I no longer wear the hat of a political activist but can stare with confidence that politicians have a great knack of surprising people. Rahul Gandhi is no exception.
He is also a politician though he always tried to project himself as not exactly that.
And in keeping with my premise above, he has surprised or shocked people in London by saying that "the Congress was not involved in the 1984 Sikh riots" which in all fairness should be called a pogrom. He is currently visiting Europe and was addressing UK-based parliamentarians and local leaders when he said this. To his credit, he did also say that "anti-Sikhs riots were a tragedy and a painful experience." He further elaborated that "any violence done against anybody is wrong...anything done that was wrong during that period should be punished and he would support that 100%".
Before this, on the same foreign trip, he tried to compare the RSS with the Muslim Brotherhood, the militant organisation of Egypt which could be called the mother of all Islamic militant groups.
Rahul was criticised on account of both remarks. The question that is being asked is did he commit a self-goal? At a time when the country is preparing for the biggest of all battles in 2019, where Rahul Gandhi will be pitted against the most ruthless of Indian leaders, Mr. Modi, was it judicious of him to raise the issue of Sikh riots? Or to compare the RSS with the Muslim Brotherhood and annoy a section of Hindus? What was the need to fall into the Hindu-Muslim trap, especially since Modi and the RSS would love to walk that path? Hindutva forces are more than happy to lap up any hint of communal divide. In politics and otherwise too, it is their staple diet. The reference to the '84 riots is far more sensitive. He has resurrected a ghost. Even after all these years, the Sikh community has neither forgotten nor forgiven the atrocities. More than 3,000 people were killed in Delhi alone. It was cited as the worst communal carnage in Delhi since the partition.
In this context, why should there be this need to absolve the Congress of any involvement? He could have simply avoided the question by saying let's not go back to the past, let us look ahead to the future and anyway, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had apologised for the '84 riots. But Rahul Gandhi indulged reporters. In his favour, it could be said that he tried to be brave to take the questions head on. It is also possible that he was trying to say that it was not the party per se which was involved and party members who indulged in it were working of their own volition and that the party doesn't own their criminal acts. Either way, it was an avoidable blunder; it will come back to haunt both him and the party.
Whether, you call it audacity, arrogance or naiveté, neither Rahul nor the Congress can say that the party was not involved. If it were so, why did Manmohan Singh apologise for the carnage? Names of top leaders of the Congress party figured in the reports of different enquiry committees and commissions which investigated the '84 riots. H K L Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler, Dharam Shashtri were then the top guns of the Congress party in Delhi. Their names prominently appeared as accused in these cases, though the local administration and Congress governments tried their best to save the perpetrators.
After the riots, celebrated police officer Ved Marwah was appointed the Additional Commissioner of Police to investigate the role of police personnel in riots. He writes, "I spent long hours and had almost completed the enquiry in the next three months when I was asked to hand over all relevant materials which I had collected to Justice Ranganath Mishra, then a serving judge of Supreme Court. He was appointed to hold a judicial enquiry into the November 1984 riots. More than ten years have passed and lot of time has been spent in holding one enquiry after another but till date, hardly any action has been taken against anyone." Ved Marwah very candidly admitted in his book, Uncivil Wars, that governments not only tried to protect the Congress leaders but even police officers who connived with the leaders were saved.
From 2004 to 2014, the Congress was running the government at the centre. A Sikh, Manmohan Singh, was Prime Minister. On April 23, 2012, the CBI's statement in a court of law puts the entire Congress party in the dock. In its deposition, the CBI said, "There was a conspiracy of terrifying proportion with the complicity of police and patronage of local MP Sajjan Kumar." BBC news in its report quoted CBI prosecutorR S Cheema who told Judge J R Aryan that Sajjan Kumar had said to the mob that "not a single Sikh should survive." In his final arguments, Cheema categorically said, "... the riots which targeted a particular community were backed by both the Congress government and police."
At the time, the CBI was working under the Congress regime. Like today, it can't hide behind the excuse that Modi is misusing state machinery to fix opposition leaders and parties. It is also true that even then the CBI was not above board. The Chief Justice of India, R M Lodha, was so upset with the misuse of the CBI that he had called the CBI a "caged parrot" and "his master's voice". In this context, the CBI's words should be taken very seriously.
It is also a fact that despite the whole world knowing the complicity of Congress leaders, the accused were given tickets to contest elections and offered prominent posts in the organisation. Tytler and Sajjan Kumar were offered tickets in the 2004 parliamentary elections. Tytler was accommodated in Narasimha Rao's ministry and later he was made a member of Dr Manmohan Singh's cabinet. Tytler was indicted by the Nanavati Commission which said that he very probably had a hand in organising attacks. Thanks to 24/7 TV channels and their visual impact, the Congress later tried to distance itself from him and Sajjan Kumar.
If Rahul Gandhi believes that the Congress was not involved in the riots and its leaders had no hand in them, then can he dare to resurrect the careers of these leaders? Of course he can't. Ideally, he should set a new benchmark in politics, should sack these leaders and dare Modi to do the same viz-a-viz the 2002 riots.
Rahul Gandhi should not forget that the Congress which he has inherited is not the Congress of his father or of his grandmother. The opposition then was very weak. The BJP was non-existent. Today, the tables have turned. It is the Congress which is weak and the BJP is the dominant party. The Congress can't recover if he keeps repeating the mistakes of the past. The 1984 riots were the most tragic incident in independent India. The Congress can't absolve itself. Its hands are soaked in blood. It's good that not only was a Sikh, Manmohan Singh, appointed Prime Minister, but he also showed the magnanimity of asking the community for forgiveness. But Rahul has to show more courage. He has to create a new Congress which carries the moral capital and courage to call a spade a spade and accept its mistakes and vow to learn from them.
(Ashutosh is a Delhi-based author and journalist.)
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