(New York) – Successive Indian governments’ failure to prosecute those most responsible for killings and other abuses during the 1984 anti-Sikh violence highlights India’s weak efforts to combat communal violence. The new Indian government should seek police reforms and to enact a law against communal violence that would hold public officials accountable for complicity and dereliction of duty.

Ten government-appointed commissions and committees have investigated the deadly attacks against thousands of Sikhs in 1984 following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Independent civil society inquiries found complicity by both police and leaders of Gandhi’s Congress Party. Yet, three decades later, only 30 people, mostly low-ranking Congress Party supporters, have been convicted for the attacks that resulted in thousands of deaths and injuries. No police officer has been convicted, and there were no prosecutions for rape, highlighting a comprehensive failure of the justice system. 

“India’s failure to prosecute those most responsible for the anti-Sikh violence in 1984 has not only denied justice to Sikhs, but has made all Indians more vulnerable to communal violence,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities repeatedly blocked investigations to protect the perpetrators of atrocities against Sikhs, deepening public distrust in India’s justice system.”

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.

Following the assassination, mobs, often instigated by Congress Party leaders, went on a rampage against Sikhs in Delhi and other cities. Over three days, at least 2,733 Sikhs were killed, their property looted and destroyed. Many women were raped in the capital. Hundreds of Sikhs were killed elsewhere in the country. The authorities quickly blamed every incident of mass communal violence on a spontaneous public reaction—Gandhi’s son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, declared at a rally in the capital, “Once a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it shakes.”

Many victims, witnesses, and perpetrators have since died, making hopes for justice and accountability more remote with every passing year. Many legal cases collapsed after powerful suspects allegedly threatened or intimidated witnesses. In other cases, poor investigation and tampering of evidence by the police led to acquittals of the accused.

To address the 1984 abuses and the continuing problem of communal violence, Human Rights Watch urged the authorities in India to:

  • Establish an independent, time-bound investigation into the 1984 violence cases, including the 237 cases closed by police, with the authority to recommend cases for prosecution.
  • Implement police reforms to insulate the police from political pressure to protect perpetrators, such as occurred after communal violence in 1984 (Delhi), 1992 (Mumbai), 2002 (Gujarat), and 2013 (Muzaffarnagar).
  • Create a police complaints authority both at the state and district levels, as recommended by the Supreme Court, that would investigate public complaints of serious police misconduct.
  • Establish an effective witness protection program to end the intimidation, threats, and harassment of victims and witnesses such as occurred after the 1984 attacks.
  • Enact pending laws against communal violence, compliant with international human rights standards, that would make state officials liable for failure to act to prevent and stop communal violence, including as a matter of superior responsibility. Adopt measures on nondiscrimination for displaced people, access to relief, and voluntary return and resettlement in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, and on the right to redress in line with the UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on Remedy and Reparation.

“Thirty years since the horrific massacre, communal violence still breaks out in India, raising the same concerns about accountability,” Ganguly said. “The Indian government’s failure to take even rudimentary steps to bring to justice the authors of the 1984 violence has perpetuated a climate of lawlessness that demands a renewed commitment to ending state complicity in such attacks.”

The 1984 Anti-Sikh Violence: 30 Years of Impunity

Failure of Police Investigations
Fact-finding bodies and civil society groups found that the 1984 anti-Sikh violence was led and often perpetrated by activists and sympathizers of the then-ruling party, the Indian National Congress, some of whom later became members of parliament or occupied posts in government. The police simply stood by, and were often complicit in the attacks. Instead of holding those responsible for the violence to account, many police officials and Congress party leaders involved have been promoted over the last 30 years.

The Delhi police eventually filed only 587 First Information Reports (FIRs), official complaints, for three days of violence that resulted in 2,733 deaths. Out of these, the police closed 241 cases without investigation, claiming inability to trace evidence. Following a report by the government-appointed commission led by retired Supreme Court judge G.T. Nanavati in 2005, four of the cases that had been closed were reopened and reinvestigated.

