Indira Gandhi: The earth is still shaking after the killing of India's 'mighty oak'

After the 1984 killing of Indira Gandhi, India’s ‘mighty oak’, the country’s Sikhs paid a terrible price in blood. Now two bereaved women may get justice at last. Andrew Buncombe reports

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The Independent Online

Nirpreet Kaur was 16 when she watched a mob attack her home and seize her father, douse him with kerosene and set him alight. Twice he broke free and twice the mob came back.

She narrowly escaped with her mother and two brothers. As the car in which they sped away passed the spot where her father had been set ablaze, she could just see the stumps of his legs.

That was almost 30 years ago. Today, Nirpreet Kaur is still awaiting justice. So is Lakhvinder Kaur, a woman with the same surname but a very different background. As they have fought for those slaughtered in one of India’s darkest episodes, they have suffered threats and intimidation, official obfuscation and public apathy. But they will not back down.

And, at last, things may be changing. Last week, a court ordered the reopening of an investigation into a former government minister accused of involvement in the murders. And this week, a separate court is to finalise a case of a former member of parliament accused of inciting a mob to go on a killing spree.

The drama playing out relates to the 1984 massacre of up to 7,000 innocent Sikhs by mobs, following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikh bodyguards. A number of senior members of Mrs Gandhi’s Congress party were accused of inciting and organising the violence, as armed gangs attacked Sikh homes and gurdwaras, or temples.

Despite 10 inquiries, no senior officials have ever been convicted, even though hundreds of “rioters” were sent to jail. The reason for this is quite simple, claim activists;  successive Congress governments have protected those involved. They point to a speech made three weeks later by Mrs Gandhi’s son, Rajiv, hurriedly sworn in as Prime Minister, in which he said: “When a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.”

Nirpreet Kaur’s father was president of the local gurdwara when the earth shook. “I was watching from a hiding place as one of our neighbours gave kerosene to the mob. A policeman gave them a box of matches,” she remembered, seated in a friend’s home in the grounds of a gurdwara in Delhi.

Ms Kaur, 45, and others have alleged that a number of those involved were officials with the Congress party. Proceedings were eventually brought against six people, including Sajjan Kumar, who went on to become an MP. Ms Kaur has testified she heard him say: “Not a single [Sikh] should remain alive.” Mr Kumar, who was charged with inciting murder and conspiracy, has always protested his innocence. This week, a Delhi court is due to fix the date on which a verdict in the case will be announced.

Lakhvinder Kaur was a couple of years older than Nirpreet Kaur in October 1984, the mother of a new child and pregnant with a second. Her young husband, Badal Singh, was a skilled musician. At home he would sing to her the romantic songs of Indian star Mohammed Rafi, but he earned a living performing religious chants in gurdwaras.

On 1 November, 1984, he had gone to a temple in the Pul Bangash area of Delhi when it came under attack from a mob. Mr Singh was among three men who had tyres pushed over their heads and set alight. A school building next to the temple was burned to the ground.

Jaswinder Singh, who was then the president of the temple, said he had not witnessed the violence because he was barricaded inside his home. “We could not walk out of the house,” he recalled last week.

But several witnesses have claimed that Jagdish Tytler, a Congress MP who went on to serve as a government minister, was present and was inciting the crowds. Among them is Resham Singh, who now lives in the US. Mr Singh claims he had repeatedly tried to testify to Indian investigators who travelled to the US in 2008 but who would not take his statement.

In a sworn affidavit, seen by The Independent, Mr Singh says: “I again express my willingness to give an in-person statement to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), any investigative authority or court of law regarding what I had seen in November 1984 outside gurdwara Pul Bangladesh.”

Mrs Kaur was living with her family at the time and learned of her husband’s murder three days later. “It is very difficult for a young woman to lose her husband,” she said.

The government-appointed Nanavati inquiry found Mr Tytler was “very probably” involved in organising the attacks, but in 2009 the CBI said it had found no evidence. The CBI claimed Badal Singh, one of the three victims, had no family but said if there family members, they should come forward.

His widow filed a petition requesting the case be reopened and that investigators speak to those witnesses in the US whose testimony was ignored. Last week, a judge in Delhi ordered that the investigation against Mr Tytler be reopened.

Mr Tytler has also proclaimed his innocence and said he was with Indira Gandhi’s body at the time the witnesses claim he was inciting violence. “These witnesses are liars,” he said, at a government property where he receives 24-hour protection by armed police. “I will stick to my story right to the end.”

Those pursuing justice say there have been repeated attempts to bury what happened. Some believe the fact that India’s most politically powerful family, the Gandhis, is so central to the narrative is a vital factor.

HS Phoolka, a Sikh lawyer whose home was attacked and who has represented many relatives of those killed, believes Rajiv Gandhi’s comments helped encourage an attempted “cover-up” ever since: “It was a message to say ‘This killing was just’ and that no action will be taken against those responsible for the killing,” he said.

Mr Phoolka said the fact that no senior officials were convicted may even have encouraged subsequent “communal” killings in India, such as killing of Muslims in Mumbai in 1993 and the western state of Gujarat in  2002. “If the guilty of 1984 had been prosecuted, we would not have had these,” he added.

Amid the flurry of court cases and official investigations, the human cost of what took place three decades ago can sometimes be overlooked. A generation on, it can be difficult to recall the Sikh insurgency in Punjab and Operation Blue Star – the anti-militant operation that triggered the assassination of Mrs Gandhi. It can be difficult too, to believe the streets of India’s capital were littered with body-parts, its drains clogged with blood.

“Sometimes my grand-child asks why my husband’s photograph is garlanded with flowers,” said Lakhvinder Kaur. “I say he was in a fight. My grandchild is five. I tell him that my husband was a peace-loving man. It’s so hard to explain hate.”

Suspects: Politicians under pressure

Jagdish Tytler

He was a member of parliament for a constituency in west Delhi in 1984. He says he was with the body of Indira  Gandhi at the time witnesses claim he was inciting a mob. He went on to serve as a minister with several portfolios, including transportation. He was  refused a party ticket in 2009 amid renewed controversy but still holds two senior positions within the Congress party.

Sajjan Kumar

In 1984 he was a Congress councillor  in Delhi, having been first elected in  1977. He went onto be elected to the national parliament in 2004 and served one term representing a constituency on the edges of Delhi. He was also refused a ticket in 2009 by the Congress as  controversy grew.