Sikri Commission Report
As a result of our enquiries we have come to certain prima facie conclusions.
Before we proceed to state them, we wish to emphasise that we had, at an early stage, addressed a communication to the Prime Minister (Appendix ‘A’) seeking an interview. Along with it, we sent a note containing positive suggestions for immediate remedial action which, in our view, would have helped to provide a measure of reassurance to the sufferers and, indeed, to all law-abiding citizens. But, we were unable to obtain an interview. Nor have we been informed if our suggestions have received attention or consideration.
We had also addressed a letter to the Union Home Minister (Appendix ‘D’) who in the Cabinet is responsible for the peace and good governance of the Capital, which is essentially a Centrally administered area. Along with that letter, we had appended a detailed questionnaire to which we had sought answers to be discussed in an interview. These questions, in our view, go to the heart of the problem. They suggest preventive, corrective and retributive action against the miscreants; and propose ameliorative measures to restore public confidence. Despite reminders, we have not been given an interview and the questions, which are germane to our enquiry, remain unanswered by the authorities directly responsible. In the absence of authoritative official responses to those questions, we have had perforce, and so far as was possible, to ferret out the required information from whatever sources were open to us. Nevertheless, a large number of questions remain open. In the text of our report, we have had frequently to refer to these gaps. These questions, if left unanswered, can only result in spreading further doubt and lead to adverse inferences about the role played by the administration in this crisis.
A progressively deteriorating political situation in the Punjab, over the previous three years or so, became the prelude for the worst carnage across the country since Partition. The brutal killing of Smt. Indira Gandhi sparked off these atrocities. The remarkable uniformity in the pattern of the crimes committed, with some local variations, strongly suggest that at some stage the objective became to ‘Teach the Sikhs a lesson’. The incredible and abysmal failure of the administration and the police; the instigation by dubious political elements; the equivocal role of the information media; and the inertia, apathy and indifference of the official machinery; all lead to the inferences that follow.
Role of Administration and Police
A climate of violence and terrorism had been building up in the Punjab and Delhi for some time along with the accompanying danger of political assassinations. This should have necessitated the taking of adequate security and preventive measures, particularly for the protection of leading political personalities.
The Commission is of the view that the time gap, between the attempt on the person of the late Prime Minister and the official announcement of her death, should have provided the administration with more than adequate notice for taking preventive measures against civil disorder and violence.
Numerous charges have been made concerning the virtual absence of the police on the roads, even later in the evening when a number of incidents were known to have occurred. Where any police presence was at all in evidence, there have been accusations that they were apathetic, indifferent or, worse, gave active encouragement to the mobs. The imposition of prohibitory orders under Sec. 144 Cr. P.C later that evening suggests that information had been received regarding the occurrence of incidents, as well as of the possibility of an escalation of the violence. No evidence of any serious attempts to enforce prohibitory orders either during the night of 31 October, or on the following morning, has come to our notice.
In the absence of relevant information from official sources, it is not possible to comment on the adequacy of the communications system. However, whether or not detailed information about what was happening was available to the administration, it is evident that a certain paralysis of decision-making had gripped the authorities.
We have no means by which to judge the nature of the deployment of the preventive machinery available to the authorities, nor of the adequacy or otherwise of their appreciation of the worsening situation. Similarly, we are unaware of the nature of the briefing or instructions for action issued to field formations. The accounts furnished to the Commission do not give the least indication of the presence or active concern shown by senior police officials or others in what was happening in the affected localities. Not having been able to hear them individually or on their behalf as a force, it is not possible to say how they occupied themselves during the situation of escalating violence.
Again, based on information before us, we learn that some trouble-makers were arrested in the initial stages but there is no evidence to suggest that any systematic steps were taken to restore a sense of security or confidence amongst the residents of the several localities which were subjected to continuing outrages during these four days. Nor is there any information regarding investigations into crimes of looting, mayhem, arson, murder, rape, abduction, etc., having been undertaken. Again, there is no information of perpetrators being prosecuted. On the contrary, accusations abound of those who were initially arrested having been freed on police bail. The quantum of bail accepted by the police from looters, arsonists and those suspected of murders and other heinous crimes were said to have been as ridiculously low as Rs. 250, or a personal bond or the mere production of a ration card. Even those arrested for brutal killings were released by the police either on bail or, in several instances, reportedly at the intercession of some political leaders.
Such interventions have not only contributed to politics becoming a shield for criminals, but of providing a section of law-breakers with immunity from legal retribution. The Commission was told that in some areas the police, instead of searching for and retrieving looted property, appealed to the looters to hand it over voluntarily, in return for which the police would grant them immunity from prosecution.
