Regimes of impunity

Twenty-five years later – No justice for the 1984 survivors

First published on: November 2009

Delivering judgement in a 1984 anti-Sikh communal massacre case, a Delhi trial court observed, “After the assassination of late Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984, anti-Sikh riots broke out in different areas of the capital, killing thousands of Sikhs. [The] law and order machinery was completely paralysed because of inaction/connivance of the police… In the name of investigation a farce was carried out… It seems the prosecution expected that the trial will be equally a farce and cases would be summarily disposed of thereby drawing a curtain on the legal drama.”1

Today we are confronted with a peculiar schism where the truth of who are the perpetrators and masterminds of the communal pogrom of 1984 is part of public knowledge but it invariably fails to translate into proof beyond reasonable doubt in courts of law.

In the aftermath of the anti-Sikh pogrom, victims have approached the criminal justice system, seeking punishment for the guilty. The consequent judicial verdicts demonstrate that wanton killings and looting in communal pogroms invariably end in acquittals, barring a few rare convictions.

Why this pattern of impunity

Beyond the lament of injustice, it is important to discern and identify the reasons why both the law and the judiciary fail to deliver justice to the victims of communal carnage. The present legal system has failed to award penalty for communal crimes, for these events overturn some fundamental premises on which the criminal justice system is based. The rubric of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Indian Evidence Act and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) is not designed to adjudicate and punish the perpetrators of a communal pogrom.

The violence unleashed against the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and Christians in Orissa in 2008 is usually labelled ‘riots’. The term ‘riot’ as defined in Section 146 of the IPC or the commonly used phrase, ‘communal riot’, implies a violent clash between members of different religious communities, causing loss of life, limb and property to both. This phrase is inaccurate to describe the communal violence under discussion, which was a premeditated and organised targeting of the minority community, carried out with the explicit and/or implicit sanction and support of the state, its representatives and functionaries. The term ‘pogrom’ is more appropriate to describe the events of 1984.2

A corollary would be that the list of accused persons to be prosecuted must include not only those whose hands killed, sexually assaulted, looted and burnt but also the minds that planned, incited, abetted, conspired and provided financial and other resources as well as those who abandoned their constitutional duty to protect the people caught in the vortex of communal violence.

A successful prosecution hinges on professional investigation by the police. The Kusum Mittal report indicted 72 and recommended summary dismissal of six senior Delhi police officers for their culpability in the 1984 carnage. The executive exonerated them all. After the massacre, for the police the registration of crimes and investigation of offences are a matter of political expediency. In a case of 1984, a Delhi trial court stated, “After the rioters had done their job, the rest of the job to frustrate the investigation was done by the police.”3 The shoddy and partisan investigation conducted by the police undermines the very foundation of the prosecution.

The absence of an independent and effective investigating agency is felt most acutely when victims and survivors have to beseech the very police force that through myriad acts of omission and commission was complicit in the communal crimes. The directive of the Supreme Court in the Prakash Singh judgement is a beginning in the direction of a professional investigating agency but much more remains to be done.

Experiences from across the country indicate that the malaise runs much deeper. The police as a force have displayed an institutional bias against religious minority communities. A communalised police force, enjoying de facto and de jure immunity and subject to weak mechanisms of accountability, will only reinforce the already etched patterns of impunity for communal crimes. This deep sectarian institutional bias displayed by the police force against minority communities is further aggravated by the de facto and de jure immunity enjoyed by them. A serious hurdle in punishing public servants is the shield of legal immunity provided by Section 197 of the CrPC, which must be repealed.

The underlying premise, of the state as the parent and protector, stands completely distorted when the political executive dons the mantle of the mastermind and becomes an accomplice in communal crimes. The present legal apparatus requires the executive, which stands deeply implicated, to discharge the onerous task of prosecuting itself and its henchmen. In such a scenario, the filing of closure reports by the CBI against Congress leaders, or the Tehelka sting operation showing public prosecutors in Gujarat scheming to derail trials, should come as no surprise. For the prosecution of communal crimes, the law must grant the public prosecutor a measure of institutional autonomy and functional discretion.

