India's Sikhs wait for justice 25 years after pogrom
For Gurdeep Kaur, this weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the day she saw her son burnt alive during an orgy of anti-Sikh violence sparked by the killing of India's then prime minister.india Updated: Oct 29, 2009 10:55 IST
For Gurdeep Kaur, this weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the day she saw her son burnt alive during an orgy of anti-Sikh violence sparked by the killing of India's then prime minister.
Sitting in her ramshackle home in west New Delhi, the 65-year-old sobs as she recalls hearing the shrieks of a mob approach her house on November 1, 1984, the day after Indira Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards.
"I peeped through the window and saw my elder son running towards me, he looked terrified. There was a huge crowd behind him," says Kaur, tears welling up in her eyes.
"One of the men reached out and hit him with a stick. He fell down, the mob was on him in a second, he was beaten, doused with kerosene and burnt alive. He was just 21," says Kaur, who lost four male relatives that day.
Kaur is one of countless women widowed by the anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi and elsewhere that raged for four days following Gandhi's killing on October 31, 1984, claiming at least 2,700 lives.
As India gears up to mark Gandhi's 25th death anniversary on Saturday, wounds left by the violence are far from being healed, with many still waiting for those accused of inciting the violence to be brought to justice.
"My son was coming to tell me my husband had been killed and the shop he used to run, burnt down too. Our men were hunted down in cold blood and killed, it was like butchers slaughtering cattle or pigs," adds Kaur.
Her story echoes those of her neighbours who live in a crammed, run-down apartment complex in one of the many neighbourhoods where the 1984 riot victims were re-settled.
The pogrom in New Delhi and other states began hours after Gandhi was shot dead as she left her residence on the way to give an interview to British actor Peter Ustinov for the BBC.
Her slaying was seen as revenge for her decision to send in the army to evict Sikh separatists from Sikhism's holiest site, the Golden Temple, in Punjab. The state was racked by a violent insurgency at the time.
Hindu mobs began rampaging through Sikh neighbourhoods almost immediately, with the alleged connivance and encouragement of police and political figures from Gandhi's Congress party, which rules India today.
By the time calm was restored, tens of thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Many Sikhs had removed their turbans and cut their hair to avoid being recognised.
"Every year on the anniversary, I cannot sleep -- all those horrible scenes keep replaying before my eyes. I cannot forget the brutality and the savagery," says Asubhi Kaur, Gurdeep's neighbour.
Nirmal Kaur, who was barely a teenager when her father, uncles and several cousins were killed, is still bitter so little has been done to bring those responsible to justice.
"Neither tears nor our pleas for justice have made any difference," she says.
Only a handful of police officials have been punished and none of the Congress leaders accused of inciting the mobs has been successfully prosecuted.
"We saw these Congress politicians encouraging the crowds to target us. Despite our evidence and testimonials, no one has been convicted," says Gurdeep Kaur.
Federal detectives have investigated Jagdish Tytler, one of two former ministers accused of inciting the mobs, as well as senior Congress party leaders Sajjan Kumar and former minister H.K.L. Bhagat.
Police said they were unable to find witnesses to testify against Tytler, while Kumar is still the subject of a probe. Bhagat has died.
They all denied any involvement.
Hindu-majority India has come a long way in the 25 years since the carnage, economically and socially, though intra-religious fighting still blows up occasionally -- against Christians last year and against Muslims in 2002.
The country now has its first Sikh prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and the ruling Congress party, still headed by the Gandhi dynasty, has made efforts to build bridges with the community.
Indira's son Rajiv Gandhi, who was himself assassinated by a Tamil Tiger bomber in 1991, notoriously downplayed the violence afterwards when he said "there are always tremors when a great tree falls".
However, Rajiv's son Rahul called the riots "absolutely wrong" last year during a visit to the Golden Temple.
H.S. Phoolka, a lawyer and activist representing riot victims, says many people have given up hope of seeing justice.
"This is what the culprits wanted, that we should get frustrated and stop pursuing it," he says.
But, he adds, "as an activist and lawyer I feel it is my duty to pursue the cases and take it to the logical end. It's only then that we can ensure that these kinds of things don't happen again."
R.S. Chhatwal, secretary of the Sikh Forum, an advocacy group, says the fight for justice should not be linked to religion.
"It shouldn't be taken as a Sikh issue," he says. "It was a humanitarian issue because the government and police connived to kill, loot and destroy the property of a community that was very visible."