Before April 2009 the author of this volume was a little known journalist. In the run up to the Lok Sabha elections he attended a press conference given by the Minister for Home Affairs, P. Chidambaram. At the conference the author asked the minister about his views on the decision of the Congress Party to select Sajjan Kumar and Jadish Tytler—two of the main perpetrators of anti-Sikh violence in October-November 1984—as candidates for the Lok Sabha elections. When the minister replied that he was ‘happy that my friend (Jagdish Tytler) had been acquitted by the CBI’, something in Jarnail Singh snapped. Rather meekly, in contrast to the treatment meted out to George W. Bush, he hurled a shoe at the minister in protest. The incident became an instant international media event, and in the words of one Sikh community paper at the time, the ‘wheel of law, which had not turned for the past twenty-five years, was turned by a shoe travelling a distance of one and half meters’.
While Jarnail Singh vented his frustration at the Congress administration’s chicanery in protecting its own, his action threw the party’s election campaign into tailspin. Suddenly Manmohan Singh’s own credibility as the UPA’s prime ministerial candidate was on the line. In Punjab and parts of north India, especially Delhi, Congress units found themselves on the defensive, pleading with the leadership to deselect the politically damaging candidates for a fear of Sikh voter backlash. In the event, a party which had been so culpable in shielding its own for the last twenty-five years was made to backtrack and drop them as candidates not by the force of law, nor by the courageous anger of the victims, but by the national and international humiliation heeped on it by the media coverage.
What Jarnail Singh’s act did, by default or design, was to shine a piercing light on the underbelly of India’s democracy: its rigid inflexibility in delivering justice to its citizens, especially of religious minorities, who are all too frequently the victims of mass, organized communal violence that is regularly excused as exceptional or irrational. Politicians, who are the main instigators of such violence, are only too keen to offer the rosary of ‘forgetting’ when ‘forgetting’ itself is a crime of immeasurable proportions in a polity that claims itself to be a liberal democracy. Indeed, the story of the anti- Sikh violence in Delhi in1984 and the failure to prosecute the perpetrators who, were by and large Congress politicians, is a story of inaction, delay, endless committees and reviews, judicial inertia, Mafioso-styled bribery to buy and intimidate witnesses, and bucket loads of moralizing in which the victims have been portrayed as the villains. In these circumstances what is remarkable is not that the Congress has failed in making the riots a non-issue, but that some of the victims have shown indomitable spirit in resisting the blandishments of the state and civil society in the matter.
I Accuse, written in the style of Emile Zola’s J’accuse, is not a comprehensive coverage of the anti-Sikh riots and the post-1984 developments. Readers in search of such an account will have to look elsewhere.Rather, I Accuse neatly weaves together individual testimonies of 1984 with official evidence as it has emerged from the various committees and commissions of inquiry since. It clearly identifies the guilty men (for there were few women!), but perhaps most significant of all, provides a graphic picture of how the machinery of state and civil society, which could have been easily mobilized to prevent such a tragedy, actually contributed to making the plight of victims much worse. In many incidents that are highlighted at the peak of violence in November 1984, the police were not only derelict in their duties but became generic cialis us pharmacy actively involved in encouraging and facilitating the work of rioters while victims seeking protection were harried, harassed and humiliated. Remarkably a brigade of the armed forces was available to the Delhi Lt Governor in riot affected areas but, despite their readiness, deployment was deliberately delayed by political intervention until the pressure of events proved overwhelming. The state and national media instead of acting as a restraining force further inflamed the situation by taking a partisan approach. Perhaps most tragic of all, however, Congress politicians outdid themselves in their gory rhetoric and deeds. Ever conscious of elections, their murderous deeds debased democracy to the worst form of demagoguery. In short, the key agents that could have prevented the violence were explicitly implicated in the process. Yet no less troubling, according to Jarnail Singh, was the studied silence of the silent majority which, as in those Gujarat riots of 2002, witnessed the riots as spectator sport. Sadly, their complicity was implicit and also fatal.
I Accuse also underscores the main maxim of communal violence in India: that it can only take place and be successful if it is well organized. Jarnail Singh provides a detailed account from official reports of how the violence in Delhi was systematically planned in a local legislator’s house where it was agreed to teach the Sikhs a lesson. Sikh houses were identified from voters’ list. Inflammable white power and kerosene were distributed to burn these properties. If that were not enough, a special train was organized from Haryana to bring lumpen rioters to Delhi and the city’s bus service placed at their disposal. And to expedite their work the riots were egged on by Congressmen who simultaneously reassured their shock troops that nothing would happen to them as the capital’s police, administration and politicians were ‘with them’.
Although much of the material used in I Accuse is now in the public domain, the value of this brief and thought provoking book lies not in the fact that it draws to attention to an episode that Congress wishes could be effaced from its past, nor the deliberate efforts by the party and its leaders over the last twenty-five years to frustrate the efforts to establish the truth, okBut the failure to learn the main lesson from 1984: that unless the victims of communal violence have their faith restored in the political system by swift action that delivers genuine justice by prosecuting the perpetrators, they will be inclined to resort to retributive justice themselves. Certainly as the events in Mumbai in 1993 and Gujarat 2002 demonstrated, the Indian state has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. Paradoxically, Congress’s efforts to wash its sins with Liberhan Commission report have only further muddied the waters and demonstrate how the politics of communal conflict in contemporary India are characterized by blame displacement that rarely address the underlying causes. Attempts by the current Congress administration to provide a new legislative framework to prevent the outbreak of communal conflicts is likely to be exposed as partisanship than a genuine endeavour at addressing the major blot on India’s democracy since the partition violence.
Finally, there is an ironic sting in the tail for Jarnail Singh for his efforts. Shortly afterwards he was dismissed from his post for violating the code of ethics of journalists. That, as Jarnail Singh sardonically notes, the ethics of a whole Sikh community could be trampled in dirt with impunity in a pogrom conducted in front of the global media, was a matter deemed unworthy of an ethical response form the world’s largest democracy.