Over a year-and-a-half after the Supreme Court ordered a Special Investigation Team to re-investigate cases from the 1984 mass killings of Sikhs, the Home Ministry on Monday, 9 September, ordered the SIT to reopen case number 601/84 – in which Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath could face investigation and prosecution.
According to official estimates, 2,733 Sikhs were murdered in Delhi in the aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (3,350 across India), with riots against the community also destroying and damaging homes and gurudwaras and leading to the displacement of thousands.
Several Congress leaders have been accused over the years of instigating the violence, including Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar. Kamal Nath, who was an up and coming MP from Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh at the time, was accused of being present at the Rakab Ganj Gurudwara when it was attacked on 1 November 1984.
Here’s what we know about the incident, how Nath has defended himself, and what charges could possibly be laid at his door.
How Was Kamal Nath Implicated in the 1984 Sikh Mass Killings?
On 1 November 1984, the Rakab Ganj Gurudwara, across the street from Parliament House, was besieged for around five hours, during which two Sikh men were burnt alive and the building of the gurudwara was damaged by the mob.
In its report about the incident the next day, The Indian Express reported that Kamal Nath had led the mob, according to Manoj Mitta and HS Phoolka in their book about the riots – When a Tree Shook Delhi.
A staff reporter for The Indian Express, Sanjay Suri was on the spot, and would go on to be a key witness in the investigations into the incident. Suri said in his report that Nath was controlling the crowd, and that the mob was looking to him for directions, something he reiterated in all his statements to the inquiries into the riots.
In an interview to The Indian Express in 2015, this is how Suri described what he saw at the scene:
“When I went to Rakabganj Gurdwara, there were crowds outside and they were surging. Two Sikhs had already been burnt alive. I saw a crowd on the road surging again and again towards the gurdwara. By the side of this crowd was Kamal Nath. The crowd move forward, he raised his hand and they stopped. You could see this two ways – he stopped the crowd. My question is – what is the relationship between him and them that he had only to raise his hand and they stopped?”
A more detailed account by Suri can be found in his book 1984: The Anti-Sikh Violence and After, an excerpt from which was published in The Caravan on 7 July 2015.
The Statesman also reported on 3 November 1984 that Nath was present at Rakab Ganj, and said “Officers wondered what Mr Kamal Nath was doing at Rakabganj.”
What Did the Initial Investigations and the Misra Commission Find?
According to Mitta and Phoolka, both Police Commissioner Subhash Tandan and Additional Commissioner Gautam Kaul admitted in their reports about the incident at the Rakab Ganj Gurudwara, that Kamal Nath had been present there for some time.
Despite this, no FIR was registered against Nath for the offence, and as he has pointed out a number of times since, this has not happened subsequently either.
The Justice Ranganath Misra Commission, which conducted an inquiry into the riots in 1985, received three affidavits about the incident (including from Suri), and the reports of both Tandan and Kaul were placed before it. However, the report of the commission, which gave a clean chit to all senior Congress leaders, made no mention of any findings against Nath.
What Did the Nanavati Commission Say About Kamal Nath's Involvement?
Justice (retd) KT Nanavati, a former judge of the Supreme Court, was appointed to head a new commission to investigate the riots in 2000. The report of the Nanavati Commission, released in February 2004, found that accounts from victims and witnesses indicated that local Congress leaders and workers had incited the mobs and recommended the prosecution of leaders like Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler.
As regards the Rakab Ganj Gurudwara incident, the Nanavati Commission reviewed all the evidence presented to previous investigations, including the three affidavits filed before the Misra Commission as well as affidavits by four more persons – including Ajit Singh, who lived on the gurudwara premises. Sanjay Suri, Ram Vilas Paswan, who lived nearby, and Mukhtiar Singh, another resident of the gurudwara – appeared in person before the commission.
Nath’s presence was confirmed before the commission in the statements of Suri, Ajit Singh and Mukhtiar Singh. The two Sikhs claimed that Nath had instigated the crowd.
Nanavati Commission’s Summary of Kamal Nath’s Statement
“Shri Kamal Nath, in his affidavit, has stated that in the afternoon of 1-11-84, on receiving information that some violence was taking place in and around Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Sahib, he as a senior and responsible leader of the Congress Party decided to go there. When he reached there, he found that lots of people were standing outside the Gurudwara and para military personnel were also present. He tried to find out from various persons in the mob as to why they had gathered there and why they were agitated. He was told that some Hindu men and women were kept inside the Gurudwara forcibly and that was the main reason why they were agitated. By that time the Commissioner of Police came there. He felt satisfied that police would be able to control the situation, so he left that place. He has further stated that while he was near the Gurudwara he had tried to persuade the crowd to disperse and not to take law into their hands. He had also told the crowd that since the police had arrived, it was their job to ensure safety of the Hindus, if any, inside the Gurudwara and that the police would be able to control the situation. He has denied that he gave instructions to any one to resort to firing. He has also denied that he had either led that mob or had any control over the mob.”
