22 NOVEMBER 2018
Justice, 34 years on
The conviction of two men offers a glimmer of hope to other victims of the anti-Sikh pogrom
The conviction of two rioters for their role in the 1984 anti-Sikh violence in Delhi marks a rare success in the long struggle to bring the perpetrators to justice. Of particular significance is that this case, relating to a mob attack on shop-keepers in Mahipalpur, was resurrected after being closed as ‘untraced’ in 1994. The attack with deadly weapons left two Sikhs dead and three wounded. The Central government’s decision in 2015 to form a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to reopen serious cases related to the 1984 riots has yielded results. Yashpal Singh, a goods transporter, has now been sentenced to death, and Naresh Sehrawat, the local postman when the mob attack took place, to life. The trial court has rightly brushed aside minor discrepancies in evidence and technical objections to the fresh investigation being taken up, and concluded that the testimony of key witnesses, who were themselves injured, was cogent and reliable. It is possible to argue that there is little justice, or even meaning, in securing the conviction of those who may have been sucked into the mob frenzy that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination. However, it cannot be forgotten that obtaining a conviction in instances of communal and sectarian riots is quite rare. Investigators and prosecutors seldom succeed in nailing political leaders and their key henchmen. Impunity for participants in pogroms has been the norm, and successful prosecution the rare exception. The last time a person involved in the anti-Sikh riots was sentenced to death was in 1996. But Kishori Lal, known as ‘the butcher of Trilokpuri’, managed to get his death sentence commuted to life.
Investigation into the 1984 riot cases has been severely hampered by the fact that large sections of the police connived with the rioters, who included Congress functionaries and supporters. The slow judicial process was made even more excruciating by manipulated investigation and shoddy prosecution. In this very case, a long-time Congress functionary, Jai Pal Singh, had been tried and acquitted by a magistrate’s court as early as in 1986. However, the witnesses who identified Naresh and Yashpal among the 800-odd rioters at Mahipalpur, had once again said Jai Pal Singh was a prominent participant in the attack. This is just one instance of how influential men have managed to evade the law. An appeal challenging the acquittal of Congress leader Sajjan Kumar is in the Delhi High Court. Apart from the cases that have been reopened by the government-appointed SIT, the Supreme Court constituted a team to investigate 186 cases. The latest verdict demonstrates that the efflux of years need not be an impediment to the project of securing justice. It offers a glimmer of hope for substantial justice despite the passage of 34 years.
War without end?
The horrific attack in Kabul must prompt greater momentum in peace talks
The attack on a religious gathering in Kabul that killed 55 people, including several scholars and clerics, is another signal of Afghanistan’s descent into chaos. The clerics had gathered to mark the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammed when the suicide bomber blew himself up. The Taliban denied responsibility and blamed the attack on “seditious circles”, alluding to the Islamic State. Given the manner of the attack, it could well be responsible. In June, the IS had claimed an attack on another gathering of clerics. In Afghanistan the group has carried out a series of attacks on Shia religious gatherings and mosques. Hardline Sunnis consider venerating the Prophet’s birthday sacrilegious, making the clerical gathering a target for extremists such as the IS. But beyond the specific reasons behind the attack, the fact that a major religious gathering in the Afghan capital can be so easily assaulted by terrorists is worrying. Despite repeated promises by the government, the security situation has deteriorated, and markedly. Afghan forces face a war on two fronts. One is with the Taliban, which is mostly attacking government offices and soldiers. The other is with the IS, which is targeting civilians, minorities and clerics. It is almost certain, after 17 years of war, that the government cannot stabilise the country using force
This stalemate has prompted the Afghan government and its international backers to look for ways other than war to find a solution to the conflict. The U.S. has already appointed a special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad. He has held talks with Taliban representatives in Doha. Russia has also stepped into the peace process by hosting an international conference in Moscow, in which both Taliban and Afghan representatives participated. These attempts are actually exploring the possibility of a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government to end the insurgency. It is not going to be easy. The Taliban insists on international troops being withdrawn from Afghanistan as a precondition and wants changes in the Afghan Constitution. The government wants the Taliban to accept the Constitution, while the Americans say a troops pullout is not a matter of discussion with the Taliban. Still, the Taliban has made it clear that it is ready for talks, which is in itself a change given the group’s approach towards the conflict. It had, for the first time, agreed to a brief ceasefire with government forces around Id earlier this year. The reason is that the Taliban realises that it cannot win the war, at least not as long as the U.S. supports the government. It is also facing heat from the IS. The question is whether the government can seize the moment, strengthen its own counter-insurgency measures and negotiate from a position of strength, with backing from international actors. It’s indeed a tall ask.