Congress' Sajjan Kumar gets life term in 1984 anti-Sikh riots case

Delhi HC convicts Congress' Sajjan Kumar in 1984 anti-Sikh riots case
The trial court had earlier acquitted Sajjan Kumar in the case. File photo

New Delhi: The Delhi High Court on Monday sentenced Congress veteran Sajjan Kumar to life in the first conviction of a politician in the deadly anti-Sikh riots in 1984, holding it was perpetrated by those with "political patronage" and pushed for a new law for speedy prosecution of genocide and mass killings.

Calling for strengthening of the legal system to ensure perpetrators of mass crimes are made answerable, the court said neither 'crimes against humanity' nor 'genocide' is part of the domestic law of crime and this loophole needs to be addressed urgently. It also named 2002 post-Godhra Gujarat riots and Muzaffarnagar riots in Uttar Pradesh in 2013 among other mass killings since 1947 where minorities are targeted.

The reversal of 73-year-old Kumar's acquittal by a trial court cast a shadow on the swearing-in of Kamal Nath as the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh with the BJP and ally Akali Dal taking on the Congress leadership over allegations of his culpability in the riots levelled by Sikh groups. Nath said there was no FIR or charge sheet filed against him and questioned the 'politics' behind raising of the issue now.

Describing the riots as "crimes against humanity", the high court awarded Kumar life term for "remainder of his natural life", convicting him of criminal conspiracy and abetment in commission of crimes of murder, promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of communal harmony and defiling and destruction of a Gurdwara.

The case in which Kumar was convicted related to killing of five Sikhs in Raj Nagar part-I area in Palam Colony in South West Delhi on November 1-2, 1984 during the riots in the national capital and other parts of the country following the assassination of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards on October 31.

According to official accounts, 2,733 Sikhs were killed in Delhi alone and nearly 3,350 all over the country between November 1 and 4, 1984.

Observing it was "undeniable" that it took over three decades to punish the accused in the case, the court said it was important to assure the victims of the "mass killings" that despite the challenges faced by the court, "truth will prevail and justice will be done".

The court directed Kumar, who was then a Lok Sabha MP from Outer Delhi, and other five convicts to surrender by December 31, 2018 and not to leave the city of Delhi.

There was no immediate reaction from Kumar.

But lawyer Anil Sharma, who represented Kumar in the high court, told PTI the Congress leader intends to move an appeal in the Supreme Court against the verdict.

Sharma said Kumar is in the capital itself and since he has been given time till December 31 to surrender efforts would be made to challenge the conviction and the sentence before that day..

If no appeal would be filed before December 31, Kumar would surrender, he added.

Six accused, including Kumar, were sent for trial in 2010 and three years later, the lower court convicted five of the accused but acquitted the Congress leader of all the charges.

Quashing the acquittal on appeals by the CBI, a bench of justices S Muralidhar and Vinod Goel said the accused in the case were brought to justice "primarily on account of the courage and perseverance of three eyewitnesses" -- Jagdish Kaur, her cousin Jagsher Singh and Nirpreet Kaur.

Jagdish Kaur's husband, son and three cousins -- Kehar Singh, Gurpreet Singh, Raghuvender Singh, Narender Pal Singh and Kuldeep Singh -- were the five killed in the instant case. Nirpreet Kaur had witnessed the Gurdwara being burnt down and her father being burnt alive by the raging mobs, the bench also noted.

Jagdish Kaur and Narpreet Kaur said although 34 years is a long time, they were determined to "unmask the accused" and their their fight for justice will go on.

"This verdict has brought some relief. No one should face the kind of injustice we have faced all these years," said Jagdish Kaur.

The BJP and SAD hailed the verdict calling it historic and targeted the Congress while the opposition party cautioned against politicising the legal process in the anti-Sikh riots cases.

The court said the 1984 anti-Sikh riots "answer the description" of crimes against humanity as there was "mass killing" of Sikhs in Delhi and the rest of the country, "engineered by political actors with the assistance of the law enforcement agencies".

It further said India has been no stranger to such mass killings since the time of partition in 1947 and the common feature of each has been the "targeting of minorities" in attacks "spearheaded by the dominant political actors" being "facilitated by the law enforcement agencies".

"The mass killings in Punjab, Delhi and elsewhere during the country's partition remains a collective painful memory as is the killings of innocent Sikhs in November 1984. There has been a familiar pattern of mass killings in Mumbai in 1993, in Gujarat in 2002, in Kandhamal, Odisha in 2008, in Muzaffarnagar in U.P. in 2013 to name a few.

"Common to these mass crimes were the targeting of minorities and the attacks spearheaded by the dominant political actors being facilitated by the law enforcement agencies," it added.

A majority of the perpetrators of these horrific mass crimes, enjoyed political patronage and were aided by an indifferent law enforcement agency and managed to evade prosecution and punishment, the court said.

"Bringing such criminals to justice poses a serious challenge to our legal system. As these appeals themselves demonstrate, decades pass by before they can be made answerable. This calls for strengthening the legal system. Neither 'crimes against humanity' nor 'genocide' is part of our domestic law of crime. This loophole needs to be addressed urgently," it added.

The high court also upheld the conviction and varying sentences awarded by the trial court to former Congress councillor Balwan Khokhar, retired naval officer Captain Bhagmal, Girdhari Lal and former MLAs Mahender Yadav and Kishan Khokhar.

It also convicted them for criminal conspiracy to burn down residences of Sikh families and a gurdwara in the area during the riots.

The trial court in 2013 had awarded life term to Khokhar, Bhagmal and Lal, and a three-year jail term to Yadav and Kishan Khokhar.

Following the high court verdict, the life term of Khokhar, Bhagmal and Lal has been upheld and the sentence of Yadav and Kishan Khokar has been enhanced to a 10 years in jail.

"While it is undeniable that it has taken over three decades to bring the accused in this case to justice, and that our criminal justice system stands severely tested in that process, it is essential, in a democracy governed by the rule of law to be able to call out those responsible for such mass crimes," the court concluded.

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