ON the October 31, 1984, evening I was coming back after inspecting the Shahdara courts when I heard the tragic news of killing of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. The killing was done by two body guards posted at Mrs. Gandhi’s residence. The court found that there was only conspiracy by three persons to kill Mrs. Gandhi. No other outside person was found to be involved in the conspiracy. But what followed the assassination was a nightmare which will ever haunt the nation – it was the calculated murder plan generated by the Congress party in power with about 3,000 Sikhs being butchered in cold blood. This unpardonable crime by a political party will remain a permanent scar of shame on those who committed and encouraged it.
I was then still a judge in the Delhi High Court. The situation outside was so horrible because mobs were going round Delhi targeting Sikhs — there was a total absence of law and order. Such was the unchecked situation that one of my colleagues in the Delhi High Court, a Sikh judge, and his family were accommodated in the lounge of the High Court as we could not assure them safety and protection in their home, which was less than 1 km from the High Court. The shame of this helplessness still haunts me.
The police were not recording FIRs and were placing all kinds of hindrances. An application complaining about this was moved before me. It is correct that normally an FIR has to be registered in the police station which has the jurisdiction over that particular locality. But in that fearful situation it was impossible for Sikhs from various areas to go to separate police stations to get FIRs recorded. So I issued notice and told the government advocate that I was ordering that all FIRs which had already been collected throughout Delhi by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) would be taken to one police station (which the government might designate) and filed there. After this it would be for the government to distribute these FIRs to the respective police stations. To be honest, I knew my order was not strictly legal. But then circumstances were so extraordinary that not to have so acted would have been worse. It would have cast a shadow on the strength of the courts, which are expected to come to the aid of the oppressed at all times.
Another situation arose when people were demanding the appointment of a commission to inquire into the 1984 killings. A PIL was filed which came up before my Division Bench. The then Attorney General appeared for the Union Government and argued against it. I, however, felt that it was an important matter and needed to be examined at a regular hearing. My colleague, Wad J., was also of the same opinion. So we fixed the matter for a regular hearing when the High Court was to reopen after a short vacation. But such was the panic in government circles that undue pressure was put on the then High Court Chief Justice. The result was that when the High Court opened after the vacation, I found that my roster had been changed; I was now put on the criminal side. The result was obvious – the matter could not be heard by me. The matter was then heard by another Bench and the petition was dismissed. But so great was the public pressure that the government itself appointed Justice Ranganath Misra Commission. But its findings shocked every impartial observer. As a matter of fact the conduct of the Union Government was such as to infuse no confidence right from the beginning. The PUCL had formed a committee of eminent citizens to oversee the matter. Its members included Justice S. M. Sikri, a former Chief Justice of India, and Mr. Govind Narain, a former Union Home Secretary. The committee wrote to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi seeking a meeting so as to discuss important points with a view to ensuring that the Inquiry Commission complied with all legal norms so as to instill public confidence. But surprisingly Rajiv Gandhi did not even reply nor gave an interview to such an eminent committee – you can imagine the government’s sickening partiality. So in disgust the committee members resigned. The expected hollowness of the Ranganath Misra report corroborated the fears of all of us about the partisan role played by then Congress Central Government.
The various questions raised by the PUCL in its report of 1984 have not even been answered up till now. “Men at the top in the administration and the ruling party displayed repeatedly a curious lack of concern often bordering on deliberate negligence of duty and responsibility throughout the period of October 31 to November 4. The newly sworn-in Home Minister P.V. Narasimha Roa was said to have assured BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee on the October 31 evening that “everything would be brought under control within a couple of hours”.
But the PUCL committee has commented bitterly. “Soon after the assassination (October 31), we heard from a reliable source a meeting was held at 1 Safdarjung Road, the Prime Minister’s official residence, where the then Lt. Governor P G Gavai, Congress (I) leader M L Fotedar and the Police Commissioner, among others, met. A senior police officer present at the meeting expressed the view that the Army should be called as otherwise there would be a holocaust. No attention was paid to the view.”
The report continues: “As already mentioned earlier, till late night there were no signs of either curfew or Army, while miscreants were on the rampage in front of the police. In the heart of the city — Connaught Circus — Sikh-owned shops were being set on fire right under the nose of heavy para-military and police pickets. We later heard that the DC of Faridabad had asked for the Army on November 1, but troops arrived only on November 3.”
None of these questions have been answered till now. So when the Nanavati Commission was appointed, I had hoped that its terms of reference would be on the pattern of “Truth and Conciliation Commission” appointed in South Africa by Nelson Mandela. I still feel that this aspect should be followed by the Central Government because I am of the firm opinion that apart from punishing the guilty, it is important to know the real truth which is hidden in government files — human rights principles and justice to the families of victims demand this course.
— The writer is a former Chief Justice, High Court of Delhi