Don’t whitewash culpability of Congress in 1984 riots

Date: 13/11/2013

Subject: 1984 vs 2002

Not just 2002: Don’t whitewash culpability of Congress in 1984 riots

by Seetha

Firstpost.politics (Oct 31, 2013)

Yet another anniversary dawns. Of the cataclysmic events of October-November 1984, when the assassination of a Prime Minister set off the cold-blooded, targetted retaliatory butchering of thousands of innocent Sikhs over three days. Yet again political parties will play their set games over the killings, even as the community agonises over the fact that the guilty have not been brought to book. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will raise the issue and the Congress will ask about the Gujarat riots of 2002. Sikhs protest the acquittal of Sajjan Kumar.

There will be some non-political voices who will ask about both. And there will be another set of non-political voices that will be dismissive, and scornfully so, about 1984 being raked up. Yes, yes, 1984 is condemnable, it shouldn’t have happened; but can we now get on with asking questions about 2002, they will say impatiently. This section also wants to know why one should talk about 1984 whenever 2002 is mentioned. But there is a very good reason for talking about 1984, especially in the context of 2002. Because there is a pernicious attempt being made to downplay 1984, make it fade away from public memory even as no effort is being spared to ensure that 2002 never does. This is not to argue that 2002 should be allowed to be forgotten. Neither 1984 nor 2002 should be allowed to be forgotten. The memories of both need to be preserved if only to remind Indians of the kind of diabolically violent politics that the two mainstream parties have both indulged in, with equal measure. What is worse is the attempt to draw artificial distinctions between 1984 and 2002; to somehow show that 1984 was not as vicious as 2002; that it was handled better; that Congress leaders have expressed regret for it and that Narendra Modi has not. Is it a coincidence that such distinctions started when it was found that the attacks on Narendra Modi for the 2002 riots were being blunted by lack of justice for the victims of 1984? No double standard is too odious in order to whitewash 1984. No fact too important to be airbrushed away. Over 3000 people were killed in 1984, more than double of those killed in 2002. In 1984, only Sikhs died; in 2002 both Hindus and Muslims died (though admittedly Muslims died in larger numbers). And yet 2002 is a pogrom; 1984 is not? Yes, Modi’s failure to check the 2002 riots is a bigger black mark than Rajiv Gandhi’s failure to stop the 1984 massacre. Modi had been in office for six months when Godhra and the subsequent riots happened. He should have had that much political and administrative savvy to ensure that the bodies of the Godhra victims were not taken in a procession. The 1984 killings happened within hours of Gandhi being sworn in and, remember, this was immediately after his mother – the Prime Minister – was assassinated. A supposedly capable home minister – no less a person than P. V. Narasimha Rao – was in charge. But what of Gandhi’s actions and words after the events? Why are we supposed to accept that Gandhi’s famous ‘when a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake’ speech is not as insensitive as Modi’s equally famous kriya-pratikriya (action-reaction) speech? Take also the Congress advertisement campaign ahead of the December 1984 elections, which seems to have faded from public memory. These ads, carried in all the major newspapers, clearly identified Sikhs as the ‘other’. One in the series was about whether you could trust your taxi driver – the sketch that accompanied it was that of a Sikh. The ads and the speech came more than a month after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. By that time reason should have got the better of emotions. Let us be charitable and say that Gandhi spoke without thinking when he gave that analogy of a big tree. But were those ads also cleared without thinking? He was firmly in charge of the party and the government at the time they were put out. Could it have been done without his knowledge? Could he not have nixed them? Much is made of the fact that Gandhi felt deeply about the 1984 killings. Yes, he did express his anguish in his first address to the nation. In 1998, Sonia Gandhi did the same about both Operation Bluestar and the 1984 massacre during a visit to the Golden Temple. Manmohan Singh said sorry on the floor of Parliament. Modi has steadfastly refused to do so. Worse, he even inducted people like Maya Kodnani (now facing death for her role in the 2002 riots) into his council of ministers. What the whitewashers of 1984 would probably like us to forget is that Gandhi made two of those accused of instigating the 1984 killings ministers in his government. One was a cabinet minister, the other a minister of state. And remember these Congress biggies were repeatedly given tickets by the Congress party – even after Sonia Gandhi took over. How are teary-eyed commiserations with riot victims compatible with rewarding those responsible for their plight? Going by this logic, all that Modi has to do is shed a few tears, say sorry, bring on expressions of anguish to his face when talking about 2002 and then merrily go on shielding and rewarding people who perhaps should be behind bars. The impatient rejoinder this attracts is that courts have not held these Congress leaders guilty. So why not wait till the courts hold Modi and others who led the 2002 rioters guilty? How can they, comes the prompt response, when the police refused to register FIRs, witnesses are browbeaten, people who speak up harassed and even Supreme Court appointed panels suppress facts to protect him? These are very valid points. But why is it so easy to assert this about 2002 and deny it about 1984? Why are we expected to believe that in the case of 2002, police refusing to file FIRs shows a sinister conspiracy, but in the case of 1984 it means particular incidents never happened at all? What is perhaps more galling is the attempt to deny the Sikhs their hurt over 1984. Those enraged by the 2002 riots are incensed by the Sikhs protesting the acquittal of Sajjan Kumar by a Delhi court in a case related to the 1984 killings. That is apparently a communal attitude and a sign that the Sikhs want Narendra Modi as Prime Minister! This from the very sections who criticise the rabid Hindutva types for adopting a if-you-are-not-with-us-you-are-with-the-Congress attitude. The focus on 2002 is needed, we are also told, because the riots stemmed from an ideology of antagonism towards Muslims. The Congress isn’t anti-Sikh; the sangh parivar is anti-Muslim. Yes, there is a strong anti-Islam strain in the sangh ideology; the Congress is not antagonistic to any one community. But will it make Sikh families feel better to know that they were not the targets of a hate mentality, but only of momentarily inflamed passions (never mind that these passions were fanned by senior party leaders)? Will this lessen the pain of seeing the killers of their relatives go scot free? One can understand – even accept – the Congress and the BJP indulging in one-upmanship over the two riots. They are political parties competing with each other for power. This jousting over riots is par for the course. But when the non-political thinking classes start drawing distinctions between two horrendous hate crimes presided over by the two main parties with the sole purpose of showing that one is worse than the other, it is worrying and dangerous. Because this sends out a message that one kind of violence is acceptable, another is not. And once this point of view gains currency, the very people it is directed against will start using it to their benefit. So today, please remember and feel angry about 1984. And in February-March next year, please remember and be angry about 2002.

Seetha is a senior journalist and author.