In 1984, when the streets of Delhi were drenched in blood and neighbourhoods rang with the cries of those murdered, Sanjay Suri was a reporter with The Indian Express. During one reporting assignment during the anti-Sikh riots, he was personally attacked.
30 years on, he recounts these experiences in his latest book “1984: The Anti-Sikh Violence and After”. In an interview to The Quint (interview and transcript below), he tells us why he wrote the book, and what he hopes to achieve from its publication.
The Quint: We’re in conversation with Sanjay Suri who’s written a book, 30 years down the line, on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Sanjay thanks very much for speaking to us on The Quint.
Sanjay Suri: Great to be talking to you.
Q: We understand you were personally affected as well, you were a target, you were saying…
S: Yes I had gone reporting to Sultanpuri (New Delhi). And hundreds were killed just down a couple of streets in Sultanpuri, and I was driving and I was stopped down this lane by a group of people who I later discovered to be Congress (I) party workers. And they said, “all is well here, go back”.
But then I saw a man beckon to me from a distance, and I drove past and I could see he was a Sikh who had cut off his hair. He said, “these people have killed people all around us, they will kill some more.”
I could see he was a Sikh who had cut off his hair. He said, “these people have killed people all around us, they will kill some more.”
So when I came back and turned around, these people blocked the way. And suddenly somebody opened the front door - my driver’s door. He punched me, he snatched my notes. Then Sevanti Ninan, my colleague was in the back seat along with two other colleagues. They grabbed her and they grabbed her notes. And that’s when I decided to make a run for it. I put the car into gear and just drove. I think I hit one of these [people] as I went past but I wasn’t going to care.
There was no sense of the police anywhere.
And suddenly somebody opened the front door - my driver’s door. He punched me, he snatched my notes.
Q: And of course, speaking to victims and having read a few reports, one gets the feeling that it’s not so much the failure of the state, as the state being actively involved in this?
S: You see, the failure of the state is also criminal. If you and I see an act of violence and we turn away, then we can be indifferent. If the police see violence, and they turn away, that negligence is criminal, and it is actionable under law. And I tried to bring that perspective into this book, that this was not moral negligence but criminal negligence that demands to be acted on.
If you and I see an act of violence and we turn away, then we can be indifferent. If the police see violence, and they turn away, that negligence is criminal.
Q: To quote a line from your book, you say “the debate over 1984 has continued far too long without a close enough reference to the law”. Was that what you were just referring to?
S: Exactly. What we have by way of a debate is a ding-dong trade of allegations and one anniversary after another. There are a lot of police officers and policemen who can be prosecuted and jailed over their failures in ’84, and this book seeks to bring that perspective into this debate.
Q: And speaking of police officers, you also say that your book was in a way possible, 30 years down the line, partly because these police officers, or some of them, were able to speak freely.
S: You see, we all know that Ved Marwah inquired into these riots and his inquiry’s report was aborted at the very last minute. And it could only have been aborted by the government of the day, the Congress (I) government, led by the Prime Minister. Certainly as a serving officer Ved Marwah could not speak then, but now I could have a lengthy interview where he has spoken at length about what he found.
Q: What are your personal hopes Sanjay for what this book can achieve?
S: My personal hope is no more than this: that the debate should not be just a repeat allegation exercise; that I place on the table my experiences and facts and records that I hope will inform the debate; that I hope will be a presentation of facts and experiences that somebody could take note on for purposes of action under law.
It is not enough to call it a moral failure. It is a criminal failure under law that demands action and prosecution. This book makes a case for justice.
The Quint: And on that note, do you believe justice will be achieved in this case?
Sanjay Suri: It is a very slender hope, very slender, but that hope does persist.
Published by Harper Collins, ‘1984: The Anti-Sikh Violence and After’ is available for Rs. 379.
Postscript: More than 2000 people were killed in the anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi. 30 years on, the government has yet to prosecute those responsible for the killings, that were allegedly organised by the then Congress (I) government after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.