1984 anti-Sikh riots: Will sentences handed by Patiala House Court have political implications ahead of 2019?

The first order of capital punishment in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots case was announced on Tuesday. This came a day after the 101st birth anniversary of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, whose assassination on 31 October, 1984 triggered the anti-Sikh riots that saw around 2,800 members of the Sikh community killed across India, including 2,100 in Delhi.

The punishment announced by the Patiala House court is in connection with one of the cases reopened by the Special Investigation Team (SIT), which was formed by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in 2015, a year after the BJP-led NDA government came to power. Earlier, the case was closed in 1994, with the Delhi Police citing a lack of evidence.

The irony is striking and the optics look bad for the Congress.

More than three decades since the riots, the Sikh community may have moved on, but the issue is still likely to generate heat ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. For the BJP, more such convictions, preferably with a link between those convicted and the Congress, would be a great talking point in Delhi as well as in Punjab. The Congress, notwithstanding apologies to the community from time to time, would be hard-pressed to defend itself.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The only saving grace for Congress is that the case is 34 years old, and the present generation is far removed in time from the heinous violence into which the country had plunged in 1984. The issue doesn’t seem to carry the same traction as it did then. The results of subsequent Assembly elections prove so.

Immediately after the 1984 riots, it was the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) that won the Assembly election in Punjab in 1985. But, after President’s Rule (1987 to 1992) was revoked, it was the same Congress (that was blamed for the riots) that won the election in 1992. Thereafter, the Congress again won in 2002 and 2017 under the leadership of Captain Amarinder Singh.

Even in Delhi — the epicentre of the riot, the Congress had won three consecutive Assembly elections under Sheila Dikshit, while the BJP won only once — the 1993 election. Prior to that, the Assembly was abolished from 1956 to 1993 as Delhi was a Union Territory in this period.

However, the BJP is determined to milk the issue for electoral advantage. After all, it has long championed the cause of the Sikhs who were targeted after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguard. Immediately after coming to power at the Centre in 2014, the Narendra Modi-led NDA government had announced Rs five lakh each as compensation to next of kin of victims of the 1984 riots and in December the same year, cheques were given to 17 Delhi families who had lost relatives in the riot.

This received criticism from Aam Aadmi Party, as the latter accused the BJP of trying to win over the Sikhs ahead of the Delhi election. Arvind Kejriwal in October 2014, had then demanded the setup of an SIT for a thorough probe. The MHA promptly announced that an SIT would be set up, and it was formed in February 2015.

The three-member SIT played a crucial role in Tuesday’s judgment, as it examined afresh evidence in cases that had been closed. The SIT found 60 cases appropriate for further investigation and one of them was related to the killing of two Sikh youths in Delhi’s Mahipalpur area. Delhi’s Patiala House Court handed Yashpal Singh — convicted in connection with the killing of these two Sikhs — a death sentence and gave Naresh Sehrawat a life sentence.

The involvement of Congress leaders like HKL Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler etc brought a bad name to the party. Following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the statement made by former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi — “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes” — was considered justification for the anti-Sikh riots.

In later years, in an attempt to ingratiate with the Sikh community, Manmohan Singh in 2005 apologised for the anti-Sikh riots. While describing Indira Gandhi’s assassination as a ‘great national tragedy’, he had said, “What happened subsequently was equally shameful”. However, in August this year, the Congress president Rahul Gandhi refuted allegations of the Congress’ involvement in the riots and triggered a war of words between the party and other political parties.

The court verdict may have come as a major relief for the families of victims, but how much heat it will  generate ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election remains to be seen.

“Finally, justice has been delivered on this horrific deed, which is utterly shameful for a civilised nation. We need not just two, but 200 guilty verdicts from top to bottom. However, this verdict which is so delayed, really won’t have much of an impact politically,” political analyst MD Nalapat told Firstpost.

The Sikh community, irrespective of  individual political leanings, wants justice, and no further politicisation of the anti-Sikh riots.

Congress Rajya Sabha member and noted lawyer, KTS Tulsi on 17 November reportedly expressed hope that Congress leader Sajjan Kumar would get the death sentence for his role in the riots.
“Main culprits lik Kumar, Tytler and others who are still roaming free should be punished. Evidence has come against Kumar, who has been identified as an instigator in anti-Sikh riots,” remarked Delhi-based Sardar Hardeep Singh, who as a student had been a witness to the riots.

Updated Date: Nov 21, 2018 17:07 PM

Updated: November 22, 2018 — 2:12 am