Most investigations by government-led commissions and civil society organizations found that the violence started spontaneously on October 31 after news of Indira Gandhi’s death spread. But the following morning it took the shape of a well-organized pogrom. The 2005 Nanavati commission said the violence, in different localities, followed a similar pattern:

The attacks were made in a systematic manner and without much fear of the police; almost suggesting that they were assured that they would not be harmed while committing those acts and even thereafter. Male members of the Sikh community were taken out of their houses. They were beaten first and then burnt alive in a systematic manner. In some cases tyres were put around their necks and then they were set on fire by pouring kerosene or petrol over them. In some cases white inflammable powder was thrown on them which immediately caught fire thereafter. This was a common pattern which was followed by the big mobs which had played havoc in certain areas. The shops were identified, looted and then burnt. Thus what had initially started, as an angry outburst became an organized carnage.

In 2005, during a discussion in parliament on the Nanavati report, then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress Party, himself a Sikh, apologized for the 1984 anti-Sikh violence. He said: “I have no hesitation in apologising not only to the Sikh community but the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood and what is enshrined in our Constitution. So, I am not standing on any false prestige. On behalf of our Government, on behalf of the entire people of this country, I bow my head in shame that such thing took place.” But at the same time, Singh failed to accept the government’s responsibility for the killings: “The Report is before us, and one thing it conclusively states is that there is no evidence, whatsoever, against the top leadership of the Congress Party.”

Investigations by Civil Society
Numerous reports and investigations by civil society groups and eyewitness accounts have shown that such well-organized mass killings could not have happened without the complicity of the state. Shortly after the violence, a fact-finding team organized by two Indian human rights organizations, the People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) and the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), published a report on its investigation into the cause of the Delhi riots, Who Are the Guilty? The groups concluded that the violence was the result of a “well-organised plan marked by acts of both deliberate commissions and omissions by important politicians of the Congress (I) at the top and by authorities in the administration.”

In January 1985, the nongovernmental organization Citizens for Democracy investigated the riots and concluded that the violence were not spontaneous but organized by members of the Congress Party. According to the report, the violence was “primarily meant to arouse passions of the majority community.”

In 2004, ENSAAF, a Sikh rights organization, released Twenty Years of Impunity, once again documenting how senior political leaders, most visibly of the Congress Party, “carefully orchestrated the violence, providing for details such as deployment of mobs, weapons, and kerosene, as well as for the larger support and participation of the police.” The Congress Party was also able to use state machinery to facilitate the massacres such as using government buses to transport the mobs to where Sikhs lived, the report said.

Reports by Government Commissions
Ten different commissions and committees were appointed by the government to investigate the anti-Sikh violence in Delhi. Soon after the carnage, in November 1984, the central government appointed Additional Commissioner of Police Ved Marwah to inquire into the role of the police during the killings. But before the Marwah commission could finish its inquiry and submit the report, in May 1985, the government put the commission on hold. The official reason offered was that a judicial investigation had been set up the same month, headed by a Supreme Court judge, Ranganath Misra, and the inquiry commission was required to look at the violence in its entirety.

The Misra commission, which submitted its report in 1986, was criticized because of its lack of transparency; it held its proceedings in camera, media was not allowed to report, and victims’ lawyers were not allowed to attend or examine the witnesses. Victims’ representatives did not even receive copies of affidavits. Even though the report acknowledged that the violence that erupted spontaneously on the news of Indira Gandhi’s death later developed into “organized riots,” it blamed it on “anti-social elements.” It stated that many of the rioters belonged to lower ranks of Congress party or were sympathizers, but concluded that the riots were not organized by Congress party or any senior officials of the party.

The Misra commission recommended setting up three distinct committees to inquire into specific aspects of the violence: one was formed under former chief justice of the Delhi High Court, Dalip Kapoor, and Kusum Lata Mittal, a retired secretary to the central government, to inquire into the role of police; the second, under a former judge of the Delhi High Court M.L. Jain, and A.K. Banerjee, a retired inspector-general of police, was established to recommend registration of cases against politicians; and the third, headed by Delhi home secretary R.K. Ahuja, was supposed to ascertain the total number of deaths in Delhi.

The Ahuja committee set the death toll at 2,733, although civil society groups believed this was a conservative estimate.

The two chairs of the Kapoor-Mittal committee had differences over the matter of indictment of individual police officers. The committee was purely an administrative one without powers to examine or summon police officials. Therefore, Kapoor felt the committee could not indict any policemen. But Mittal disagreed. Based on affidavits and all the material collected from the Misra commission, she submitted a separate report in 1990 in which she indicted 72 police officials and recommended that an outside agency take action against delinquent officers. “Departmental enquiries by officers of Delhi Police are not likely to yield any results,” Mittal wrote. But in complete disregard of this, only departmental inquiries were conducted and in nearly all such inquiries, the accused were exonerated.

