The wilful ignorance of a new generation of “Liberals” shields the Congress from its culpability in the 1984 massacres

02 April 2016
Secure in the ideological blanket that the Congress, in theory, does not stand for violence against a community, a new generation of liberals has refused to engage with the reality of what happened in 1984.
AP Photo
Secure in the ideological blanket that the Congress, in theory, does not stand for violence against a community, a new generation of liberals has refused to engage with the reality of what happened in 1984.
AP Photo

For some reason, Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar recently deemed it fit to compare the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 with the killing of Muslims in 2002. Kanhaiya’s conclusion, which he has since been forced to revise, was that the riots in Gujarat were politically organised, while the violence in Delhi was the result of a mob frenzy. The conclusion was so off the mark that I know of only one other person who has been ignorant enough to make this extreme a claim–the Congress Vice-President—Rahul Gandhi. In January 2014, during an interview with Arnab Goswami, the editor-in-chief of Times Now, Gandhi stated that the Congress government had tried to quell the violence in 1984, while the Modi government had abetted it in 2002.

Of course, Gandhi was right about the Modi government. But he had gotten his facts about the Congress’s position in 1984 wrong. As I had reported in my story for The Caravan, in 1984, the deployment of the army was deliberately delayed and the police refused to act while senior Congressmen such as Kamal Nath, HKL Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar led mobs that murdered the Sikhs and pillaged their belongings. These mobs showed clear signs of direction, organisation and mobilisation. As has been well documented, Nath subsequently rose within the party and the attempts to shield Tytler, Bhagat and Kumar from justice were fervent. They continued to be fielded by the party for elections and held important posts. No action was ever taken against the senior policemen who failed to do their duty. Given that the Congress’s culpability for the events of 1984 directly indicts his family, Gandhi’s attitude is understandable, even if it is, by no means, excusable. But, what of comrade Kanhaiya and others like him?

Kanhaiya is a PhD student and now, often given to speaking on issues of national importance. There is a growing body of writing on 1984 that more than adequately covers the subject, and there should be no reason for anyone writing or speaking on the subject to plead ignorance. Yet, a large section of those who call themselves liberals and claim some intellectual attainment, do little better than Kanhaiya when speaking of 1984.

I have documented some such cases in the past but they are still worth repeating: “In a 2007 book The Clash Within published by Harvard University Press in the US and glowingly blurbed by none other than Amartya Sen, Martha C Nussbaum confronts the comparison thus: ‘The closest precedent to Gujarat… was the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi…’ She then goes on to make the claim that there were differences and that in the Delhi riots ‘rape and killing-by-incineration were not central elements of the violence.’” This is not just a mistake. It is a deliberate denial of the central elements of the 1984 violence by one of the most prominent moral philosophers of our times. I cannot imagine that she would have been allowed to get away with such monumental distortion had she been writing on the 2002 violence.

During the 2014 election campaign, several commentators argued that the events of 1984 were not in keeping with the Congress’s professed ideology while the violence in 2002 was consistent with what the Bharatiya Janata Party stands for. It is an argument that makes little sense. It suggests the Congress’ use of violence is instrumental and is not constrained in any way by its ideology. This would imply that, depending on the circumstance, any community, anywhere, could be targeted for murder by the party if it suits its political ends. In contrast, the BJP will always direct its violence at Muslims or Christians. Why the first should be preferable to the second is not clear. Surely, to those murdered, being killed in keeping with an ideology or in violation of it, would make little difference.

Hartosh Singh Bal  is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada.

Keywords: Congress Sikhs 2002 riots 1984 Sikh pogrom Kanhaiya Kumar Kamal Nath