Acquittal of a Politician
Frontline, January 2003, Vol. 20, Issue. 01
Former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar leaves the court in New Delhi after his acquittal in the 1984 riots case.
When a Sessions Court in Delhi acquitted on December 23 former Congress Member of Parliament Sajjan Kumar of involvement in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, it brought to an end all the cases against politicians who were allegedly behind the violence. Congres(I) leaders H.K.L. Bhagat and Jagdish Tytler were among the other politicians who were exonerated earlier. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in three days of rioting that followed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination on October 31, 1984.
What makes the politicians' acquittal less than credible is the fact that they were indicted by independent commissions of inquiry, including the People's Union for Civil Liberties, the People's Union for Democratic Rights and the Citizens' Justice Committee.
Numerous affidavits have been filed against the acquitted politicians for their role in inciting mobs. The G.T. Nanavati Commission, which is now looking into the riots, continues to receive affidavits from victims with details of the activities of Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar and Tytler at that time.
The main complainant in the case against Sajjan Kumar was Anwar Kaur, whose husband Navin Singh was lynched by a mob in the riots. It took the police 10 years to file a charge-sheet against Sajjan Kumar in the case. During this time the case moved from one government committee to another. The Ranganath Misra Commission, which was set up by the Rajiv Gandhi government six months after the riots, made some general recommendations on the working of the police, but was silent on the role of politicians. On its recommendation, in February 1987 a committee was set up to look into cases where First Information Reports (FIRs) were not either registered or properly investigated. It was headed by Justice M.L. Jain, a retired judge of the Delhi High Court, and A.K. Banerjee, a retired Inspector-General of Police. Its first proposal, in November 1987, was the registration of a murder case against Sajjan Kumar. The police chose not to act on it and matters came to naught when an associate of Sajjan Kumar obtained a stay from the Delhi High Court on the functioning of the committee. In October 1989, the High Court quashed the notification announcing the appointment of the Committee, ruling that it did not have the power to monitor investigations.
Five months later, the V.P. Singh government appointed the Poti-Rosha Committee, but it made only cursory investigations. However, this Committee recommended the registration of a case against Sajjan Kumar. The V.P. Singh government then directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to register a case against the Congress(I) leader.
By the time the CBI completed its investigation in 1992, a Congress(I) government was in power at the Centre. The CBI sought the Central government's sanction to file a charge-sheet but the government under Narasimha Rao, who was the Home Minister when the riots took place, kept the matter pending for two years. It then decided that the matter did not fall within the Centre's purview, and transferred it to the Delhi government. In December 1994, the CBI filed the charge-sheet. After five more years, the statements of the prosecution witnesses were recorded.
A residential area in Delhi, in the aftermath of the anti-Sikh violence in 1984. (GAMMA)
Two witnesses, Salawati Kaur and Fota Singh, deposed before the Court that Sajjan Kumar addressed a meeting in front of Block A-4 gurdwara in Sultanpuri and gave instructions to kill Sikhs. These two witnesses maintained their version of the events until the very end.
However, the unclear statements made by Anwar Kaur resulted in the case being dropped. In her first statement, recorded on March 22, 1999, Anwar Kaur said: "The mob comprised, among other persons, the accused Sajjan Kumar." During cross-examination, on September 14, 1999, she stood by her statement. Anwar Kaur stated: "I had myself seen the accused, Sajjan Kumar, in the mob. Two to three months after the incident, I was even told by some persons that Sajjan Kumar was amongst the leaders. I had named even Sajjan Kumar while reporting the matter to the SHO, at police station Sultanpuri, but I do not know whether he had mentioned his (Sajjan Kumar's) name in the report or not."
On November 10, 1999, Kaur seemingly retracted from her earlier statement. She said: "... I had named Sajjan Kumar as I had been told by the police that he was in the mob. I myself had not seen him in the mob on that date. It is incorrect to suggest that the present case against the accused is politically motivated or that I was used as a tool by the opponents of Sajjan Kumar and others." Five other witnesses, who appeared after she did, also turned hostile.
Sajjan Kumar produced two Police Inspectors from Delhi as witnesses in defence. They were also the investigating officers in FIR No. 250/84, an omnibus FIR registered on November 1, 1984, for the entire Sultanpuri area. The inspectors had registered 49 cases of murder in this single FIR.
The first defence witness, Inspector Sukhbir Singh, was the investigating officer until November 28, 1984. He told the court that no witness had approached him with any allegation against Sajjan Kumar. He further said that Navin Singh's death had not been brought to his notice. The second defence witness, Inspector Raj Singh, who took over the investigations from Sukhbir Singh, said that during the course of the investigation of FIR 250/84, Sajjan Kumar's name did not figure anywhere.
The prosecution failed to prove that either Sajjan Kumar or any of the other accused persons were a part of the mob. Additional Sessions Judge Manju Goel relied on the statements of the defence witnesses and acquitted Sajjan Kumar and the other accused in the case. The Judge held: "Evidence is poor. There is no other witness apart from those mentioned above. There is no circumstantial evidence in this case to connect the accused with the offence."
Advocate Harvinder Singh Phoolka, counsel for the riot victims in the Nanavati Commission, said: "The Court treated this case as an ordinary one and not as an exceptional one. The entire machinery, including the government and the prosecution, protected the guilty. A duty was cast upon the Court to see through the game of the investigating agency and not to fall prey to it. We are taking up the matter with the government to file an appeal before the High Court and in the event the government does not do so, we will approach the High Court ourselves."
This is not the first riots case where the witnesses have turned hostile or retracted statements. At times, battles over compensation have spilled into the courtrooms, thus putting a question mark on the credibility of the survivors' statements (Frontline, September 14, 2001).
The functioning of the police has come in for criticism. In the worst-affected areas, such as Trilokpuri and Kalyanpuri, omnibus FIRs slowed down the dispensation of justice. This has been pointed out by the courts themselves. For instance, in another 1984 case, the state vs Kishori Lal, referring to Kalyanpuri, Additional Sessions Judge O.P. Dwivedi said:
"For hundreds of murders that took place in the area of PS Kalyanpuri, only one FIR, i.e. FIR No. 426/84, was submitted to the court and that too did not contain any specific details regarding the names of persons killed or the names of rioters. The investigations were a farce. Even the formality of preparing a site plan of the places where various incidents occurred was not completed in most of the cases. Ultimately, to show the compliance of law, an omnibus challan in respect of FIR No. 426/84 was submitted to the court and along with it the statements of some of the victims were also attached. It was left to the courts to sort out specific cases that could be proceeded in accordance with the law. It was as if the prosecution also expected the trial to be a farce and the cases to be summarily disposed of, thereby drawing a curtain on the legal drama."
The need of the hour is an efficient criminal justice system that can ensure that the guilty are punished. The system would have to take cognisance of the fact that in pogroms as in Delhi and Gujarat the police sides with the politicians and mobs to make rioting possible. Said legal expert Vrinda Grover: "What we need is an adequate criminal justice system which can deal with pogroms of this nature. The cases relating to the 1984 riots are being dealt with at an individual level and that too almost two decades after the incidents. It is impossible for the prosecution to present the evidence and witnesses after that long a time."