The Jain-Banerjee committee recommended that the police register a case against former Congress member of parliament Sajjan Kumar. But another Congress leader, Brahmanand Gupta, also accused in the same case for alleged murder and rioting, obtained a stay against the committee from the Delhi High Court. In August 1989, the High Court upheld Gupta’s petition, and effectively disbanded the committee. Five months later, the Delhi administration appointed a new body, the Poti-Rosha committee, to replace the Jain-Banerjee committee. It recommended action on 30 or so affidavits—including registering a case against Kumar. Kumar secured anticipatory bail to preempt arrest by the Central Bureau of Investigation. The committee chairs subsequently suspended the inquiry and quit.

Another committee was constituted under retired judge of the Delhi High Court, J.D. Jain, and D.K. Aggarwal, a former director general of police of Uttar Pradesh State, and it recommended cases be registered against Kumar and HKL Bhagat, a Congress member of parliament from east Delhi. But no action was taken.

A committee headed by Gurdial Singh Dhillon was appointed in 1985 to recommend measures for rehabilitation of the victims.

In 1994, the Delhi government, led by then-Chief Minister Madan Lal Khurana of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, appointed retired Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court Ranjit S. Narula to review the findings of the previous committees. It, too, recommended that charges be filed against Congress leaders HKL Bhagat and Sajjan Kumar.

The last of the commissions was formed in 2000 under retired judge Nanavati who held public hearings and invited fresh affidavits but as with the very first judicial inquiry held by the Misra commission, it admitted that the attacks were organized and yet failed to attribute responsibility. The commission stated: “But for the backing and help of influential and resourceful persons, killing of Sikhs so swiftly and in large numbers could not have happened,” and that bringing the mobs and “supplying them with weapons and inflammable material also required an organized effort.”

Political Complicity in the Violence
Victim and witness accounts and affidavits placed Congress Party leaders at the site of rioting, actively participating in the violence or instigating the mobs. Numerous affidavits submitted to Nanavati commission accused Congress parliament member Sajjan Kumar of instigating rioting mobs to kill Sikhs, and loot and burn their property.

Amarjit Kaur of Chand Nagar in south Delhi specifically named Kumar as the person who led the mob that killed her husband by burning him alive. Several residents of Sultanpuri in west Delhi named Sajjan Kumar as instigating the mobs on the morning of November 1, saying “Sikhs have killed our Indira Gandhi, now kill the Sikhs, loot and burn.” In some cases, victims alleged that the police refused to put down Kumar’s name when they went to file complaints. Kumar was eventually charged with murder in two cases. He was acquitted in one case and a trial is pending in the other. There is also an appeal pending in Delhi High Court against his acquittal.

Several other Congress Party leaders, members of parliament, and councilors were specifically named in the affidavits for their alleged complicity or participation in the violence. While examining the evidence presented against Congress member of parliament Jagdish Tytler, the Nanavati Commission stated:

Relying upon all this material, the Commission considers it safe to record a finding that there is credible evidence against Shri Jagdish Tytler to the effect that very probably he had a hand in organizing attacks on Sikhs. The Commission, therefore, recommends to the Government to look into this aspect and take further action as may be found necessary.

Despite these allegations, Tytler’s political fortunes rose and he became the minister for civil aviation in the Rajiv Gandhi government. Following the Nanavati Commission report, the Central Bureau of Investigation was asked to investigate allegations against him. Twice, in 2007 and again in 2009, the Central Bureau of Investigation cleared Tytler but in April 2013 a court in Delhi ordered the agency to conduct further investigation into the case. The investigation is pending.

The Nanavati Commission found that Congress member of parliament from east Delhi, HKL Bhagat, and local Congress leaders Rampal Saroj and Dr. Ashok from Trilokpuri, one of the worst-affected neighborhoods in Delhi, had taken “active part in this anti-Sikh riots.” And yet the commission failed to recommend any further action against them, citing their acquittals in criminal cases even though it had found that in most cases, the accused had been acquitted due to poor investigations by the police. Bhagat’s political career also rose after the riots and he went on to become a cabinet minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s government. He was tried in two cases but was acquitted. In one case, the primary witness turned hostile amid reports of being intimidated. An appeal was pending in the second case but he was deemed unfit for trial because of declining mental health due to Alzheimer’s disease. Bhagat died in 2005.

Only two senior Congress leaders were convicted: former councilor Balwan Khokhar was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, while a former member of the legislative assembly, Mahendra Yadav, was given a three-year prison term for rioting. Yadav is currently out on bail.

Most senior Congress Party leaders implicated in the violence were never prosecuted or were acquitted due to the poor quality of investigations and evidence collected by the police. Several judges in their rulings cited lapses in police investigation as the reason for acquittals. For instance, Judge S.N. Dhingra in State v. Ram Pal Saroj, a trial that began 11 years after the attacks, remarked that “the police investigation in each of the riot cases filed in the court has been wanting in quality.”

The long delays in prosecution have also led to the deaths of complainants, witnesses, as well as perpetrators in several riot-related cases. Noting such delays, Judge Dhingra said:

The manner in which the trail of the riot cases had proceeded is unthinkable in any civilised country. In fact, the inordinate delay in trial of the rioters had legitimised the violence and the criminality. A system which permits the legitimised violence and criminals through the instrumentalities of the state to stifle the investigation, cannot be relied upon to dispense basic justice uniformly to the people. It amounts to a total wiping out of the rule of law.

Police Complicity in the Violence
The role of the Delhi police, both during the riots and during investigations, has been scrutinized by several of the official investigations as well as independent lawyers and civil society organizations.

Most investigations and victims’ accounts said that in many cases the police failed to file complaints against the accused. There was also evidence to show that the police often filed FIRs that did not have columns for the names of perpetrators or the deceased, as well as any facts about the relevant incidents. Instead of filing separate FIRs for each incident as is required by law, the police filed a “general, vague, and omnibus type of FIR” combining numerous incidents that took place in different locations and failed to properly investigate the incidents. While recording FIRs, police were reluctant to record murder and often put down lesser charges. For instance, station house officer Ram Mehar Sharma, of Gandhi Nagar police station in east Delhi, told the Nanavati Commission that there was some discussion at the district level and it was decided that all cases of deaths during riots should be registered as offenses under Indian Penal Code section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), and not under section 302 (murder).

In the few cases where charges were filed, the police failed to produce proper evidence in court. The Nanavati Commission found that in most of the cases, investigations carried out by the police were “absolutely casual, perfunctory and faulty,” resulting in acquittals.

Lawyer Vrinda Grover, in her deposition to the Nanavati Commission in 2002, presented her analysis of judgments in 126 trial court cases. Out of these 126 cases, only 8 cases resulted in conviction while the remaining 118 cases ended in acquittals. Of these 8 convictions, 2 were overturned by the Delhi High Court. Grover told the commission:

[I]t is clear that a combination of grave lapses of investigation, shoddy investigation, inordinate delays, insufficient collection evidence, non compliance with legal procedures by the police led to a majority of cases concluding in acquittals. The acquittals were to a very large extent a direct consequence of the incompetent, unprofessional and casual investigation by the police.

Allegations of Abetting Violence
Several affidavits cited in the Mittal report state that in Trilokpuri, in east Delhi, which had the largest number of killings and some of the most brutal and horrific violence, the police prevented Sikhs from protecting themselves. The Sikh religion requires that men carry a ceremonial  dagger, and witnesses alleged that the weapons were confiscated by the police. Instead of protecting Sikhs from violent mobs, in some cases, the police filed false cases against Sikhs who were trying to defend themselves. Police also threatened witnesses, forced them to sign affidavits that favored the police, and understated the numbers of those killed. The Mittal report said there was evidence to suggest that the police “had quietly collected and disposed of the bodies of those whom the mobs were unable to completely burn.”

The Mittal report also noted that police log books were manipulated by senior officers to cover their tracks and officials failed to record messages coming in regarding the violence in a bid to escape responsibility and accountability. Moreover, the report found that the Police Control Room appeared to have started rumors such as water being poisoned and trainloads of dead Hindus arriving from Punjab State, creating panic and inciting mobs.

Police officials who dared to stop the violence were transferred. Additional Commissioner of Police H.C. Jatav transferred two Sikh police officers from Subzi Mandi police station in north Delhi. Both Additional Commissioner of Police Kewal Singh and Inspector Gurmail Singh were accused of abandoning their positions during the riots but the Mittal report stated that it was clear that they had been removed because they had taken strong action to check the riots on the very first night of October 31 by arresting 90 people, recovering looted property, registering a criminal case, and seeking permission to use force to control the rioting mobs.

Police officials who tried to do their jobs faced pressure from local Congress leaders. In one case, according to witnesses and a news reporter, Dharam Dass Shastri, then a Congress member of parliament, went with some local leaders and about 3000 people to the Karol Bagh police station on November 5 to demand the release of rioters arrested for looting. The Nanavati report noted that Shastri and his supporters threatened the police officers with dire consequences if they took any action against the rioters. According to a witness, a senior police official present in the room sided with Shastri and other political leaders against his own junior official who had made the arrests.

Lack of Accountability
A total number of 147 members of the Delhi police were indicted as a result of the investigations by the Jain-Aggarwal committee and by Kusum Lata Mittal. 25 criminal cases were filed against some of the officers, in most others departmental inquiries were instituted and the officers exonerated.

Over the years, the police defended their actions during the riots saying they were under-resourced. Some senior officials said they were unaware of the scope of violence and were not briefed adequately by their junior officers.

But both the Mittal report and the Nanavati Commission dismissed such explanations. The Nanavati Commission report noted that as police commissioner, S.C. Tandon was directly responsible for the maintenance of law and order in Delhi and it refused to accept his explanation that he was not properly informed by his subordinates. The report said:

There was a colossal failure of maintenance of law and order and as the head of the Police Force, he has to be held responsible for the failure. The course of events do disclose that the attitude of the police force was callous and that he did not remain properly informed about what was happening in the city.

Unfortunately, the Nanavati report, even as it found many police officials complicit or guilty, it cited departmental exonerations to avoid recommending further action to hold them to account. The inquiries effectively provided complete impunity to police officials who had failed to do their duty and had been complicit in the deadly violence.

In April 2014, a sting investigation by the news website Cobrapost caught several police officials, some of whom were accused of abetting the violence, saying on camera that it was the administration and the senior officials who were responsible for their inaction. 

Sexual Violence against Women
Most investigations conducted into the violence have been largely silent on violence against women. Very few affidavits submitted to the various government commissions discussed it in any detail. In many cases, women preferred to use euphemisms such as “humiliation” or “dishonor” because of social stigma. According to the PUCL-PUDR report, inquiries conducted by a senior police official revealed that “at least four women, their ages ranging from 14 to 50, were gang raped. Later seven cases of rape from Trilokpuri were officially reported by the J.P. Narayan Hospital, Delhi.”

Even the earliest commissions had received affidavits from victims alleging rape but failed to probe any further. Padmi Kaur of Sultanpuri area, in her affidavit submitted to the Misra Commission, described an incident that took place on November 1 and named several people in the mob, including Congress leader Brahmanand Gupta:

After some time the mob arrived, broke open our door and came inside. They caught hold of my daughter Maina Kaur forcibly and started tearing her clothes….They broke the hands and feet of my daughter and kidnapped her. They confined her in their home for three days. I know some of the persons in the mob… Now my daughter Maina Kaur has fallen ill and has become like a mad girl.

The most detailed accounts of sexual abuse were recorded by Madhu Kishwar, the publisher of women’s magazine Manushi. Kishwar recorded the testimonies of several women from Trilokpuri, in east Delhi, the city’s worst-affected neighborhood. Kishwar published the story of Gurdip Kaur, a 45-year-old woman who said that her husband and her three sons were brutally murdered in front of her:

My youngest son stayed in the house with me. He shaved off his beard and cut his hair. But they came into the house. Those young boys, 14 and 16 years old, began to drag my son out even though he was hiding behind me. They tore my clothes and stripped me naked in front of my son. When these young boys began to rape me, my son began to cry and said: “Elder brothers, don’t do this. She is like your mother just as she is my mother.” But they raped me right there, in front of my son, in my house. They were young boys, maybe eight of them. When one of them raped me, I said: “My child, never mind. Do what you like. But remember, I have given birth to children. This child came into the world by this same path.”

Kaur said after raping her, the youth allegedly took her youngest son away and burned him alive. Kaur told Kishwar that most women in her neighborhood were raped including 9 and 10-year-old girls. 

According to journalist Manoj Mitta, about 30 female Sikhs were abducted from Trilokpuri and held captive for over 24 hours at the nearby Chilla village. But there was no investigation and no victim received compensation.