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How Various Indian Commissions On November 1984 Failed Sikhs
"The history of various Indian commissions on what happened during the November 1984 chapter of the Sikh Genocide has been fraught with failures, issues, and double standards..."
November 6, 2023 | 8 min. read | Analysis
The history of various Indian commissions on what happened during the November 1984 chapter of the Sikh Genocide has been fraught with failures, issues, and double standards, as justice remains outstanding or denied.
A Cruel Irony
On May 22, 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was sworn into office as India’s 13th Prime Minister. He did not run as leader of the Congress party but was instead installed as PM by the victor of the general election, Sonia Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi is the wife of Rajiv Gandhi and daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, the two individuals who collectively bear responsibility as Prime Ministers for the commencement of the 1984 Sikh Genocide.
So it would be that the person who would be ultimately responsible for delivering the findings of the Nanavati Commission, the ninth and final commission into the Sikh massacres of November 1984, would be visibly a Sikh.
A cruel irony that was a public relations victory for the Congress to place a turban-wearing Sikh as head of state some six months before the publication of a commission report which, despite every attempt at suppression, could not shy from the fact that the wholesale massacre of Sikhs across India constituted the most diabolical crime in the history of modern India.
“I have no hesitation in apologising to the Sikh community. I apologise not only to the Sikh community, but to the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our Constitution.” These were the words that were offered as an apology by a Sikh PM, not to the Sikh community exclusively but to the entire nation. It was as if an apology given solely to the victims would be too great a concession.
The fact that every person killed, every person maimed, every person set on fire, every person raped and every person rendered homeless and destitute was Sikh seemed to be too great of an admission, as the government would dilute reality instead.
To understand where we are today, however, we must examine the first failed commission into 1984.
The Misra Commission
In the six months following the massacres of November 1984, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi established at least four inquiry commissions on other issues within India but stubbornly refused to concede to demands for an inquiry commission into the November 1984 Sikh massacres.
In February 1985, Rahiv Gandhi claimed that by refusing to order an inquiry commission, he was “shielding the Sikh people themselves.” In March, he justified his refusal because a commission would “raise issues which are really dead.”
Eventually, on April 26, 1985, strategizing that it would strengthen his position in negotiations concerning the Punjab situation, Rajiv Gandhi appointed a Commission of Inquiry, under Section 3 of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952, to be led by Ranganath Misra, a Justice of the Supreme Court.
This commission and its report have been heavily criticised as biased and a miscarriage of justice. The People's Union for Civil Liberties and Human Rights Watch claim the Misra Commission was strongly biased against the victims.
A Human Rights Watch report recording the Misra Commission noted:
“It recommended no criminal prosecution of any individual, and it cleared all high-level officials of directing the riots. In its findings, the commission did acknowledge that many of the victims testifying before it had received threats from local police. While the commission noted that there had been ‘widespread lapses’ on the part of the police, it concluded that ‘the allegations before the commission about the conduct of the police are more of indifference and negligence during the riots than of any wrongful overt act.’”
People's Union for Civil Liberties criticised the Misra Commission for keeping information on the accused secret while revealing the names and addresses of victims of violence.
As well as the stifling frame of reference under which Misra was implemented, other procedural anomalies raise very important questions as to the commission’s true intentions.
As an example, victims who were deposed could be cross-examined by lawyers acting for the Delhi Administration, but lawyers representing the victims were not allowed to cross-examine Congress officials or Police officers who gave evidence.
This procedural bias was only part of a larger picture, which included the widespread refusal of Delhi Police to register FIRs (first information reports) on behalf of victims and the systematic destruction or loss of evidence against the accused by the Police themselves.
Justice Misra submitted his report in August 1986, which was made public six months thereafter in February 1987.
The Congress leaders and workers who had led the massacres had, in the intervening months between the massacres and the commission, found themselves promoted to positions of greater power, and they were able to harass and intimidate witnesses to prevent them from giving evidence.
Justice Misra had allowed entry to the proceedings of newly formed groups with titles such as ‘Citizens Forum for Truth,’ ‘Citizens Committee for Peace and Harmony,’ and ‘Nagrik Suraksha Samiti’.
These groups were avowedly anti-victim and were actually formed by Congress party officials who were keen to gather information on the witnesses so that they could be dissuaded from giving evidence.
Misra had also insisted that the commission’s enquiries be conducted ‘in camera.’ This meant that the media could not report any evidence presented which could be damaging to the government.
In his report, Misra admitted that “on several occasions, the Commission had to direct police protection to be provided to persons who had been or were about to be examined before it.” He went on to say that “these very villains started threatening the widows and other deponents with dire consequences in case they came forward to file affidavits, give evidence or did any such thing.”
