1984 Mass Killing: Why Delhi HC Reversed Sajjan Kumar’s Acquittal

What convinced the Delhi High Court to convict the Congress leader? Jagdish Kaur’s testimony played a key role.

7 min read
Jagdish Kaur (L) was the key witness whose testimony ensured the conviction of Congress leader Sajjan Kumar (R).

On Monday, 17 December, the Delhi High Court reversed Congress leader Sajjan Kumar’s acquittal by a trial court in 2013 for his involvement in crimes committed in Raj Nagar, Delhi Cantonment, during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

A bench comprising Justices S Muralidhar and Vinod Goel convicted the Congress leader for conspiring towards and abetting murder, rioting and setting a gurudwara on fire, as well as promoting enmity on the grounds of religion and damaging a place of worship.

They dismissed the appeals filed by the other five accused in this case, who had appealed their conviction by the trial court – and also convicted them under additional sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

The judgment is a landmark one, and not only because it is the first conviction against one of the high-profile Congress leaders the Nanavati Commission had recommended prosecuting. It also clearly sets out how Sajjan Kumar was protected from being brought to justice because of the connivance of the police, and, in a significant move, recommended the inclusion of ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ in our legal system to deal with cases like this.

Here’s how the judgment went about setting right a historic wrong and ensured justice, in which a crucial role was played by the indomitable eyewitness Jagdish Kaur.


The Accusations Against Sajjan Kumar

Kumar was the Congress MP for the Raj Nagar area at the time of the mass killings. According to the charge sheet filed against him, he entered into a conspiracy with the other five accused (and several other persons who were deceased by the time the trial took place) on or about 31 October 1984, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

As a result of this conspiracy, the other accused (including his nephews, also involved with the Congress) led and instigated mobs to attack Sikhs, their homes and a gurudwara in Raj Nagar, Palam Colony, in the Delhi Cantonment area on 1 and 2 November 1984.

The mobs killed a number of people in the area (an estimated 341), but this particular case related to the deaths of five men – Kehar Singh, Gurpreet Singh on 1 November, and Narender Pal Singh, Raghuvinder Singh and Kuldeep Singh on 2 November. The mobs also attacked the Raj Nagar gurudwara and the houses of the deceased.

Sajjan Kumar made two appearances in the area during this time:

  1. On the night of 1 November 1984, he arrived and asked the mob whether “they have done the work.” When told that Hindus were sheltering Sikhs, he told them to kill the Sikhs and those sheltering them.
  2. On the morning of 2 November 1984, he attended a public meeting where he exhorted the mobs to not leave any Sikhs alive, and that they should kill any Hindus who shelter them and burn their homes (“Sikh sala ek nahin bachna chahiye, jo Hindu bhai unko sharan deta hai, uska ghar bhi jala do aur unko bhi maro”).

The mob had made multiple attacks on the gurudwara on 1 November 1984 itself, succeeding in setting fire to it after the police took away the kirpans and weapons of the Sikhs who had tried to defend it. They had also killed the president of the gurudwara, Nirmal Singh, though this case didn’t deal with his killing.

The Key Witnesses

The prosecution relied on a number of witnesses, including relatives of the deceased, neighbours who had tried to help, and investigating officers who helped reveal how the original investigations into the incidents had been a sham.

There were three witnesses whose testimony proved crucial to the case, and court made special mention of the reliability of their accounts, and their bravery.

Jagdish Kaur (PW-1)

  • This whole case came about because of her original complaint (which had not been acted upon) and her consistent statements to all the commissions of inquiry that looked into the case and the investigating officers.
  • She testified to witnessing the murders of her husband (Kehar Singh) and son (Gurpreet Singh) around 1:30-2 pm on 1 November 1984, while hiding at a neighbour’s (PW-3) house. She also saw the mob beat and burn Narender Pal Singh to death, and saw the mob take away Raghuvinder Singh and Kuldeep Singh (who were her cousins) while hiding on the roof of her own house at around 7:30 am on 2 November 1984.
  • At around 9 am on 2 November 1984, while she was on her way to lodge a report at a police post, she saw Sajjan Kumar give his speech asking the mob to kill Sikhs and those sheltering them.