THE COMMISSION’S VIEW ON KAMAL NATH’S INVOLVEMENT
Although the commission found that Kamal Nath’s statement was vague and that it was strange that he left the scene abruptly without contacting the police officers who arrived there, it decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, as he had been called on to give his explanation after almost 20 years, which probably made it difficult for him to remember all the details.
Ironically, the commission also relied on Sanjay Suri’s statement that Nath had tried to persuade the mob to disperse, following which the mob had moved back – Suri has long insisted that this showed he actually had control over the mob and therefore could be held responsible for it.
The commission found that the other two witnesses who’d claimed Nath had instigated the mob were too far away to have heard what he said, and had instead drawn inferences based on gestures he supposedly made while talking to persons in the mob.
As a result, the commission concluded that:
“In absence of better evidence it is not possible for the Commission to say that he had in any manner instigated the mob or that he was involved in the attack on the Gurudwara.”
The Commission also decided not to recommend the prosecution of the senior police officers investigated, because of inconsistencies in the statements of the witnesses and a failure to clearly establish they were aware of a serious incident at the scene.
However, it did find that there was a clear case of dereliction of duty on the part of sub-inspector Hoshiar Singh and the policemen posted with him who were at the gurudwara, and therefore recommended “appropriate action” against him and his men.
What Are the Charges Kamal Nath Could Face?
Kamal Nath has never denied being present at the gurudwara, and instead always insisted that he was there to stop the mob – even saying that he was sent there by Rajiv Gandhi to do this. In a statement to IANS in June 2016 (reported here in Hindustan Times), he said:
"“I was present there because I was asked by my party to reach there. There was a mob outside the gurudwara. I tried to stop them from attacking it. The police had requested me to control the mob till their reinforcements arrived.”"
Speaking to The Quint, journalist and author Manoj Mitta points out that Nath had little choice but to deny his involvement, given the contemporaneous news reports, and the reports of the Police Commissioner and Additional Commissioner.
"“The Rakab Ganj gurdwara episode involving Kamal Nath stands out as it’s the only instance from 1984 of a political leader admitting his presence at the scene of crime. In fact, he had no option but to make such an admission as police officers had corroborated a journalist’s testimony in this regard. The allegations against other leaders were entirely by victims or members of the targeted Sikh community.”"
So what are the charges that Nath could face for his involvement? Some clues can perhaps be gleaned from the case of Sajjan Kumar.
Sajjan Kumar is the only prominent Congress leader to have been convicted for his role. On 17 December 2018, the Delhi High Court overturned his acquittal by a trial court in 2013, and held him guilty of conspiring towards and abetting murder, rioting and setting a gurudwara on fire, as well as promoting enmity on the grounds of religion and damaging a place of worship.
Nath arrived at the scene after the attack on the two Sikh men who had been burnt, so it may not be possible to charge him with abetment of murder – unless it is proved that he had conspired with the mob before turning up there.
The witness statements argue that the mob arrived from the direction of Teen Murti Bhavan, where India Gandhi’s body had been kept, and Congress workers had been gathering to pay their respects. Nath was also at Teen Murti Bhavan before coming to the gurudwara, so it could be possible to say he had incited the crowd there.
Unlike Sajjan Kumar’s case, however, there do not appear to be any witnesses who heard him actually incite the crowd, so such a charge would be very difficult to prove.
It may be easier to charge Nath with the other offences Kumar was convicted of, including rioting, arson/damage to a religious building, and promoting enmity on the grounds of religion. These could perhaps be proved based on his interaction with the mob before it launched another attack on the Rakab Ganj Gurudwara, and what appeared to be his control over the crowd.
However, as no witnesses have as yet come forward who heard what he had to say, this could also prove difficult.
At the same time, a re-investigation of the case by the SIT may provide an opportunity to correct this, as it would allow new witnesses to provide fresh details. The Delhi High Court in its Sajjan Kumar judgment had held that there had been attempts to suppress the collection of evidence that could have implicated people like Kumar – perhaps this was the case here too.
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