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Posted at: May 9, 2019, 7:21 AM; last updated: May 9, 2019, 7:21 AM (IST)

Polls come & go, but ’84 riots issue simmers

Rasheed Kidwai

Rasheed Kidwai
Punjab, Delhi and Bhopal have witnessed many Assembly and parliamentary polls since 1984. But politicians have remained cagey over the decades on the issue of justice related to the two main events of that year: the anti-Sikh riots and the Bhopal gas tragedy.
Polls come & go, but ’84 riots issue simmers
Emotive: Rahul Gandhi is cagey about the anti-Sikh riots as it is a sensitive issue. PTI

Rasheed kidwai
Senior Journalist & Author

Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi should have considered accepting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s challenge to contest the coming Lok Sabha poll in Punjab, Delhi and Bhopal in the context of Rajiv Gandhi’s legacy, but the last date for filing nomination, April 29, is over. Though, even if they had, the rationale of a mandate settling any wrong is a flawed argument in a civilised and democratic society.

Punjab, Delhi and Bhopal have witnessed many Assembly and parliamentary polls since 1984. Punjab has seen Congress rule from 1992-97, 2002-07 and 2017 till date. Delhi has had 15 long years under Sheila Dikshit when the Congress’ political leadership was in the hands of Rajiv’s widow, Sonia Gandhi.

Modi’s jibe against Rajiv Gandhi, holding him responsible for the release of Union Carbide Corporation chairman Warren Anderson who had come to Bhopal on December 7, 1984, four days after the lethal gas leak from the Union Carbide factory that killed thousands of people, is somewhat misplaced. 

Anderson died in September 2014 at the age of 93 in the US, never having had to appear before any Indian court in any case relating to the Bhopal gas tragedy. In June 2010, a Bhopal court had convicted seven persons in connection with the case, but it did not name Anderson in its verdict, describing him as an ‘absconder’.

In his autobiography, A Grain of Sand in the Hourglass of Time, Arjun Singh, who was Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh when the Union Carbide chief was arrested at the Bhopal airport and let off within hours, pointed a finger at PV Narasimha Rao, who was then Union Home Minister. Arjun Singh wrote: “I would like to make it clear that at no point of time did Rajiv talk to me about this matter (Anderson’s release) or intercede on Anderson’s behalf. I came to know later that Union Home Secretary RD Pradhan, upon the instructions of Union Home Minister PV Narasimha Rao, had telephoned Brahma Swaroop (MP’s chief secretary then) to ensure Anderson’s release.”

Rahul seems cagey about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots because it is a highly emotive and sensitive issue. While interacting with UK-based parliamentarians and local leaders on August 24, 2018, he had remarked, “I have no confusion in my mind about that. It was a tragedy, it was a painful experience. You say that the Congress party was involved in that, I don't agree with that. Certainly there was violence, certainly there was tragedy.”

Rahul had admitted to Arnab Goswami in a televised interview that some Congressmen were involved in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. Here is a recap of that question-answer session:    

Arnab: Were Congressmen involved?
Rahul: Did innocent people die? Absolutely.
Arnab: Were Congressmen involved?
Rahul: Some Congressmen were probably involved.
Arnab: Has justice been delivered to them?
Rahul: There is a legal process through which they have gone through.
Arnab: You admit some Congressmen were probably involved.
Rahul: Some Congressmen have been punished for it.

Perhaps, due to political and electoral compulsions, Rahul fell short of saying certain things that Dr Manmohan Singh had articulated during his 1999 South Delhi Lok Sabha poll campaign. Singh had lost to BJP’s Vijay Kumar Malhotra. During the campaign, Manmohan had sought to implicate the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Speaking at the Press Club of India on September 2, 1999, Manmohan had termed the 1984 riots as “a black spot and the saddest event”. He had, however, clarified that the Congress as an organisation had no role in it. Manmohan then went on to say that the FIRs lodged at different police stations in Delhi proved that several RSS men were involved in the riots.

Manmohan subsequently clarified that he had not held the RSS solely responsible for the 1984 riots. On December 13, 1999, Manmohan said, “My statement was twisted for electoral gains. I had said that if there were individuals associated with the Congress and other organisations, including the RSS, who had taken part in the riots, they should be punished.”  

As Prime Minister, when Manmohan rose in the Rajya Sabha on August 11, 2005, to tender an unqualified apology over the 1984 Sikh killings, the RSS reference was missing. Instead, he said that he was not standing on any ‘false prestige’ and bowed his head in shame. A somewhat emotional Manmohan also recalled how he had accompanied Congress president Sonia Gandhi to Harmandar Sahib in 1999 and remarked, “We together prayed to give us strength and show us the way that such things never again take place in our country,” and added, “…as human beings, we have the willpower and we have the ability to write a better future for all of us.”

Rahul Gandhi is battling a defamation case filed by the RSS relating to his claim that the organisation was behind the killing of Mahatma Gandhi. 

Privately, a section of influential Congressmen feels that Rahul seems influenced by liberals and Left intellectuals on such sensitive matters as the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, else he could have showcased Manish Tewari and Ajay Maken as victims of the Punjab insurgency. Tewari’s father, Dr VN Tewari, a professor and author of over 40 books, was gunned down by militants in Chandigarh in 1984, while Maken’s brother Lalit, parliamentarian and son-in-law of former President Shankar Dayal Sharma, was murdered in Delhi on July 31, 1985.

While there is a huge difference between State-sponsored violence and individual acts of terrorism, the wanton killings of Professor Tewari, Lalit Maken and several others had left a deep impact. There is also a narrative of over 30,000 killings of innocent lives during the long years of insurgency in Punjab which does not form part of any political narrative. Modi’s party colleague in the 1980s, Madan Lal Khurana, had developed a habit of sorts of plastering Delhi walls with posters and slogans, “Hum lashen ginte ginte thak gaye” (we are tired of counting corpses) each time there was a massacre in Punjab or parts of Haryana.  

In my book Ballot — Ten Episodes that have shaped India’s Democracy, it is mentioned that the RSS was supporting the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s efforts to tame separatism in Punjab during the early 1980s. An article authored by veteran RSS ideologue Nanaji Deshmukh, ‘Moments of soul searching’ published in Hindi magazine Pratipaksh on November 25, 1984, had ended with a call to bless and cooperate with Rajiv Gandhi when the General Election was less than a month away (on page 31, Deshmukh described Indira as, “…Indira Gandhi ultimately did secure a permanent place at the doorstep of history as a great martyr. With her dynamism born out of her fearlessness and dexterity, she was able to take the country forward like a colossus for over a decade…she alone had the ability to run the decadent political system of our corrupt and divided society…”)

 Is Prime Minister Narendra Modi ready to contest these facts?

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