While unofficial estimates were higher, the official death toll announced three years later – 2,733 – was itself so staggering. A law and order breakdown of such mammoth proportions could not have occurred anywhere in the country, least of all in Delhi, without the collusion of the state machinery.
When a group clash at the Godhra railway station had led to the horrific train burning incident on the morning of February 27, 2002, Modi escalated the situation the same evening by calling it a terrorist act. Even after post-Godhra massacres targeting Muslims had taken place the next day at Gulberg Society and Naroda Patiya, with a much higher death toll, the peace appeal recorded by Modi at 6 pm for repeat telecast condemned only the killing of Hindus at Godhra.
The disdain for Sikhs manifested by his tree metaphor did set the tone for the Congress party’s campaign in the Lok Sabha election held within two months of the Delhi carnage. But there were already less noticed signs of that disdain. The few assailants who had been arrested were all released on bail, while the Sikhs who had been rounded up for exercising their right to private defence continued to be incarcerated. Having registered an omnibus first information report against unknown persons for each of the localities where scores of Sikhs had been killed, the police stations everywhere refused to register cases against specific persons, especially if they were associated with the Congress party. The seeds of impunity were sown right then. When People's Union For Democratic Rights and People's Union For Civil Liberties had come up with a quick investigative report on the pogrom titled Who are the Guilty?, the Congress party brushed it aside as an anti-national activity. It was against this background that in his campaign speeches Rajiv Gandhi displayed no qualms in rejecting out of hand the persistent demand for a judicial inquiry into the Delhi pogrom. Saying it would reopen wounds and inflame passions, Rajiv Gandhi projected the inquiry demand as just another threat to India’s territorial integrity from the Sikh community.
On winning the 1984 election with a record majority, Rajiv Gandhi promoted the main Congress leader from Delhi, HKL Bhagat, to the Cabinet rank although his East Delhi constituency had seen the largest number of killings during the carnage. Another prominent leader from Delhi, Jagdish Tytler, made it to the government, as a junior minister, for the first time in his career.
Emboldened further by the electoral harvest reaped in December 1984 from the hate propaganda, the Rajiv Gandhi government took no notice of the victims while moving a resolution the following month in Parliament condoling Indira Gandhi’s death. The intent to disregard the suffering of the Sikh community became more glaring when the government also moved a resolution shortly thereafter condoling the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy. Given that Assembly elections were due in key states in March 1985, Rajiv Gandhi was clearly wary of sending out any signal that would disrupt what had served as a winning formula in the Lok Sabha election.
Indeed, it was only after the Congress party had won most of the Assembly elections in March 1985 did Rajiv Gandhi switch to governance mode with regard to the pogrom. Even then, his compulsion was the ongoing insurgency in Punjab, which had been aggravated by the Delhi carnage. Rajiv Gandhi was admittedly forced to drop his opposition to a judicial inquiry into the pogrom as the then Akali Dal chief, HS Longowal, had insisted on it as a precondition for talks on Punjab. The reluctance with which the Ranganath Misra Commission had been set up in April 1985 affected the integrity of the inquiry. Despite being headed by a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, the commission from the beginning was engaged in a blatant cover-up. Throwing transparency out of the window, it held all its proceedings in camera. Worse, when it examined a few state actors, the commission did so without informing the counsel for victims, let alone giving them an opportunity to cross-examine those crucial witnesses. (In another tell-tale sign around the same time, the government conferred gallantry awards in the context of the carnage on two police officers, for a shootout in which they had arrested a family of Sikhs firing in self-defence from their own home.) As for Rajiv Gandhi, he was spared the trouble of being called to the commission even for that secret deposition with a built-in immunity against any risk of being cross-examined.
The head of the SIT that exonerated Modi was the very police officer who had been indicted for the security lapses leading to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination at Sriperumbudur. RK Raghavan owed the resurrection of his career to the Vajpayee government which made him the Central Bureau of Investigation director. In another historical irony, the retired judge picked by the Modi government to head the commission of inquiry into Gujarat 2002 was the very one who had already been appointed by the Vajpayee government to conduct a fresh probe into the Delhi pogrom. Unlike his Gujarat report, Nanavati’s Delhi report was duly made public. It fell to the Manmohan Singh government to table it in Parliament in August 2005. And, unlike the Misra report, the Nanavati report on the Delhi carnage was debated in Parliament. That was when Manmohan was forced by the outrage in Parliament to tender an apology, saying that what had taken place in 1984 was a “negation of the concept of nationhood”. Equally significant was this admission of his despite the repeated exoneration of Rajiv Gandhi: “We all know that we still do not know the truth, and the search must go on.” That was as close as he could get to admitting the cover-up by the Rajiv Gandhi regime in the immediate aftermath, when plenty of witnesses would have been available and their memories would have been fresh.
Battinni Rao, Noor Zaheer, Shabnam Hashmi, Jairus Banaji, Rahul Pandita, Purushottam Agrawal, Irfan Engineer, Adhiraj Bose, Himanshu Kumar, Asad Ashraf, Bonojit Hussain, Manisha Sethi and Subhash Gatade.
Transcript of Purushottam Agrawal's speech at the National Convention