All India Radio (AIR) IAS UPSC – 1984 Riots

  • IASbaba
  • January 22, 2019
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1984 Riots


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General studies 1

  • Salient features of Indian Society, Diversity of India.
  • Communalism

General Studies 3

  • Internal Security

In News: The Delhi High Court Wednesday upheld the conviction of 70 out of the 89 people who were awarded five-year jail term by a trial court for rioting, burning houses and violation of curfew during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

The court noted that the 1984 anti-Sikh riots were a “dark chapter” in the history of independent India as the “law and order machinery had broken down”.

What happened in the 1984 riots?

The 1984 anti-Sikh riots, also known as the 1984 Sikh Massacre, was a series of organised pogroms against Sikhs in India in response to the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Independent sources estimate the number of deaths at about 8,000 – 17,000 whilst government estimates project that about 2,800 Sikhs were killed in Delhi.

Why did her bodyguards attack her?

Violence continued in the early 1980s due to the armed Sikh separatist Khalistan movement which sought independence from India. In July 1982, the Sikh political party Akali Dal’s President Harchand Singh Longowal had invited Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to take up residence in Golden Temple Complex to evade arrest. Bhindranwale later on made the sacred temple complex an armoury and headquarters.

In the violent events leading up to the Operation Blue Star since the inception of Akali Dharm Yudh Morcha, the militants had killed 165 Hindus and Nirankaris, even 39 Sikhs opposed to Bhindranwale were killed. The total number of deaths was 410 in violent incidents and riots while 1,180 people were injured.

Operation Blue Star

Operation Blue Star was an Indian military operation carried out between 1 and 8 June 1984, ordered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to remove militant religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed militants from the buildings of the Harmandir Sahib complex in Amritsar, Punjab.

Bhindranwale died and militants were removed from the temple complex. The military action in the temple complex was criticized by Sikhs worldwide who had interpreted it as an assault on Sikh religion. Four months after the operation, on 31 October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated in vengeance by her two Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh.


Ten commissions or committees have been formed to investigate the riots, the most recent being headed by Justice G. T. Nanavati. The investigation only picked up in 2005 after it was handed over to the CBI on the recommendation of the Justice Nanavati Commission.

After 34 years and numerous commissions of inquiry, one of the key players in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi has been sentenced to life imprisonment. Sajjan Kumar’s jail term will bring some measure of bleak comfort to the families of the riot victims whose doggedness reminds us that while memory is a sense of loss, it also sustains us through unbearable agony.

The landmark 203-page high court ruling affirms what has been common knowledge for years. The bench accepted the testimony of complainant Jagdish Kaur, who had witnessed Kumar (then the Outer Delhi MP) instigating rioters.

What is the learning here?

The Sajjan Kumar judgment should be a learning moment. It tells us that mass crimes like 1984 are not spontaneous, nor are they committed in the spur of the moment, in a rush of passions blinding people and turning them into mobs. There is a mind, individual or collective, that plans, organises and gets the crime executed.

The judgment reads: “The riots in early November 1984 — in which in Delhi alone 2,733 Sikhs and nearly 3,350 all over the country were brutally murdered [official figures], was neither the first instance of a mass crime nor, tragically, the last […] 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 UP 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.” Nellie, Bhagalpur etc. can be added to this list.

The term – Genocide

The court has used the term, genocide, carefully — there cannot be any hierarchies while comparing genocides. According to the UN convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group: Killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and, forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

It is neither the method used in killing nor the number which makes a crime a genocide, but the intent. When the law holds a person who himself has not committed murders or lootings responsible for what others did, it underlines a simple fact that scholars of genocide like Daniel Jonah Goldhagen have repeatedly asserted — genocidal violence is not spontaneous, there is no inevitability about it and that it is a matter of choice. The choice is made by three kinds of people at three levels: The political leaders who plan and organise, the actors who participate in the violence, and those who watch and not come forward to stop it.

Lacunae in administration

As the Delhi High Court points out, there were multiple failures in the administration of justice after the 1984 violence –

  • Repeated failure to file FIRs
  • Abetment of the crimes committed by the mobs
  • Failure to prosecute or gather material evidence
  • Lack of a credible witness protection programme in India, which hampers the willingness of witnesses to come forward or to maintain consistency


The 1984 riots changed Delhi — where its impact was the largest — as it applied a blow-torch to the most delicate of adhesives that bind people in our cities: Trust, neighbourliness and an acceptance of social diversity. It also produced a lost generation whose life chances were affected through the inability to access education and other sources of social and economic mobility. They were consumed by the after-effects of the trauma they had experienced.

Riots and violence only divide people and never unite them. It is politicians who capitalize on these fissures. Members of every political party have to share the blame for this. Political hatred isn’t spread only along communal, caste and regional lines. It unwittingly spreads to engulf ordinary people.

Need to urgently pay heed to the suggestions by the High Court:

  • Amending the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952 and the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 to entrust such bodies with the responsibility of taking note of cognisable offences committed in communal riots, investigate through special investigating teams (SITs) under their control and oversee prosecution through Special Public Prosecutor(s) engaged by them.
  • On law on the subject of communal riots: It cannot be a complete answer to the challenge unless it also establishes special courts with suitable amendments to the general criminal law procedure as indeed the rules of evidence
  • Both print and electronic — were the fourth pillar of democracy, press reports supported by photographic material and video footage may be utilised as evidence in trials of criminal cases arising out of communal riots.

Connecting the dots:

  1. The Sajjan Kumar judgment breaks the cycle of impunity. Examine.

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