Role of the Army
The role of the army is crucial to the events as they unfolded. When the civil power is unable to control a situation of grave disorder with the means at its disposal, it may call upon the military authorities to its aid. Such was emphatically the situation in Delhi even before the army was called in.
Whenever the civil authorities call the army to their aid, it is their bounden duty to make the optimum use of this help by establishing close and intimate liaison with them, giving them full information regarding the disturbed areas and to assist them in all possible manner so as to enable them to be fully effective. When, however, the army was ultimately inducted, its personnel were handicapped in their functioning by the following factors:
Lack of effective coordination between Delhi Administration, the police and the army. Surprisingly, there was no central control point. The Administration functioned from Old Delhi, the police from Indraprastha Estate and the army from the Cantonment;
Inadequacy of strength initially deployed;
Inadequate knowledge of the. recently developed areas. According to some submissions to the Commission, the army units were equipped with old maps which did not include the more recent residential colonies, e.g., all the trans-Yamuna colonies;
Lack of co-operation from some police personnel who, it has been alleged, at times even deliberately misled army units who asked for directions;
Despite these handicaps the army, true to its tradition, acted with commendable efficiency in curbing the violence and rescuing many fugitive.
Role of Political Parties
Many who came forward to relate their experiences and provide eye-witness accounts to the Commission, have specifically and repeatedly named certain political leaders belonging to the ruling party. These included several MPs in the outgoing Parliament, members of the Delhi Metropolitan Council and members of the Municipal Corporation. Scores of political functionaries in local areas or blocks and area pradhans were also named. They have been accused of having instigated the violence, making arrangements for the supply of kerosene and other inflammable material and of identifying the houses of Sikhs. Some of them have also been accused of interceding with the authorities to obtain the release of their followers who had been arrested for various crimes.
We have been equally disturbed by the apathy and ambivalence of other political parties. We have received no information that any of them played any significant role in providing either protection or shelter, relief or succour, in any of the affected localities. It is a sad commentary on the political life of the capital that at the moment of its dire need, political activists should be accused of either active instigation or inexcusable apathy.
Role of the Information Media
The role of the media, both official and non-official (comprising Akashvani and, Doordarshan as well as the press), is of vital importance, particularly at times of crisis.
Akashvani and Doordarshan, having by far the larger coverage, naturally have a greater impact and reach, especially in a population like ours which has a high percentage of illiteracy.
It became immediately apparent that the coverage of the crisis by the official radio and visual media, beginning with news of the assassination, had not been formulated with adequate care and foresight in relation to the psychological impact of their transmissions. A general impression is prevalent that the information contained in such broadcasts is derived only from official sources unless otherwise indicated. In the circumstances, it was all the more necessary at this critical juncture that the greatest care and prudence should have been exercised in selecting the material for transmission. While this aspect has greater validity in the case of prepared statements and texts, it is equally pertinent in the case of live coverage.
As examples of impolitic broadcasts which had a damaging effect, we cite three: (a) Premature disclosure of the religious identity of the two assailants; (b) the failure to monitor the provocative slogans raised by the crowds or to edit the over-emotional interviews with members of the public; and (c) earlier statements mistakenly describing the killings as being due to an ‘exchange of fire’ which gave the erroneous impression that there was fighting between the two communities.
On the whole, the national press and individual correspondents rendered a great public service in bringing to light the gory events in different localities as they occurred from hour-to-hour. The reporting was generally factual and detailed and editorial comments, by and large, responsible and constructive. But, in some cases, sections of the press failed to exercise adequate care and restraint in their presentation which at times had the effect of exacerbating feelings rather than in assuaging them.
Reactions and Attitudes
Efforts were made by responsible and well-meaning citizens, from the very day of the outrage, towards minimising the effects of the expectedly sharp reactions to it. Unfortunately, every attempt to seek the intervention of authorities at the highest possible levels failed, as became apparent from subsequent developments, to produce any effect. Whatever instructions or orders may have been issued either did not reach the functional levels of the administration and the police or, if they did, were disregarded. Even some units of the fire brigade were unable to proceed to the scenes of the conflagrations because they were threatened by violent mobs and the police were unable, or refused, to provide them with protection.
Even more deplorable was the almost universal complaint heard from those interviewed, of the apathy, indifference and on occasion complicity of many members of the police force, especially at the junior level. Even if a large portion of the Delhi Police had to be deployed for funeral duties and the security of foreign delegates arriving in Delhi for the occasion, there was still enough police strength available to control the situation, had it been effectively deployed. It is a regrettable fact that the administration failed lamentably to use the available police force in an effective manner. If, indeed, the available police force was deemed insufficient to enforce public order, it is pertinent to ask why additional forces such as the CRP and BSF, that were standing by, were not inducted earlier? Also, what were the reasons, when the situation continued to go from bad to worse, for the delay in calling in the Army?
