The Ghost of 1984 Still Haunts India
Image Credit: Wikicommons

The Ghost of 1984 Still Haunts India


The anti-Sikh riots of 1984 still haunt the ruling Indian National Congress. Almost three decades ago around 3,000 minority Sikhs were killed, allegedly at the instigation of local Congress leaders in Delhi in the aftermath of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, on October 31, 1984.

According to numerous commissions of inquiry established to investigate the tragic incident, a number of local Congress politicians and police officials in Delhi  systematically instigated the raw sentiments of the mob. Despite these initial conclusions, the inquiry could not make much headway and in the majority of cases the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed closure reports.

Last week, however, a Delhi court set aside a closure report filed against senior politician Jagdish Tytler and asked the CBI to record the testimonies of all witnesses again, in a bid to establish the truth.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The reopening of the case has once again brought into focus a tragic chapter in modern Indian history and sparked a debate about justice for the victims.

According to media reports, a judicial inquiry in 2005 hinted at former Congress minister Tytler’s role in instigating the riot. The Congress leader, however, vehemently denies the accusations, claiming that he is being framed. He also claims that he was not present at the scene of the killings, but was attending Gandhi’s funeral when the riot broke out.

Ultimately, though, it’s not a question of one individual. It’s question of justice. It remains a mystery why no one has been held accountable for the deaths of so many. Even after installing Sikh Manmohan Singh as prime minister, the tragic episode from 1984 hangs like an albatross around the neck of the party.

Moreover, the subversion of justice in the case has emboldened right-wing forces in the country. A prime example came in 1992 when right-wing leaders from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) launched an agenda that led to the demolition of the 16th century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya.

The subsequent backlash against minority Muslims claimed many lives across the country. As in the 1984 riots, no one has been punished to date. On the contrary, BJP leaders like Lal Krishna Advani and others involved in the anti-Babri Mosque campaign came to occupy the center stage of national politics.

In 2002, around 2,000 Muslims were killed in Gujarat after fire broke out on a train coach carrying Hindu pilgrims in Godhra. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is alleged to have turned a blind eye to the violence. Although the victims’ families still await justice, Modi is now being touted as a BJP Prime Ministerial candidate.

These incidents underscore the ineffectiveness of India’s justice system, emboldening radical elements in the nation’s minority communities in turn. It is no secret that Sikh separatists remain active in Punjab and beyond, drawing their sustenance from the grievances of those who have been denied justice. The same is also true of India’s Muslim community, according to an article published last year in The Hindu.

All of these incidents are reminders of the dangers of deviating from a secular path. For the ruling Congress Party, it is time to allow a full investigation into the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Only then will the incident cease to haunt the party.


Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief