An Indian court has convicted a member of the opposition Congress party, Sajjan Kumar for “criminal conspiracy” during the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 that killed over 3,000 people.
The anti-Sikh violence in New Delhi, among India‘s bloodiest in modern times, followed the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Most of those killed were Sikhs.
In a 203-page ruling, the High Court of Delhi on Monday convicted the Congress leader “for the offences of criminal conspiracy, and abetment in the commission of crimes of murder” and sentenced him to life imprisonment. The court has directed him to surrender before December 31.
The testimony of three eyewitnesses whose family members were killed, some burned alive by the murderous mob, resulted in Monday’s conviction. The court said the mass killings of Sikhs in the winter of 1984 were “crimes against humanity”.
“They will continue to shock the collective conscience of society for a long time to come,” the ruling said.
Several cases related to the riots are either the subject of tortuous trials or are still being investigated.
But the one most keenly followed involves Kumar, who is accused of inciting violence against the community.
Sikhs make up around two percent of Hindu-majority India’s population of more than one billion.
In 2012, India’s national investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, told a New Delhi court that Kumar incited crowds to kill Sikhs.
In the 10 days that followed Gandhi’s assassination, New Delhi witnessed horrific scenes of violence – burnings and killings.
Women were gang-raped and gurdwaras (Sikh temples), homes and Sikh businesses were destroyed.
“These were no riots, there are certainly good reasons to call these genocidal killings, clear signs of state-sponsored violence. Today’s conviction does reinforce that. This is a huge one, a cause for celebration,” Manoj Mitta, journalist and co-author of the book, When a tree shook Delhi, about the 1984 violence, told Al Jazeera.
“The first case that was registered against Sajjan Kumar was in 1990. That six-year delay in itself points to the attempted cover-up, the complicity of the government of the day in blocking the process of justice,” he added.
Turning a blind eye
Activists accuse the Congress party of having ignored the killing of Sikhs and say some of its leaders helped orchestrate the violence.
Civil society groups found that the violence was led and often perpetrated by sympathisers of the then-ruling party, the Congress, some of whom later became members of parliament or occupied posts in government.
India’s then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had apologised in 2005 for the role of Congress party leaders in the violence.
“On behalf of our government, on behalf of the entire people of this country I bow my head in shame that such a thing took place,” Singh had said in parliament.
Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, in October 1984, was carried out in revenge for her decision to send the army to flush Sikh separatists out of the Golden Temple – Sikhism’s holiest shrine – in the northern city of Amritsar in June 1984.
The Indian government estimated nearly 3,000 Sikhs were killed in the riots following her death, while human rights activists say the figure was closer to 4,000.
Ten government-appointed commissions and committees have probed these deadly attacks against India’s Sikh community. There have been a few minor convictions but successive Indian governments had failed to prosecute the leaders mainly responsible for killings and other abuses. Analysts said this highlighted India’s weak efforts to combat communal violence.
“India has a poor record for bringing political leaders to justice for their parts in communal violence. [The] 1984 anti-Sikh violence was a pogrom, which I had the misfortune to witness as a young Sikh.
“It’s taken 34 long years to bring Sajjan Kumar to justice and I hope it provides a little succour to the many families who lost loved ones in those nightmarish days when murderous mobs roamed free in the nation’s capital,” political analyst Krishan Pratap Singh told Al Jazeera.
Among the various committees set up subsequently to probe the violence, one was to inquire into the role of police. Most investigations and victims’ accounts said that in many cases the police failed to file complaints against the accused.
Many argue India should urgently work on police reforms and enact a law against communal violence that would hold public officials accountable for complicity and dereliction of duty.
“The idea of command responsibility is long overdue. If you find police officials down the line guilty of crimes of omission and commission, it’s owing to the directives from the top. So, conviction of foot soldiers not enough, the commanders have to be held to account,” said journalist Mitta.