We are also surprised at the initial attempts of the administration to minimise the gravity of the situation. Both the Home Secretary and the then Lt. Governor were quoted in the media as having said as late as on 2 November that there was no need to establish relief camps since the very induction of the army would bring the situation under control. At that very time, some eighteen relief camps, providing shelter to those who had escaped the carnage, had already sprung into existence. Also, the then Home Secretary was quoted in the press as saying on I November, that only five persons had been killed in Delhi, when unofficial estimates were considerably higher.
When the gravity of the situation was ultimately realised by the administration, some efforts were made to take care of the afflicted. The situation called for imagination and sympathy but the measures taken were, unfortunately, not equal to the challenge. Most functionaries approached the problem in a casual) haphazard and disinterested manner. What was most unfortunate was their failure to harness fully and effectively the spontaneous and generous cooperation offered by the voluntary relief agencies who had become active in the field when streams of panic-striken survivors began fleeing in search’ of security and succour. The large number of voluntary shelters at gurdwaras and other places, where many victims had sought refuge, were not even recognised by the administration.
It must also be recorded with regret that virtually all the official relief camps were closed down prematurely. From most of them the inmates were dispersed forcibly, including even those who had no homes to return to, theirs having been razed to the ground. Those who were psychologically averse to returning to areas haunted by traumatic memories or where the murderers and arsonists continued to roam about with impunity, were also evicted from most camps. Most of them simply fled to the camps run by gurdwaras or by voluntary agencies.
Here, however, we must also record our sense of relief at having heard from some of the afflicted, of individual officials, both from the administration and police, who acted and behaved with commendable courage, initiative and rectitude. We should ourselves also like to commend them.
Estimates of Damage done during the Violence
It has not been possible to obtain any overall reliable figures of the extent of the damage.
During the four days of mob rule over large areas of Delhi, the loss of life and property was staggering. According to responsible estimates, well over two thousand were murdered, leaving behind over a thousand widows and numerous orphans. Sikh, educational institutions, several large and many small houses were burnt. Trucks, taxicabs, three-wheeler scooters, cars, motor-cycles and scooters were burnt in their hundreds. Movable property, cash and jewellery were stolen or destroyed. Factories and business premises, together with their machinery and stock-in-trade, were looted, damaged or destroyed.
A disturbing feature of this occasion is that for the first time in the history of mob violence in India, a systematic attack was made on places of worship. Of about 450 gurdwaras in Delhi some three-quarters are reported to have been damaged or destroyed.
The loss to the nation is phenomenal.
Voluntary relief agencies
In the event, it was left almost entirely to non-official agencies to provide cooked food, medical relief, clothing, shelter and, most important, psychological re-assurance to the ever increasing number of victims. By 4 November, when there was some evidence of an abatement in the violence, there were already an estimated 50,000 people housed in temporary shelters. We understand that by 5 November there were no less than twenty-eight such relief centres, only ten of which had been recognised by the administration.
We have observed, with the greatest admiration and appreciation, the fine work done by the voluntary agencies. Some of them virtually came into being overnight, gallantly rallying to the aid of their suffering fellow citizens. Numerous citizens, mostly young, from colleges and homes, housewives and social workers sprung into spontaneous action. They organised voluntary efforts to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical aid, soap and toiletries. Their long-term efforts consisted of re-equipping families with basic household needs such as bedding, utensils and other basic necessities to enable those who were willing and able to return to their original homes to do so. But the most invaluable, and onerous, contribution made by them that won our admiration, was to console widows and the others bereaved.
There is a mixture of varying considerations that contributed to the escalating orgy of violence whose virulence began to subside only after four days of unimpeded, uninhibited mob sadism and viciousness.
Understandably, there was a deep and widespread sense of shock and sorrow at the assassination of Smt. Gandhi. It is a fact that large numbers of Sikhs also shared in this sentiment of grief and revulsion.
Unfortunately, instead of this national calamity being the occasion for the exercise of the utmost caution and restraint, certain elements exploited the situation as a pretext for rousing public feelings and channeling them into the dangerous direction of seeking revenge against a particular community for partisan advantage.
The initial motive for what followed was anger which found expression in inflicting damage to property, concentrating on that belonging to Sikhs.
