Crime And Connivance
Frontline, Volume 19 – Issue 1, Jan 2002
As the G.T. Nanavati Commission of Inquiry proceeds with its investigation of the 1984 riots in Delhi in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, more and more tales of complicity and connivance on the part of the police force come to light.
Startling evidence of the complicity of the police in the 1984 riots in Delhi has been brought to light by the G.T. Nanavati Commission of Inquiry, which is now halfway through its investigation. The Commission, which has covered the three police districts of Delhi – New Delhi and Central and East Delhi – was appointed by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government on May 10, 2000, to look into the causes of the violence and the manner in which it occurred. Its terms of reference include fixing of responsibility for the dereliction of duty by the state authorities. The depositions made before the Commission reveal that while the majority of the police personnel tacitly supported the rioters, a section of them actively participated in the rioting.
The police have been accused by the then general secretary of the Akali Dal’s youth wing, Kuldip Singh Bhogal, of participation in the riots. In testimony before the Commission, Bhogal said that policemen from the Madhuban Training Centre near Karnal in Haryana were sent to Delhi to create chaos. He said that on November 2, 1984, a mob armed with lathis and iron rods ran riot in the Ashram area of Delhi. He along with some other Sikhs caught one of rioters, who was later identified as a policeman.
Bhogal said: "A Haryana police identity card was recovered from him, which was a clear indication and evidence that the mob to which he belonged consisted of members of (the) Madhuban Training Centre near Karnal and (that) they were sent to Delhi to create chaos, lawlessness and destruction."
Other witnesses said the police not only did not make any effort to control the mobs but actively instigated them to loot property, all the while not allowing Sikhs to come out of their houses to protect themselves. Ishar Kaur, a witness, said that the police did not allow her family to take their truck to the gurdwara while mobs were targeting the property of Sikhs. She said: "When we were bringing the truck to the gurdwara, the police stopped us by bringing their jeep in front of us and asked us to take the vehicle back."
Riot victims cite the case of Station House Officer (SHO) Shoor Veer Singh Tyagi to point out the fact that some officials have easily escaped punishment. Tyagi was the SHO of Kalyanpuri in 1984. Some of the worst cases of arson, looting and slaughter occurred in Kalyanpuri, just 12 km from the police headquarters. On the night of November 1, 1984, more than 200 people died there. The final death roll, mostly constituting poor and semi-skilled male Sikhs, was 1,500.
Rahul Bedi, who was then a reporter with Indian Express, said in his deposition that 300 yards (some 270 metres) away from Block 32 of Trilokpuri (which is a section of Kalyanpuri) he found the path blocked by a mob several hundreds strong. He added: "Before we could reach them, two policemen, one a head constable and the other a constable, riding a motorcycle, burst through the crowd coming from the direction of Block 32 and headed towards us. I flagged the motorcycle to a halt and asked the head constable driving it whether any killings had taken place in Block 32. The policeman said that there was shanti (peace) in Block 32. On further probing he admitted that two people had been killed." Bedi said that after that he was confronted by a mob that asked him to either leave or face the consequences of staying on. He then went to the Kalyanpuri police station and asked the duty officer and the sub-inspector there whether there was any trouble in Kalyanpuri. Both of them said that the situation was calm.
Rahul Bedi said: "A parked truck nearby attracted our attention and on closer inspection we found the back of the vehicle littered with three bodies, charred beyond recognition, and a half-charred, barely alive Sikh youth lying atop them. In his quasi-consciousness, the man told us that he was from Punjab and had come visiting relatives in Trilokpuri. In the early hours of the same morning, a rampaging mob, he said, had killed his hosts and set him alight after pouring kerosene oil on his body. He had been brought to the police station around 11 a.m., around four hours before we spoke to him. He had lain there ever since."
When Bedi questioned the police personnel at the station they denied any knowledge of the incidents and said that such matters were the responsibility of the SHO, who was away and would return only in the evening. Looking for information, Bedi reached the police headquarters and met Acting Police Commissioner Nikhil Kumar, who asserted that he would not be able to do anything more than inform the police control room as he was a "mere guest artist". After this, according to testimony, Bedi went back to Trilokpuri where he met Shoor Veer Singh, who then went to Block 32 with him. Describing the apathy of the police, Bedi recounted in his deposition: "Shoor Veer Singh, walking over the sea of hundreds of charred and mutilated bodies in Block 32, told me ‘the Mussalmans are responsible for this’."
THE Carnage Justice Committee (CJC) set up for the riot victims cites Tyagi’s case as an example of how easy it was for some police officials to escape punishment. The members of the CJC quote the landmark judgment of the Additional Sessions Judge, Delhi, Justice S.N. Dhingra. In his judgment Justice Dhingra said: "The then SHO Shoor Veer Singh Tyagi showed his shoorvirta by getting the innocent persons killed. His successor Satvir Singh Rathi showed his ‘love for truth’ by suppressing the truth and eliminating whatever possible evidence against the culprits that could be eliminated. Other police officials of Kalyanpuri faithfully followed their instructions for not taking any action." The judgment further said that Tyagi’s investigation was a farce. It concluded that Tyagi and Rathi could not have acted in that manner unless they had instructions from their superiors.
