(New York) - The failure of successive Indian governments to bring to justice those responsible for mass revenge attacks on Sikhs after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi 25 years ago is a severe blot on India's legal system and democracy, Human Rights Watch said today.
"Delhi was a scene of carnage, yet 25 years later the victims are still waiting for justice," said Meenakshi Ganguly, senior researcher on South Asia at Human Rights Watch. "Instead of bringing prosecutions, even when they know who was responsible, officials have done everything they could to bar the way."
In the early 1980s, Sikh separatists in Punjab committed serious human rights abuses, including the massacre of civilians, attacks on Hindu minorities, and indiscriminate bomb attacks in crowded places. In June 1984 the government deployed troops to remove militants who had occupied the holiest of Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The military campaign caused serious damage to the shrine and killed hundreds, including pilgrims, militants and security personnel. On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was murdered in an act of revenge by two of her Sikh bodyguards.
Angry mobs, instigated by leaders of the then-governing Congress Party, committed countless acts of retribution, killing and wounding thousands of Sikhs and destroying their property and businesses. During ensuing government counterinsurgency operations in Punjab State, from 1984 to 1995, Indian security forces committed serious human rights violations and killed, forcibly disappeared, and tortured thousands of Sikhs. None of the architects of this counterinsurgency strategy have been brought to justice.
"The Sikh separatist movement is a classic case of human rights abuses leading to a cycle of violence that spins out of control," Ganguly said. "Both the militants and the security forces committed horrific crimes, justifying them by pointing to the abuses of the other, and yet those who suffered most were ordinary civilians."
For two-and-half decades, victims and their families seeking justice have been confronted by government opposition and obfuscation, including prolonged trials, biased prosecutors, an unresponsive judiciary, police intimidation, and harassment of witnesses. No senior government officials or politicians have been prosecuted despite evidence of their role in the atrocities.
The government has set up numerous commissions of inquiry, each with the promise of justice, but with no tangible results. Most recently, the Congress Party withdrew a candidate in the 2009 elections because of allegations of involvement in the 1984 Delhi attacks. But the candidate was not charged with a crime and the party appeared to compensate him by making his brother a candidate instead.
"The victims of the 1984 massacres have waited for the law to take its course and, sadly, they are still waiting," Ganguly said. "India needs to change its enduring culture of impunity before its citizens will place trust in the rule of law in other conflict areas, like Kashmir and Naxalite-affected states."