This anger was then aggravated and directed into outrages of a deliberately organised nature. The basic provocation was provided by the spreading of rumours, some of them of a most incredible nature. Currency was given to wildly exaggerated accounts of the jubilant reactions of Sikhs to the news of Smt. Gandhi’s murder — many were said to have distributed sweets or illuminated their homes. On the night of 1/2 November numerous citizens received telephone calls or were otherwise told that the city water supply had been poisoned. The implication was that it was Sikh extremists who had done this.
Allegations circulated like wildfire that truckloads and a train full of dead Hindus had arrived from Punjab and that Sikh students danced the bhangra on hearing of Smt. Gandhi’s death. Most of these rumours were found upon investigation by social workers to be without foundation. But, in the highly surcharged atmosphere of suspicion and distrust then prevailing, they were sufficient to intensify the feelings of anger against the Sikhs. A University Professor investigated the allegation that some Sikh students danced the bhangra. Her findings, which were published in a newspaper, revealed that some Sikh students had been rehearsing for a College cultural show and that the bhangra was one of the featured items. As soon as they heard the news of the assassination, they stopped their rehearsal.
The element of greed and envy against the relatively more prosperous life-styles of Sikh neighbours added a further motive particularly in poor and congested areas. The arson indulged in widely, both in the poorer and more affluent areas, was generally due to mass frenzy. The killings which were widespread, especially in the outlying colonies, were the result of the instigation of local political cadres who mobilised some political workers and criminal elements and hoodlums from neighbouring villages as well as from the neighbourhood itself. In some areas, especially the congested and poor, women were raped and molested which was a depraved expression of the sadism and lust of the mob.
The outrages and crimes committed, as the Commission noted during its enquiries, were instigated and directed to a large extent by political elements abetted by the indifference, if not active complicity, of the custodians of the law.
Relief and succour to the victims
The scales of relief and assistance announced for the afflicted are Rs. 10,000 for a death or for a completely destroyed home; Rs. 5,000 for houses substantially destroyed, Rs. 2,000 for injury, and Rs. 1,000 for minor damage to a home. This is woefully inadequate in the view of the Commission. No compensation is offered for domestic effects looted or destroyed, nor is there proportionate compensation for a larger house. The contents of shops and business premises have not been taken into consideration at all. Nor has any compensation been offered for loss of machinery or industrial assets or other means of livelihood with regard to the large number of trucks, cars, taxis and scooters destroyed. Some initial relief or compensation should have been offered to enable survivors to resume earning their livelihood.
But even these inadequate amounts, where approved, have in some cases been mulcted during disbursement by the distributing functionaries. This evil of preying on the distressed must be ruthlessly stamped out by the authorities concerned.
Regardless of the inadequacy and manner of disbursement of compensation, the more important aspect is the provision of practical assistance for rehabilitation. This has to take into account not only the physical factors involved but the psychological circumstances of each situation. To return a widow to the scene other traumatic experience, to herd them all in a centralised location, or how best to rehabilitate them are questions to which careful thought (in consultation with the voluntary and social workers who have gained their trust) should be given and early action taken. It is essential not only to relieve their misery to the extent possible but also to enable them to be integrated into society in full safety and security as equal citizens.
When we were finalising this Report, we read of certain additional relief measures announced by the Delhi Administration. We note this welcome development though still more needs to be done.
The disturbances in Delhi did not involve clashes between any two warring factions, each inflicting whatever damage it could on the other. They were entirely one-sided attacks on members of the Sikh community and their property, often accompanied by arson and murder, rapine and loot. In some localities the outrages amounted to a massacre of innocent persons. The whole community was unfortunately made a scapegoat for the reprehensible crime of a couple of crazed fanatics who happened to be co-religionists.
There were no instances of pitched battles or clashes or active retaliation by Sikhs at large against Hindus at large. On the other hand, the general attitude and reactions of non-Sikh neighbours and friends fell broadly into four categories:
Hindu neighbours actively assisting Sikhs under attack to the extent of giving them shelter at the risk of endangering their own lives and property. Some cases of loss of or damage to property suffered by Hindus doing this came to our notice.
Hindu neighbours, while refusing shelter to Sikhs so as to safeguard their own security, did not join in attacking them either.
In some cases, especially in congested areas, Hindu neighbours acted against the Sikhs to the extent of pointing out Sikh homes to miscreants.
In the poorer areas, Hindu neighbours by and large joined in the attacks on the Sikhs, though here also we were told of some neighbours extending shelter.
The Commission did hear some accounts of fighting between Hindu mobs and groups of Sikhs. These were however isolated instances of Sikhs defending themselves from attacking mobs.