"Nothing came out of this historic judgment as the Commissioner of Police did not sanction the use of Section 197 of the CrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure) against Tyagi. This was necessary for Tyagi’s prosecution. As a result he was discharged by the court and continues to be part of the Delhi Police," said senior advocate H.S. Phoolka, who represents the CJC. "The response of the Delhi police in Tyagi’s case exemplifies the shoddy treatment given to the riot victims by the police force," said advocate R.S. Chatwal, also of the CJC.
Tyagi’s alleged role in abetting the killings in Trilokpuri has been examined by various government committees, including the Kapoor Mittal Committee which was set up to investigate acts of commission and omission by police officers. One member of this committee, Kusum Lata Mittal, indicted in 1988 as many as 72 officials under specific charges. (One member of the committee dropped out midway, leaving Kusum Lata Mittal to complete the job.) However, successive governments have shown no interest in following up on these proceedings.
In Tyagi’s case, Kusum Lata Mittal’s report states that "it was clear that the police staff of the Kalyanpuri police station had itself become a part of the mobs indulging in killings". It took note of the fact that while a carnage was going on in Tyagi’s own district, he was ordered by his DCP to proceed to the adjoining police district, which was not under his jurisdiction. On the basis of this fact the committee said that it seemed probable that senior officials of the police did not want to intervene in the killings and hence claimed that they were unaware of the incidents and kept themselves away.
Specific patterns of police participation in the 1984 riots can be traced on the basis of depositions made before the Commission. Whenever Sikhs attempted self-defence, policemen disarmed and arrested them. This was clear from what happened at Motia Khan gurdwara in Central Delhi. The police said that two Sikhs fired from inside the gurdwara at a mob on November 1, 1984. The then Police Commissioner, S.C. Tandon, reached the spot with two battalions of police and arrested both the Sikhs under Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which held them accountable for attempt to murder, although nobody from the mob was injured. The SHO of the area said in his deposition before the Commission that only four out of the 4,000 rioters had been arrested.
Most of the police officials who have been cross-examined have cited staff shortage as the reason for not reaching the sites of violence in time. The strength of the police force in Delhi at the time of the riots was 22,000 constables, 3,000 head constables, 1,400 inspectors and sub-inspectors, and some 242 higher officers, including the Police Commissioner. While it is widely recognised that the force as a whole was inadequate in size to service the needs of a densely populated and growing city, it was not so thinly distributed in 1984 that it could not have acted more positively than it did. The city was divided into five police districts and had 63 police stations and 25 police posts. The population of Delhi in 1984 was roughly 6.5 million, and there was one policeman for roughly 200 people. This was a sufficient number to stop the killings, as the police officials who appeared before the Commission admitted that they could disperse crowds by stern warnings or by shots fired in the air.
Deposing before the Commission, Assistant Commissioner of Police from the New Delhi range, Ranbeer Singh, said: "While I was passing through Bank Street I found that three or four Sikh families who were staying there were under heavy attack. They had gone to the topmost floor of the houses. The mob was throwing stones at them and they were also throwing stones at the mob. The mob consisted of about 2,000-3,000 persons. I told the mob to disperse but it did not listen. Therefore I ordered constable Anand Singh to fire two shots in the air. The crowd thereafter dispersed."
The participation of the Delhi Police in the riots has been discussed at length by the Ranganath Misra Commission, which tabled its report in Parliament in February 1987. The Misra Commission said that "when the incidents started taking place the police remained passive, leading to generation of the feeling that if the Sikhs were harassed no action would be taken, and the situation deteriorated further". It also noted that "it was not proper on the part of the police to withdraw the licensed firearms from some people belonging to the group which was being exposed and thus expose the weaker groups to great risk at the hands of the rioters." It stated that there were several instances when policemen in uniform were found marching behind or mingling with the crowd. Since they did not make any attempt to stop the mob, an inference has been drawn that they were part of it.
Regarding property that was looted, it said that "possession of identified stolen property constitutes good evidence for the offence punishable under Sections 411 and 412 IPC and provides a presumptive link for the offence. During the riots, the police, instead of following this known method, adopted a novel one of inviting the culprits to pile up the stolen articles in the open, near the houses from where the removal had been made. By this process the best evidence linking the accused with the offence vanished".
The Misra Commission recommended that the Delhi administration investigate the conduct of the delinquent police officers. It also recalled that the inquiry by V.P. Marwah, launched by the Delhi administration to identify incidents of severe failure to act and negligence by police officials, had been derailed by high-ranking officers in charge of South and East Delhi.
However, nothing has come out of the recommendations of the Misra Commission. Even less came out of the recommendations of the Kapoor Mittal Committee report, a comprehensive 400-page document, which went into the conduct of the personnel of all the police stations in Delhi, the Delhi Railway Police and the Delhi Armed Police in a detailed manner. However, 17 years after the riots, the role played by the political actors and officials of the state is still under debate.