By Sanam Sutirath Wazir:
In the ‘widows colony‘ in Tilak Vihar, Delhi, the wounds of 1984 are still fresh. I began visiting this densely populated neighbourhood in 2014 as part of Amnesty International India’s campaign on justice for the anti-Sikh killings of 1984, but I wasn’t prepared for how overwhelming it would be. Often it seemed like the world had moved on, but these families were still stuck in the pain of 32 years ago. What they suffered then was catastrophic. But even after so many years, it seemed like few people had shared their grief and little had changed.
Thousands of Sikhs were slaughtered between October 31 and November 3 1984, following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Rajiv Gandhi at a speech a few days after the killings had said, “When a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it shakes a little.” But while there was indeed widespread grief and anger over Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, the carnage was not an outburst of anger of the people. It was an orchestrated massacre by certain groups.
Many commissions that looked into the massacre said that there was evidence of a pattern in the killings, something that victims told me as well. Sikh men between 20 and 50 years of age seemed to have been the primary targets. Many of them were dragged out of their homes, doused with petrol or kerosene and then set on fire in the most barbaric fashion. In some cases, tyres were ringed around their necks and an inflammable white powder hurled at them. This powder was never formally identified, or its availability investigated; some journalists have suggested that it could have been white phosphorus, a volatile substance, which is not easily available.
Shami Kaur, who was 30-years-old in 1984, told me: “I had to run on my husband’s dead body to save my other kids. I was robbed of all my belongings and my clothes torn apart.” She lost her husband and five members of the family during the massacre.
55-year-old Darshan Kaur said to me: “The mob dragged my husband out by his hair and placed a quilt and tyre on him. They then proceeded to pour oil and set him on fire. As a result he was half burnt and later died. When I pleaded for his life, they dragged me down the road and pushed me on the ground.”
There were instances of women being abducted, raped and then returned to their homes after seven or eight days. Yet only a handful of cases of sexual violence were registered. A major hurdle for the victims and survivors was the manner in which the police fudged the records. On many occasions it did not register FIRs against specific persons but registered ‘omnibus FIRs’, which did not name individual suspects, and covered all the offences in a particular neighborhood. Prosecutions in these cases mostly led to acquittals.
There are hundreds of widows living in Tilak Vihar today, facing a different set of problems. Many complain about their sordid living conditions, and the lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene. Some of these women lost up to 10 relatives in the massacre. They have vivid accounts of the horrors of 32 years ago. These were not comfortable conversations to have, neither for them nor for me.
Often, while recording a survivor’s statement, I have their eyes well up, and tears roll down, almost without them noticing. After 1984, they had lost not only their relatives, money and property. They had lost hope in the system.
More than three decades have passed since 1984. Cases are still pending, and the families of the victims are awaiting justice. But little has moved. Though the reports of various commissions and committees have clearly pointed to the connivance of the police, the administration and political leaders in the killings, few of those most responsible for the killings have been prosecuted. The lack of political will to deliver justice has only been too obvious.
The Special Investigation Team set up by the Ministry of Home Affairs last year has an opportunity to set things right. But its actions have not inspired much confidence. Reopening and re-investigating the cases that were closed by the police in 1984 is essential to delivering justice and closure to those who grieve even today for 1984.
Nothing less will do.