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Thirty years of tragedy

Thirty years ago, Delhi suffered through some of the most horrific moments in its long history. Following the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards, a paroxysm of violence directed at the city’s Sikh residents continued practically unabated for at least three days. This was more than a communal riot, which implies clashing mobs: it was an organised pogrom, in which Sikhs were at the receiving end, and in many cases seeing their neighbours of decades turning into cold-blooded killers. Sadly, 1984 cannot be simply consigned to history. In spite of the apology on behalf of the Indian government and his Congress party delivered by then prime minister Manmohan Singh in 2005, the continuing failure to deliver justice and punishment for the events of early November 1984 means that the book can never really be closed. Through its failure to be energetic in opening and conducting investigations against the powerful people associated with murders of Sikhs, the Rajiv Gandhi government only made worse its original failure to stop the murderous mobs tearing apart the city from which it ruled.

Another piece of news last week shows how 1984 cast long shadows over India’s present – shadows rendered darker by the failures of the Indian state. It was revealed that Warren Anderson, the ailing nonagenarian who was in 1984 the chairman of Union Carbide, died some weeks ago in a Florida nursing home. Union Carbide’s plant in Bhopal leaked a poisonous gas in December of 1984, just a few weeks after Indira Gandhi was killed and Delhi burned. The degree of Anderson’s personal culpability can, of course, be questioned, and there is certainly a degree of witch-hunting in hauling up even those who had little to do with the management or planning of the Bhopal plant. But Anderson had nevertheless been declared an absconder by an Indian court; flying into India shortly after the leak, he had been arrested. Once his release was ordered, he left the country, never to return. The focus on Anderson’s face was, perhaps, a very public act of transference on the part of an angry nation – because the Indian state signally failed to act responsibly and quickly in fact-finding and the assignation of blame. This compounded the earlier failure of regulation. In the end, Anderson – safely out of the reach of the Indian judicial process – had become a symbol of the feebleness and failings of this country’s government and legal system.

In many ways, 1984 was among the darkest years of the Indian republic. The colossal mismanagement of Operation Bluestar, in which the army went into a terrorist-infested sacred site on a day in which it was packed with pilgrims; the murder of Indira Gandhi; and the thousands of murders of Sikhs that followed; the Bhopal gas tragedy. When the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet was sworn in on the last day of 1984 after a historic landslide victory, it must have looked like India had turned a page. But closure for events such as 1984’s require more responsible government than Rajiv Gandhi provided. Nor have his successors managed to provide justice in these emblematic cases. The failing, flailing Indian state was at its most visible in 1984. And the years that followed showed that changing and reforming the Indian state requires more than just a majority in the Lok Sabha – but also that this change and reform is an essential project.

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