How justice was delayed

Sajjan Kumar’s conviction

Congress leader Sajjan Kumar leaves after offering prayers at Hanuman temple in Connaught Place, in New Delhi. PTI

When the wheels of justice do not move, and the government seems to be partisan, it makes a cliché-ridden statement, “Matter is sub-judice. The law will take its own course.” When the wheels move, it takes credit that it was because of its efforts. It is the duty of the State to provide the force for the wheels of justice to move.  But the government applies this force selectively.

After the first conviction in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, nay pogrom, in which former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar has been sentenced to life imprisonment, it is again being discussed why it took 34 years. The answer is, systemic failure. It is the failure of the police, investigation, prosecution and even the judiciary. It also raises the issue of witness protection. Sajjan Kumar was let off by the trial court giving him the benefit of doubt but the Delhi high court overturned it.

Let’s examine the facts of the case in brief. Charge sheets were not filed in these cases for decades. The CBI filed charge sheets against Sajjan Kumar in two separate cases relating to anti-Sikh riots on January 13, 2010. He was charged under sections 302 (murder) and 153-A (promoting enmity between communities) in two cases of rioting at Sultanpuri and Delhi Cantonment police stations on November 1, 1984. One of the reasons for the delay was that the government, to deflect public attention, constituted an inquiry commission. Generally, commissions take years and even decades to submit reports. In the meanwhile, the police sit, with their fingers crossed.

In this case, five members of a family in Raj Nagar area of Delhi Cantonment were murdered in cold blood by a mob led by Kumar. The victims were Kehar Singh and Gurpreet Singh, husband and son of Jagdish Kaur, the prosecution witness No. 1, while the remaining three were also members of the same family. In May 2013, the trial court acquitted Kumar on the ground that Jagdish Kaur had not named him as an accused in 1985 in her statement given before the Justice Ranganath Misra Commission.

However, the high court has saluted the courage of three witnesses — Jagdish Kaur, her cousin Jagsher Singh and Nirpreet Kaur, who saw the Gurudwara being burnt down and her father set aflame. The high court has recorded: “It is only after the CBI entered the scene, that they were able to be assured and they spoke up. Admirably, they stuck firm to their truth at the trial.”

Investigation into the 1984 massacre was derailed by a number of commissions and committees of inquiry set up to ascertain facts. An inquiry commission headed by Ved Marwah, then additional commissioner of police, Delhi, was appointed in November 1984. It was assigned the job of inquiring into the role of the police during the anti-Sikh carnage.

As Marwah completed his inquiry by mid-1985, he was abruptly directed by the union home ministry not to proceed further. This was because the Akali leader Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, listed a set of preconditions when Rajiv Gandhi, desperate for a breakthrough in Punjab in 1985, mollycoddled him into agreeing to sign a peace accord with him. Setting up a judicial commission to inquire into the massacre was one of the pre-conditions. Thus was born the Misra Commission in May 1985. He submitted his report in August 1986, which was tabled in parliament in February 1987.

In his report, Justice Misra stated that it was not part of his terms of reference to identify any person and recommended the formation of three committees. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties criticised the Misra Commission for keeping information on the accused secret while revealing the names and addresses of the victims of violence. It recommended no criminal prosecution of any individual, and it cleared all high-level officials of directing the riots.

In its findings, the commission did acknowledge that many of the victims testifying before it had received threats from local police. While the commission noted that there had been “widespread lapses” on the part of the police, it concluded that “the allegations before the commission about the conduct of the police are more of indifference and negligence during the riots than of any wrongful overt act”.

Subsequently, nine commissions and committees (Kapur Mittal Committee, Jain Banerjee Committee, Potti Rosha Committee, Jain Aggarwal Committee, Ahuja Committee, Narula Committee, and so on, and finally the Nanavati Commission) were set up to get to the truth. However, they were either disbanded midway or not allowed access to documents and evidence.

The judiciary, too, was indulgent in Kumar’s case. He was granted anticipatory bail by the Delhi high court on oral prayer, and that too after he was arrested, and the registrar made a phone call to the CBI not to arrest him as he had been granted bail. He was arrested on September 11, 1990 at 6.45 am by the CBI at his house in West Delhi.

After the arrest, the CBI team started searching his house. While the search was on, a large crowd of his supporters assembled outside and raised provocative slogans against the CBI. They also installed a loudspeaker and repeatedly threatened the CBI officials of dire consequences if they took Kumar away with them. Their vehicles were damaged, and the CBI officials were themselves detained. It was actually a ploy to gain time and obtain anticipatory bail from Delhi high court. Its chief justice RN Pyne had allegedly been transferred to the capital during Rajiv Gandhi’s reign to shield Kumar.

A lawyer mentioned the matter before Justice Pyne, who then directed Justice MK Chawla to hear Kumar’s anticipatory bail. There was no question of anticipatory bail at that stage because he had already been arrested early in the morning. But the vital piece of legal information was conveniently held back from the court.

On his part, Justice Chawla made no effort to find out Kumar’s status at that moment either, even after he had been told that the CBI team was already at the Congress leader’s house. The only use that the judge made of that detail was that he got the court registrar to call up Sajjan Kumar’s house and direct the CBI team to release him immediately.

If the rule of law is to survive, the law must be allowed to take its own course.

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