But he conveniently avoided even speculating, let alone giving a finding on who could have been leaking the identity of the deponents in advance to these “villains,” despite the veil of secrecy over the “in camera” proceedings.
Astonishingly, of the 2,905 affidavits lodged with the Misra Commission, 2,200 were what Misra classified as “affidavits” against the victims.
These were concocted statements which followed a handful of basic templates, the language and structure of these anti-victim statements were similar, as was their assertion that the Sikhs had provoked the massacre and that the massacre was unorganised.
That these anti-victim statements were concocted affidavits circulated by the organisers of the massacre is borne out by the fact that none of the supposed authors of these statements came forward to testify in person. In contrast, victims appeared before the commission despite being threatened with violence if they did so.
After the establishment of the Misra Commission, the Delhi High Court enjoined the Marwah Report – the police investigation – from publication. It would be led by Ved Marwah, Delhi Police Commissioner.
The retired Chief Justice Ranjit S. Narula testified that he learned that police officers had told Commissioner Marwah about orders received from their senior officers to cover up or participate in the massacres, and Marwah had recorded these comments during his examination of the officers.
When the officers later submitted their written statements to him, they did not include these comments, although Marwah’s personal notes still had the incriminating information.
Marwah’s crucial handwritten notes were later destroyed, allegedly on instruction from higher authorities. The Delhi Police officer's written statements, devoid of the incriminating statements recorded by Marwah, were then handed to the Misra Commission.
Thus, the Marwah inquiry was quashed, leaving only the Misra Commission to investigate the Sikh massacres. Ved Marwah, in his later book ‘Uncivil Wars,’ stated that “In Delhi alone, more than 3,000 Sikhs were burnt alive in the most gruesome manner. With the Delhi Police playing a most shameful, passive role.”
Ranganath Misra had begun the process of constructing a facade of seeking justice for the thousands of victims of November 1984. His complicity in beginning this lengthy process of denial of justice through delay did not go unrewarded. In 1993, the Congress government of Narashima Rao appointed Misra as the first chairman of, ironically enough, the National Human Rights Commission. Later, dropping all pretence of impartiality, Misra became a Rajya Sabha member of the Congress Party.
In his report, Justice Misra stated that it was not part of his terms of reference to identify any person and recommended the formation of three further committees.
Other Failed Commissions
And so the charade continued through further commissions and enquiries, including:
Dhillon Committee: Set up to recommend rehabilitation for the victims. It recommended that insurance claims of Sikh businesses destroyed by the mobs be paid, but the government of India rejected these claims. Leaving thousands homeless and without the means to support themselves.
Kapur-Mittal Committee: Set up to probe, again, the role of the police. It identified seventy-two police officers for connivance in the massacres and or gross negligence. Thirty of these officers were recommended for dismissal. None have been punished to this day.
Jain-Banerjee Committee: It examined cases against Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar. It recommended cases be registered against both. Later, the Delhi High Court quashed the appointment of this committee and thus its recommendations.
Ahuja Committee: Set up by the Misra Commission to ascertain the number of people killed in the Delhi massacre. In August 1987, Ahooja’s report put the figure at 2,733 Sikhs. NGOs view this figure as a gross underestimate.
Potti-Rosha Committee: Appointed as a successor to the Jain-Banerjee committee. Potti-Rosha also recommended the registration of cases against Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, but once again, these recommendations were not acted upon.
Jain-Aggarwal Committee: Appointed as Potti-Rosha’s successor, also suggested cases against HKL Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar. Once more, no case was registered, and this probe was brought to an abrupt halt in 1993 at the insistence of the Indian Government.
Narula Committee: In its January 1994 report, it became the third successive committee in nine years to repeat the recommendation to register cases against HKL Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, but once again to no avail.
Nanavati Commission: A one-man commission appointed by the BJP-led government at the time. The final results would be delivered, however, by the Congress as described in the opening paragraphs of this piece. It found that there was ‘credible evidence’ against Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar.
Sikh activists, advocates, and lawyers share that all of these commissions and enquiries had two aims.
Firstly, to allow the passage of time to dull the senses, to fade the memory, to quieten passions, in order that the guilty may go unpunished and the victims be denied justice.
Secondly, and most importantly, the true nature of these events be officially concealed. That they are recorded as sporadic 'mob-led' instances of communal violence when, in fact, they were conceived at the highest level of government before being orchestrated and executed by employing every apparatus of the state. A handful of convictions decades after the fact have no impact on this central objective.
In these ambitions, the government of India’s facade of commissions and enquiries may have been wholly successful.
Author: Sukhbir Singh is based in London and is a Sikh commentator, researcher, and regular contributor on The Sikh Network Podcast (@theSikhNet)
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