When, on September 22 last year, Rahul Gandhi kicked off the Punjab leg of his ‘discovery of India’ outings with an unscheduled obeisance at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the symbolism in his quiet pilgrimage was loud and clear. It evoked enormous positive tidings in the Sikh community and was interpreted as the third generation Gandhi scion’s overture to bury the tragic past of 1984, which had not only changed the course of his family’s history but also that of the country.
Six months later, however, his goodwill gesture appears to have been undone by the Congress by fielding Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar — the two prime accused facing trial in the Delhi anti-Sikh carnage — as its Lok Sabha candidates followed, incredulously, by the CBI clean chit to Tytler. This single act of indiscretion on part of the Congress has re-opened the wounds of the vibrant minority that had long internalised the painful memories and moved on. It has provoked an avalanche of outrage and opprobrium from the Sikhs, most notably in Delhi and Punjab. A quarter century after the national capital witnessed free India’s most diabolic communal carnage — officially 2,733 Sikhs were murdered in less than 72 hours — as a backlash to Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the gory past has been resurrected.
Coming in the midst of high-stakes parliamentary polls, the emotive issue has struck a political chord. The BJP-led NDA and its key ally, the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), have lost no time in going ballistic against the Congress, accusing it of “manipulating Tytler’s exoneration by the CBI” and “rewarding” him and Sajjan Kumar. What has provided ammunition to the BJP-SAD offensive is the manner in which the Congress high command went about nominating its riot-tainted sitting MPs as contestants, without even waiting for the CBI to file its report in the court — suggesting that the party was sure of Tytler getting a clean chit.
In public life, as in politics, perception matters more than reality. While most of the high-profile dramatis personae of the cataclysmic 1984 riots are long dead, both Tytler and Sajjan Kumar are the only surviving accused who are widely perceived as prime perpetrators of the anti-Sikh pogrom. The Congress attempted to brazen it out with an overly legal “not-guilty-till-convicted” stance. But the re-nomination of both in the name of the “winnability factor” is not morally tenable and hardly squares up with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s act of dropping Tytler from his Cabinet after the Nanavati Commission indicted him and recommended a fresh trial. Clearly, the Congress has lost an opportunity to make a clean break with the past.
But, the Congress’s chicanery has only been matched by the crass political expediency of the BJP and Akalis. The saffron party has gone to the extent of promising re-opening of the 1984 riots case if the NDA is voted to power. For the ruling SAD in Punjab, it has been a god-sent opportunity to fight back against the resurgent Congress, which suddenly finds itself on the back foot. Ironically, the Congress is facing renewed Sikh ire while it is seeking votes in Punjab in the name of Manmohan Singh as a Sikh prime ministerial candidate.
Long after its pet slogan of casting the Congress as the worst enemy of the Sikhs lost its relevance and resonance in Punjab politics, the SAD quickly changed tack from pitching its development card as the key poll plank to stirring and stoking passions to consolidate the Sikh vote-bank. While the street protests called by the SAD and voices of the Sikh clergy and radicals are becoming shriller by the day, the Congress office at Jalandhar was attacked by riot victims last week — a grim portent in the high-stakes election campaign.
For the Akalis, already facing the ire of anti-incumbency, the internal upheaval and a spate of defections have only added to their desperation to grab this emotive issue. A jittery Congress has attempted damage-control with former chief minister Amarinder Singh admitting that Tytler’s exoneration is an embarrassment and trying to distance the Punjab Congress from the events. But the party may well have to pay a price in Sikh-dominated constituencies as the blast from the past threatens to mar its electoral prospects.
Ramesh Vinayak is Resident Editor, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh.