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1984 anti-Sikh riot: ‘It is the poor, innocent citizens who are dead, not the law’

If there is a face to the long battle for justice for the Sikhs killed after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, it is probably that of H S Phoolka, the lawyer who has been fighting on their behalf to bring those accused to justice. While he welcomed the Centre’s announcement last week of Rs 5 lakh each for the kin of those killed during riots in New Delhi, on the 30th anniversary of the riots, Phoolka tells Indulekha Aravind about the challenges he has faced, his expectations from the current government and the road ahead. Excerpts:

How did you get involved in fighting for the victims of the 1984 riots?

I was 29 at that time, and lived in Delhi. My house was attacked on November 2. Our landlords locked us in their store and told the mob we had left. While they were throwing stones at the house, an army truck happened to come to the area, so our landlord unlocked the room and we made a run for it. We left the area in the truck. Even before the attacks, I had decided to shift to Punjab because my family was there, but then I learnt that lawyers were needed in relief camps. I first visited a camp on November 25, and when I saw the state of affairs there, I decided to stay back. The first case I handled was in December and ever since, in every major battle, I have represented the victims.

What is the status of the cases now?

The cases have been decided but for one case that is at the trial stage and two that are pending investigation. One is regarding the killing of four Sikhs on November 1. The FIR was registered after three years in 1987, and the investigation started in 1992, when the chargesheet was finally prepared and signed. Sajjan Kumar is an accused in that case. In the normal course of events, the chargesheet would have been filed in the court within 3-4 days. But it has still not been filed. And after 20 years, they have restarted investigation. The other case involves Jagdish Tytler, where a closure report was filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation. But the court rejected the report and directed that another investigation be conducted, which is now pending.

Would you want cases to be re-examined or re-investigated?

Two hundred and thirty-seven cases were untraced and have been closed by police. They were never sent for trial to the court. During the Arvind Kejriwal’s tenure as chief minister of Delhi, he had appointed a special investigation team (SIT) to reopen and re-investigate these cases. After his resignation, the investigation was stalled by the United Progressive Alliance government and remains stalled. According to official figures, 3,006 people were killed in Delhi zone alone, but only 30 people have been convicted of murder.

What were the major setbacks you suffered in your crusade for justice?

There has been a concerted effort by the government to scuttle the process of justice and shield the guilty. Instead, the guilty were rewarded, whether it was the politicians or police officers.

How effective are summons issued by foreign courts, such as the one issued to Sonia Gandhi or, more recently, Amitabh Bachchan?

All these people have skirted the law in India using money, muscle or political power. They now need to be shamed wherever they go. Lakhs of Sikhs migrated after 1984. If the law of their country allows them to file the case, why not? The Nazis were not tried in Germany; they were tried in other countries.

What do you expect from the Bharatiya Janata Party government?

We had a lot of expectations but it has disappointed us. The Akali Dal used to hold demonstrations for filing chargesheets and raised the issue in Parliament, but it remembered the issue only as long as it was in the Opposition. When politicians come to power, they forget.

How do you view the apology that Manmohan Singh offered when he was prime minister?

An apology should not be mere words. It should have substance and sincerity. In any case, the government is responsible because a democracy failed to save its citizens. But our country’s law does not allow a murderer to get away scot-free with an apology. He will have to be punished, according to the law, whatever time may have passed. An apology is not a substitute for justice; it should be coupled with justice.

Is it still a relevant issue for the youth?

If you ask any Sikh who was in Delhi at that time to narrate the events of those three days, whether he was a victim or not, he will do so in detail but not without a tear in his eye. How can they forget? The younger generation has heard these stories and will remember. It’s absolutely necessary that the message that nobody is above the law goes out to all citizens in the country. And if this message does not go out, nobody is safe in this country.

What next, for you?

We will continue our fight to prove that the law, and not politicians, is supreme in this country. It is the poor, innocent citizens who are dead, not the law.

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