In New Delhi, Sikhs Take to the Streets Almost 30 Years After the Riots

Religion Fellows 2013

By Nida Najar

May 10, 2013

For the past two weeks, a long stretch of the road leading to Jantar Mantar, an ancient observatory in central Delhi, has been witness to ongoing protests by members of the Sikh community here.  Hundreds of protests have choked the streets, marched onto the parliament building, and crowded around the home of the ruling Congress party president Sonia Gandhi.

They want justice for the 1984 Sikh riots, during which at least 3,000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi, a response to the assassination of then-prime minister Indira Gandhi in an alleged conspiracy with her Sikh bodyguards.  Sajjan Kumar, a Congress party leader who had a case pending with a trial court in Delhi, was acquitted from involvement on May 1st, which sparked this latest round of protests.

“There was a carnage in 1984 and no justice has been given,” said Manjit Singh, a manager of a Sikh gurduwara, or temple, association who was present at the protest.  He stood under a banner of placards with the names of Sikhs who were killed in the riots.  “Nobody has been punished.  Cases weren’t even registered.”

The 129-page judgment gave Mr. Kumar the “benefit of the doubt,” saying that the three witnesses who claimed that he incited a mob to kill Sikhs in November of 1984 did not name him immediately following the riots, but years later.  But lawyers say that the evidence was not collected in a timely matter, setting cases back, and that the police and the Central Bureau of Investigation were in the pocket of political forces who didn’t want to see cases prosecuted.

Politics is on the mind of most in Delhi these days, roughly a year before the elections for Prime Minister will pit the Congress party against the opposition Bhartiya Janata Party.  Many say that the Sikh community, at less than two percent of the population, does not pose a significant vote bank for either the Congress or the BJP. 

Communal violence between differing religious communities has had a foundational effect on India’s politics and governance.  Its founding narrative is one of rampant violence between Hindus and Muslims as each group scrambled to relocate to a newly-formed India and Pakistan in 1947.  Since then, the violence after the Babri Masjid demolition in Mumbai in 1993 and ensuing riots that left roughly 900 Hindus and Muslims dead, the 2002 riots in Gujarat leaving over a thousand dead, and the 1984 Sikh riots have been some of the most noteworthy and politically polarizing among them. 

Vrinda Grover, a high court lawyer in Delhi and prominent human rights activist who has taken on many of the cases surrounding the 1984 riots, believes that politics in India is inextricable with police investigations.

“The pattern is one of investigation which is rank, unprofessional and extremely shoddy,” she said of the criminal investigations into the riots.  “That is not just because our police are so dreadful at investigation, which is part of the issue, but the investigating agencies are dancing to the tune of their political masters.”

She and other lawyers have been drafting a form of Indian communal law which would provide a legal framework for prosecuting politicians who incite communal violence, along the lines of war crimes.  It has been stalled with the current government since 2005.

But many believe that the issue of communal violence in India is not a political one, but a reflection of deeper antagonism in all of India.

“This is not a Congress problem, this is not a BJP problem,’ said Sukhveer Singh, a 33-year-old who works at a local gurduwara and sipped chai on the sidelines of the protest recently.  “This is a problem with the country.” 

Nida Najar is a 2013 IRP Fellow reporting on religion in India.