‘My family was murdered in front of me’: Sheela Kaur is an eyewitness but still awaits justice for 1984 anti-Sikh riots

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By
Nov 03, 2017 09:34 AM IST

One of the few surviving witnesses to the anti-Sikh riots, Sheela Kaur has identified Congress leader Sajjan Kumar as the man who instigated the frenzied mobs .

On September 10, 2015, a frail-looking Sheela Kaur stood in front of a packed court — 30 years, 10 months and nine days after her husband, father-in-law and brother-in-law were burnt alive by a frenzied mob in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Sheela Kaur, who had testified against Congress leader Sajjan Kumar, at her home in New Delhi’s Tilak Vihar on Wednesday.(Sanchit Khanna/ HT Photo)
Sheela Kaur, who had testified against Congress leader Sajjan Kumar, at her home in New Delhi’s Tilak Vihar on Wednesday.(Sanchit Khanna/ HT Photo)

She pointed a finger at Congress leader Sajjan Kumar, identifying him as the person who instigated the mob in Delhi’s Sultanpuri, where she lived.

“Kaise bhool sakti hoon us din ke baare mein kuch bhi. Meri aankhon ke saamne mera poora parivar khatam ho gaya. (How can I ever forget anything about that day? My entire family was murdered in front of my eyes),” Sheela says stoically.

The 53-year-old is one of the few surviving witnesses to have testified against the Congress leader.

Of the three cases against Kumar that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) re-investigated, the Sultanpuri case is being heard by a sessions court.

In 2010, the agency closed another case related to mass killing of Sikhs in Mongolpuri for lack of evidence. In a third case on similar killings in Delhi Cantonment, Kumar was acquitted in 2013. The CBI contested the clean chit.

Kumar approached the Delhi high court in 2013 seeking quashing of the Sultanpuri case against him. His counsel told the court the witnesses were “unreliable” as they surfaced after 24 years and had not named the leader in their previous appearances in other related cases. The court rejected the plea.

Sheela, however, insists she had named Kumar from the day of the carnage.

“Main toh hamesha se Sajjan Kumar ka naam leti rahi par anpadh hone ke kaaran mujhe pata nahi police ne kab kya likha. (I have always been naming Sajjan Kumar as the accused but being an illiterate, I did not know what the police were writing).”

After her deposition, Sheela will now be cross-examined by Kumar’s lawyers as the case drags on in the Patiala House district court. When contacted by HT, Kumar’s lawyer, IU Khan, refused to comment, saying “the matter is sub-judice.” Kumar himself did not respond to calls or a message seeking a comment.

For all these years, the gruesome story of her family members’ murders has remained a mere statistic in the footnote of the country’s history.

On October 31, 1984, Sheela watched the announcement of Gandhi’s death on a small black and white television. “We never thought we could be targeted as we were poor daily wage labourers.”

Her block in Sultanpuri did not witness violence that night but the morning would be streaked with blood.

As news spread of mobs attacking a market nearby, a tense Sheela stepped outside her house tentatively. “Near my house was a small park where lots of people had gathered. That is where I saw Sajjan Kumar. He was saying, ‘kill those who killed our mother’,” she claims.

She ran back inside but the mob was on her heels. The three men in her house were taken out even as she tried to stop them. A while later, they were burnt alive. Their screams, she says, still haunt her.

“Na sar pe chunni, na pair mein chappal, bas ek mahine ke bete ko uthakar main bhagi. (I picked up my one-month old son and ran without a dupatta or slippers).”

She spent the next two days hiding in her Muslim neighbours’ houses – whoever was brave enough to give her shelter. It was only on the third day when the army arrived and took them to a relief camp set up at Rani Bagh.

It was at the camp that her first police complaint was registered. The only document she has from then is a laminated page browned with age. The handwritten complaint is now illegible. Only the police seal of December 15, 1984 is visible.

She does not know what happened with the cases in the immediate aftermath – all she remembers is the police and mediapersons coming to speak to her over and over again.

It was as late as in 2005, when a report by Nanavati Commission, the tenth such panel created to probe the riots, led to the Sultanpuri case being handed over to the CBI for re-investigation. It took another five years before a charge sheet was filed.

In the days leading up to her deposition, Sheela recalls a friendly neighbour coming to her several times advising her not to name Sajjan Kumar. Sheela instead requested for police protection, which was granted to her by the court.

She remembers being a little nervous on the day of her testimony but the thought of her late husband gave her the strength.

“Sajjan Kumar did not go to jail even for a day while my entire life was shattered. Even if he went to jail for one day, I will feel some relief,” she says.

“Till the time I am alive, I will continue to fight. Though it seems that the case is on me not on him,” she adds.

The years have taken their toll. Her voice wavers between faith in a system that she feels has failed her and anguish at the prospect of giving up the fight.

“Kya aapko lagta hai usse saza milegi? (Do you think he will ever get punished?)” she asks.

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    Niha Masih is a national affairs writer covering right wing politics, social justice and identity-based hate attacks.

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