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Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
April 11, 2009
Isn’t it funny how, 25 years after they occurred, the massacres of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 have become an election issue? Jagdish Tytler has been forced to withdraw as a candidate from Delhi and the sinister Sajjan Kumar has had his ticket snatched away from him. At one level, you can see why Tytler is upset. In the quarter century since the massacres occurred, various commissions of inquiry and assorted law courts have failed to come up with a fool-proof case against him. Why, he asks, should he be treated as guilty even when the law of the land says he must be regarded as innocent till proven otherwise?

I don’t want to go into the rights and wrongs of the Tytler case. Nor do I want to delve too deeply into the evidence against Sajjan Kumar, which appears, superficially at least, more substantive than the case against Tytler.

What intrigues me is this: why is it that even educated Congress supporters have no sympathy for Tytler and Kumar? Why did so many people feel that it was a huge mistake for the Congress to have given them tickets? Why did even P. Chidambaram make no effort to loudly declare their innocence, choosing instead to be magnanimous towards the Sikh who threw a shoe at him protesting the clean chit afforded to Tytler by the CBI?

The answer goes beyond individuals.

The reason most of us are quite happy to see Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar driven out of the list of Congress candidates is that we feel that justice has still not been done. As even Chidambaram conceded, it has taken too long for the victims of the 1984 massacres to find any kind of legal redress. And even now, the public perception is that the masterminds of the massacres have got away with it while a few small-timers have been jailed.

In that sense, Tytler and Kumar are important, not as individuals but as symbols of a greater failing: the inability of the Congress party to rid itself of the taint of 1984.

It’s not as if the Congress has not made an effort. Both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have gone to the Golden Temple to ask the Sikh community for forgiveness. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has apologised on the floor of Parliament.

Nor is it as though the Congress retains an anti-Sikh image. Most political parties that are involved in communal conflagrations treasure the legacy of the bloodshed. When Mani Ratnam’s film Bombay was released, Bal Thackeray objected to the way he was portrayed in the movie. He did not mind the suggestion that his followers had attacked Muslims. He objected to the bit where his character expressed regret. “Regret? What regret?” he told me in an interview. “I regret nothing. My boys defended the Hindus.”

Thackeray is always candid. But other political parties have followed the same path. A decade after Dara Singh burnt Graham Staines and his children alive, the BJP is still spreading the same anti-Christian message in Orissa. And in Gujarat, Narendra Modi has neither expressed remorse nor regret over the massacres of Muslims.

In contrast, the Congress has more or less shed the legacy of 1984. It won power in Punjab a decade after the massacres and installed a Sikh chief minister. When it came to office once again, another Sikh led the government. And for the last five years, its government at the Centre has been led by a Sikh Prime Minister.

It’s impossible to conceive of Bal Thackeray nominating a Muslim chief minister; of the BJP in Orissa being led by a Christian; or of Narendra Modi announcing that his successor in Gujarat will be a Muslim. Once political parties get involved in communal clashes, they rarely resile from their hardline positions.

But because the Congress has tried so hard to make up for the failings of 1984 and because the Sikh community seems to have accepted that this avatar of the party cannot be held responsible for the Delhi massacres, it strikes me as strange that the Congress cannot recognise how important it is to convince Sikhs — and Indians of all persuasions — that it is committed to hunting down the guilty men of 1984 no matter how powerful they may be.

Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar would easily have won the elections in Delhi. This is why they got their tickets. But nobody in the Congress had the imagination to go beyond electoral arithmetic. The party can do with two seats less. But it cannot flourish if its reputation for secularism and social justice continues to be tarnished by the ghosts of 1984.

I suspect many people agree with me — and that includes much of the Congress rank and file outside of Tytler and Kumar’s constituencies. Which is why I cannot understand why the two men were given tickets to begin with. If good sense had prevailed at the very beginning, then the party would have been spared the fiasco of the past week.

None of this is to say that the other parties are squeaky clean or holier than the Congress. The Akalis, who played a very dubious role in the run-up to Operation Bluestar, politicised the Tytler issue, not out of a concern for social justice but out of a desire to make electoral capital. The BJP now sheds crocodile tears about the Sikhs but in the 1980s it sang a very different tune.

With a few notable exceptions (AB Vajpayee, for instance), the BJP did very little to protect the Sikhs in 1984 and it showed no particular concern for their welfare. Instead, it bought into the national mood of anti-Sikh hysteria and turned on anyone who it saw as pro-Sikh. For instance, when Ram Jethmalani defended one of the men accused of conspiring to kill Indira Gandhi, the BJP threw Ram out of the party. (The courts found the man innocent.) It’s all very well to get pious about the Shiv Sena’s reluctance to let Anjali Waghmare defend Ajmal Kasab. But the truth is that the BJP behaved in exactly the same manner.

Now that the Congress has withdrawn Tytler and Kumar’s tickets, I hope it has learnt that sorry does not always make it right. The party must do more than apologise. It must distance itself from all reminders of that era.

But for the rest of us, there are two distinct lessons. One: 3000 Sikhs were massacred on the streets of Delhi. The failure to punish those responsible shames us as a society. And the people of India have not forgotten that shame 25 years later.

And two: when it comes to Gujarat, the BJP is hoping that its electoral victories mean that the massacres are forgotten. It should heed the message of 1984. You can win as many landslides as you like. But if you are a party that condones mass murderers, then the ghosts of the dead will come back to haunt you.

Even if it takes 25 years.