After a unanimous resolution was passed in the Rajya Sabha, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government appointed former Supreme Court judge Justice GT Nanavati as the head of a committee to “inquire into the causes and course of the criminal violence and riots”, the “sequence of the events leading to and all the facts relating to” it, and “whether these heinous crimes could have been averted and whether there were any lapses or dereliction of duty”.

The committee which started its investigation in April 2001 submitted its report on 9 February 2005 and concluded that there is a large number of credible evidences against Congress leaders and workers pointing at their involvement in the 1984 carnage.

The report said, “Large number of affidavits indicate that local Congress(I) leaders and workers had either incited or helped the mobs in attacking the Sikhs. But for the backing and help of influential and resourceful persons, killing of Sikhs so swiftly and in large numbers could not have happened.”

The other conclusions drawn by the committee were:

  1. The systematic killings show that the killings were organised. It said, “It appears that from 1-11-84 another ‘cause of exploitation of the situation’ had joined the initial ‘cause of anger’. The exploitation of the situation was by the anti social elements.”
  2. The report also slammed inaction on the parts of the police. “If the police had taken prompt and affective steps, very probably so many lives would not have been lost and so many properties would not have been looted, destroyed or burnt.” However, they refused to make any recommendation on the reform of the police and suggested that action be taken against them as recommended earlier by the Justice Misra Commission.
  3. The report ruled out any possibility of the involvement of Rajiv Gandhi or any other high-ranking Congress (I) leaders in the 1984 massacre, saying there was no evidence available. “Whatever acts were done, were done by the local Congress(I) leaders and workers, and they appear to have done so for their personal political reasons.”
  4. The Commission also recommended that the Central government ensure compensation for all the victims at the earliest and consider providing employment to one member of each family who “has lost all its earning male members and... has no other sufficient means of livelihood”.

The Committee had, however, recommended reopening of only four of 241 cases closed by police but BJP wanted the reinvestigation of all the other 237 cases.

HS Phoolka, who has been fighting the anti-Sikh riot cases, in an open letter to the then law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, said that of the 241 related cases, only four were probed by the CBI. The investigating agency had filed a chargesheet in two of the cases and in one case, five persons, including a former MLA were convicted. He demanded that a new SIT be set up to reinvestigate the cases.

2015: Pramod Asthana Committee

Granting an additional compensation of Rs 5 lakh to the next of kin of the 1984 riots victims, Prime Narendra Modi tasked Supreme Court judge Justice GP Mathur to determine the necessity of constituting an SIT to re-investigate the offences during the anti-Sikh riots. On Justice Mathur’s recommendation, an SIT was formed led by IPS office Pramod Asthana and comprising retired District and Sessions Judge Rakesh Kapoor and Additional Deputy Commissioner of Delhi Police Kumar Gyanesh. The SIT was given two extensions in August 2015 and August 2016 respectively.

On 20 February 2017, the Centre filed a status report regarding the investigation carried out by the SIT. The SC expressed concern over the closure of 199 cases and directed the Centre to place all 1984 riots related files before it and appointed a supervisory committee comprising former Supreme Court Justices JM Panchal and KSP Radhakrishnan. The two-panel committee reported that the Pramod-Asthana Committee had said in its report on 6 December that out of 241 cases, 186 cases were closed without an investigation.

2018: SN Dhingra Committee

Following the committee’s recommendations, a new three-member Special Investigation Team (SIT) headed by former Delhi High Court Judge Justice SN Dhingra was set up by the Supreme Court on 11 January to relook into those 186 closed cases.

The Committee has been asked to submit a status report within two months. But while earlier reports with details and evidences could not get the government to act against the perpetrators, only time will tell if further probe reports can actually move the brick and ensure justice to the victims of the 1984 carnage.

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