Jagsher Singh (PW-6)

  • He is the brother of Narender Pal Singh and Raghuvinder Singh, and cousin of Kuldeep Singh.
  • He also hid in the same neighbour’s house as Jagdish Kaur, and saw the mob drag Kehar Singh and Gurpreet Singh out of their own house and kill them on the afternoon of 1 November 1984.
  • He left PW-3’s house at around 10 pm, and around that time he saw an Ambassador car arrive at the area, from which Sajjan Kumar emerged. He then observed the exchange between Kumar and a group of 30-40 persons, when Kumar told them to burn the houses of Hindus who were sheltering Sikhs.
  • PW-3 tried to bring in a car to rescue Narender, Raghuvinder and Kuldeep, but this failed because of the mob. PW-3 then sent Jagsher out of the house at around 6 am, fearing for his safety. When outside, Jagsher witnessed the mob beat and set another Sikh man on fire, who he was later able to identify as Narender.
  • Jagsher escaped the area and got an Army friend to help save his brothers, but when they returned to the area, he found Raghuvinder and Kuldeep also dead. They picked up a few relatives including Jagdish Kaur and her surviving children.

Nirpreet Kaur (PW-10)

  • She is the daughter of the Raj Nagar gurudwara’s president Nirmal Singh.
  • She witnessed the mob kill her father on 1 November 1984 in a gruesome manner, using phosphorus to ensure he burnt to death after he managed to survive the first two attempts to do so by jumping into a drain.
  • She also witnessed the mob attack and set fire to the gurudwara on 1 November 1984, and corroborated the testimony of Jagdish Kaur about Sajjan Kumar’s presence at the public meeting the next morning.

Overturning the Trial Court’s Acquittal of Sajjan Kumar

The trial court had acquitted Sajjan Kumar on the basis that none of the original complaints about the incidents in question named him. The trial court accepted Kumar’s argument that his name first came up in Jagdish Kaur’s statements to the Nanavati Commission in the early 2000’s, and was therefore false. Jagsher’s testimony was assailed on the grounds that he hadn’t made any statements till the trial, and that Nirpreet Kaur also only named Kumar in a statement to the police in 2008.

However, in the Delhi High Court, it was shown that Jagdish Kaur had actually been attempting to name Kumar from the beginning, but that the police had suppressed this, as they had in other complaints against him, even going so far as to remove records of her statement provided to the police on 3 November 1984.

The judges went so far as to say that “This was an extraordinary case where it was going to be impossible to proceed against A-1 [Sajjan Kumar] in the normal scheme of things because there appeared to be ongoing large-scale efforts to suppress the cases against him by not even recording or registering them.”

Most damningly, Justices Muralidhar and Goel also said that it seems like her original statement to the Ranganath Misra Commission in 1985 – in which she named Kumar – has been lost in “crude, erroneous and perhaps motivated translation.” One of the key grounds on which Kumar had assailed Kaur’s testimony was that she hadn’t named him in her statement to the first commission of inquiry that looked into the 1984 riots, but she claimed she had in fact done so, pointing out numerous discrepancies in the English translation of her statement to the commission.

The testimony of Jagdish Kaur was upheld as being truthful and consistent even under serious cross-examination and after such a long passage of time, with the High Court noting that even the trial court had said so with reference to her statements about the other accused; the grounds for doubting her testimony about Kumar were found to be weak. Similarly, the testimonies of both Jagsher Singh and Nirpreet Kaur were found to be reliable and consistent, and the court noted that they had no reason to falsely implicate Kumar.

The High Court held that the the trial court was “clearly in error” to only disbelieve what the witnesses said about Kumar while finding them reliable enough to convict the others. It was not “acceptable,” according to the judges, to disbelieve the “witnesses who have remained consistent and spoken clearly” about Kumar’s role.

As a result, the High Court was satisfied that the trial court’s finding of innocence suffered from “manifest illegality” – which is grounds to overturn an acquittal – and so convicted Sajjan Kumar.

Crimes Against Humanity

Towards the end of the judgment, the judges also raised an extremely pertinent point – how cases like this are extraordinary, and that they need a different approach from the courts.

The mass killings of Sikhs in 1984 (2,733 in Delhi and 3,350 all over the country) were, according to Justices Muralidhar and Goel, “engineered by political actors with the assistance of the law enforcement agencies.” The judges opined that this meant the 1984 mass killings could be described as ‘crimes against humanity’.

‘Crimes against humanity’ generally fall within the scope of international law at present, and India does not have a separate category of criminal offences to deal with this.

The judges have urgently recommended that we strengthen our legal system to include ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’, in light of how cases like Kumar’s, where criminals responsible for mass crimes enjoy political patronage and so escape prosecution and punishment.

Interestingly, the judges here listed a number of mass killings in India which they consider similar to 1984’s attacks on the Sikh community: Mumbai in 1993, Gujarat in 2002, Kandhamal, Odisha in 2008 and Muzaffarnagar in 2013. The common thread running through all of these is the targeting of minorities, the involvement of dominant political actors, and facilitation by law enforcement agencies.

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