Although the IPC defines murder, rioting, rape, it is insufficient for convicting either the mobs or the masterminds. The criminal provisions of conspiracy and abetment are also inadequate to nail the sponsors of communal crimes. Sections of the IPC simply list and describe the acts that are labelled crimes. The IPC does not envisage mass crimes where an entire community is systematically targeted by reason of their religious identity and this attack is carried out with the direct and/or indirect complicity of state institutions and agents. For the guilty to be nailed, the law will have to be amended to adopt a distinct typology of crimes akin to the ‘crimes of genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ as codified in the statute of the International Criminal Court.

The CrPC prescribes the procedure for purposes of investigation and trial notwithstanding that during the pogrom the investigators and prosecutors were themselves complicit in the crimes and later obliterated traces of the same. The Indian Evidence Act too demands the same kind and degree of proof for communal crimes as otherwise. For instance, delay in lodging the FIR by a survivor, or absence of corroborative material evidence, or non-mention of names of accused in the statements recorded by the police, or absence of a medical report can lead the court to draw an adverse inference against the victim without taking cognisance of the difficult circumstances prevailing at the time. It is therefore critical to formulate new rules of procedure and evidence, sensitive to the context of communal violence.

Women whose bodies become sites of contestation and community ‘honour’ rarely get redress. The failure of the present law to even provide a definitional description of the brutality and scale of sexual violence suffered by women emboldens its denial.

The weakness of the law is most glaring in its abject and recurring failure to punish those who sponsor and profit from the carnage. To extend criminal liability beyond the actual perpetrator and affix culpability of political leaders and persons in positions of social, administrative, civil or military authority, the principle of command/superior responsibility must be incorporated. This would make the leaders criminally responsible for failing to take reasonable measures to prevent crimes committed by subordinates under their effective control and about which they can reasonably be presumed to have had knowledge. Thus the escape route deployed by political leaders, of ignorance and inaction, while their party men kill and burn, could be plugged. It is time to shift the burden of responsibility from the victim witness to those at the helm.

Clearly, the jurisprudential yardstick of ‘normal times’ cannot be indiscriminately applied to decide trials marked by an extraordinary collusion of state agencies and institutions. This challenge must be met not by whittling down the guarantees and rights of the accused but rather by exacting greater accountability from the state and empowering the victim.

As the home minister sagely advises us to ‘let the law take its own course’, it is pertinent to point out that the delay in punishing the guilty of 1984 for 25 years indicates an urgent need to forge new legal tools to alter this pattern of continuing injustice and rampant impunity. The UPA government has yet to fulfil its promise of introducing a comprehensive legislation against communal violence. A flawed beginning in this respect has been made by the government through the introduction of a bill that has been rejected outright by citizens’ groups. Criticising the same, a public statement stated, “What we have before us today is a dangerous piece of legislation called the Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill 2005, which will not only fail to secure justice for communal crimes but will actually strengthen the shield of protection enjoyed by the state, its political leaders and its officials for their acts of omission and commission in these crimes. It is a bill which conceives of communal violence as a ‘one-time’ event rather than as a long-term politically motivated process and seeks to prevent it only by giving greater powers to (often communally tainted) state governments. Further, it continues to perpetuate the silence around gender-based crimes.”4


1 ASJ OP Dwivedi, State vs Kishori & Ors, Karkardooma, Delhi, SC No. 53/95, FIR No. 426/84. p. 1.

2 Jyoti Grewal argues that the 1984 anti-Sikh violence was a pogrom in Betrayed by the State: The Anti-Sikh Pogrom of 1984, Penguin Books India, 2007, pp. 14.

3 ASJ SN Dhingra, State vs Kishori & Ors, Karkardooma, Delhi, SC No. 42/95, FIR No. 426/84, p. 9.

4 Public statement released at the National Consultation on the Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill 2005, June 16, 2007, New Delhi.

Archived from Communalism Combat, November 2009  Year 16    No.145, Cover Story 5



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