The slow, tortuous path to justice

Sajjan Kumar is likely to spend New Year’s Day, in 2019, in prison. Thirty-four years after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the killings of Sikhs that followed, a political leader who may have electorally benefitted from communal violence has been sentenced to imprisonment for life. The wheel of history has turned ever so slowly, as some believe, but its arc may have yet turned towards justice. The assassination of Indira Gandhi, on October 31, 1984, was a national tragedy. The anti-Sikh pogrom that followed in north India, with the worst violence taking place in Delhi, was a greater tragedy. But the greatest tragedy of all was the stonewalling of investigation by the law enforcement agencies, and the seeming deafness of the justice delivery system. The judgment reconstructs the scene of violence and all the waiting that followed. Maze of inquiries It took years of commissions of inquiry and other inquiries before six accused, including Sajjan Kumar, a formidable Congress leader in Delhi, who was a member of Parliament at the time, were sent up for trial some time in 2010. Three years later, the trial court convicted five of the accused: three of them for the offences of armed rioting and murder, and two of them for the offence of armed rioting. Kumar stood acquitted by the trial court of all offences. Those convicted as well as the Central Bureau of Investigation appealed to the Delhi High Court. Now, the Bench of Justices S. Muralidhar and Vinod Goel has overturned the April 2013 judgment of the trial court, and sent Kumar to prison for life. Their judgment carries the echo of the crimes committed in the days after Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination and failure to hold the guilty to account for so long. The judgment finds: “The accused in this case have been brought to justice primarily on account of the courage and perseverance of three eyewitnesses. Jagdish Kaur ( picture ) whose husband, son and three cousins were the five killed; Jagsher Singh, another cousin of Jagdish Kaur, and Nirpreet Kaur who saw the Gurudwara being burnt down and her father being burnt alive by the raging mobs. It is only after the CBI entered the scene, that they were able to be assured and they spoke up. Admirably, they stuck firm to their truth at the trial.” Staying the course As a result of their testimony, Sajjan Kumar now stands convicted for conspiracy to murder and for the abetment of murder, in the deaths of Kehar Singh and his 18-year-old son Gurpreet Singh, and the killings of Raghuvinder Singh, Narender Pal Singh, and Kuldeep Singh — all members of the same family. I mention the names of the dead because the dead in communal violence should not lose their vestigial humanity by being simply reduced to a score of unnamed victims. Kehar Singh’s wife, Jagdish Kaur, was one of the principal witnesses against Sajjan Kumar. The other principal witness is her cousin Jagsher Singh, whose brothers Raghuvinder and Narender Pal Singh were also killed on November 1, 1984. The high court judgment notes Jagdish Kaur’s recollection: “At around 9 am on 2nd November 1984, when she went to lodge a report at the PP, she saw that a public meeting was taking place which was attended by A-1 who was the local Member of Parliament (MP). She heard him declare, “Sikh sala ek nahin bachna chahiye , jo Hindu bhai unko sharan deta hai, uska ghar bhi jala do aur unko bhi maro. ” The judgment records Jagsher Singh’s recollection that “around 10 p.m., he saw an Ambassador car which stopped at the turning onto Shiv Mandir Marg. He stated that 30-40 persons gathered around the car from which emerged A-1 who enquired as to whether ‘they have done the work’. Thereafter, it is stated, A-1 approached the house of PW-6 (Jagsher Singh) to inspect it and came back and told the assembled mob that they had ‘only broken the gate of the thekedars’ house’. One of the members of the mob then allegedly informed him that ‘the thekedars are being saved by the Hindus only’. Upon hearing this, A-1 is stated to have instructed the mob to burn the houses of the Hindus who were sheltering the Sikhs. He then left in his car.”

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