On the morning of October 31, 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two members of her security detail, both Sikhs who had been deeply shaken by a June 1984 Indian army operation in the Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh shrines. Over the next three days, nearly 3,000 Sikhs were killed by mobs in New Delhi alone, in many cases led by members of Gandhi’s Congress party.
Thirty years later, as the country observes another grim anniversary, justice still has not been served. Cases against senior politicians of the Congress party still linger, and many of the senior policemen indicted for inaction or abetting the violence by commissions of inquiry set up in the aftermath, have retired without suffering any consequences.
Unfortunately, the problem is not specific to the events of 1984. While this remains the most glaring instance of institutional failure in the face of religious violence against a minority, it is typical of the Indian response. The very institutions designed for providing justice in such situations, termed commissions of inquiry, have become the means of denying it.
According to the law, the government can appoint an inquiry commission consisting of one or more members, set up its terms of reference and prescribe a timeframe for concluding its work. The commission can proceed with much of the powers of a civil court, including the summoning and examination of evidence and witnesses, and produce a comprehensive report that must be tabled in Parliament within six months of its submission along with a report listing actions to be taken by the government to implement its recommendations.
While this sounds impressive, a close look reveals the extent of the problems created by such a system. Cases of religious violence, especially where a religious minority has been attacked, are usually marked by a failure of the same government machinery that appoints the commission of inquiry, chooses its constituents and frames its terms of reference. The same government then receives the report, and submits it to Parliament, where it has a majority, to choose to take action on recommendations it deems fit. It is no surprise that over 40 such commissions have been set up since 1947 to examine incidents of religious violence, and in no case have any of their major recommendations been implemented.
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This is exemplified by what followed the killings in 1984. Months after the violence for which many of its senior members were named, the Congress party chose to appoint a serving judge of the Supreme Court of India, Ranganath Misra, to head an inquiry commission.
In 1986, the commission wound down, recommending among other things that three other commissions be set up, including one to look at charges of police negligence. A two-member committee was appointed but was not allowed to summon or examine police officials.
Despite this, Kusum Lata Mittal, one of the two members, submitted a report in 1990 indicting 72 police officials. As of 2012, only six police officials have been punished. Unsurprisingly, over the past week the New Delhi police was again found wanting when religious violence again broke out in the areas worst affected by the 1984 massacres.
This is by no means an exception. In 1992-93 more than 500 Muslims and 200 Hindus were killed in religious clashes in Mumbai. Given that Muslims make up less than 20 percent of the population of the city, the violence, as in New Delhi was largely one-sided with the minorities suffering disproportionately. In fact, this imbalance in the death toll has been a feature of religious violence in India and was also a feature of the violence in Gujarat in 2002, when the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was chief minister of the state. In a state where Muslims number less than 10 percent, 697 Muslims and 236 Hindus were killed. In addition, of the 170 people killed by police firearms, 93 were Muslim.
After the Mumbai violence, a commission headed by Justice B N Srikrishna named 31 police officers for “actively participating in riots, communal incidents or incidents of looting, arson…” but more than 20 years later no action has been taken. It was against this background, that in 2005, the then chief justice of India, R C Lahoti, minced no words when saying the appointment of commissions of inquiry was a diplomatic way of diverting the attention of the people, and termed it a “waste of time”. He went on to add: “Personally, I feel that no judge should accept the responsibility of heading commissions of inquiry unless it is guaranteed that their recommendations and findings will be implemented.”
Lahoti’s observations do raise questions about the motives of those who chose to head such commissions. Again Mishra’s case serves as one answer to this question. Asked “to inquire into the allegations in regard to the incidents of organised violence which took place in Delhi…”, Mishra managed to reach a conclusion that did not fly in the face of facts and still managed to displease none in the government. He conceded that local Congress leaders and “anti-social elements” were involved, but ruled out the institutional involvement of the Congress party by observing that: “If the party in power or a minister or well placed person had masterminded or organised the riot, the same would have taken even a more serious turn.”
As a logical sleight of hand it remains unmatchable even in the long history of such commissions of inquiry in India. At no point in his report did Mishra make any attempt to rigorously deal with the evidence of the Congress’ institutional involvement, and neither did he, at any point, elaborate on what would amount to a “turn” serious enough to constitute such evidence.
Such callousness and obfuscation did not stand in the way of Ranganath Mishra going on to become the chief justice of India, neither did it stop him from becoming the first head of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India. But what really suggests something worse than callousness is that in 1998, at the end of his term as head of the NHRC, the Congress party, then in opposition, nominated him to the upper house of Parliament.
Perhaps Mishra’s journey from the head of a commission of inquiry charged to examine the role of the Congress in religious violence in 1984, to a member of parliament from the Congress party in 1998, is the best illustration of the impossibility of justice for the victims of religious violence in India.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada.