How Washington can support justice for the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms

On Sept. 30, 2014, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hosted an important briefing on impunity for mass state violence in India, with a focus on the early-November 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms.  Although thousands of Sikh civilians were killed during the pogroms, one of the speakers at the briefing, Manoj Mitta—an Indian author and journalist—noted that only 30 individuals have been convicted of murder in the last three decades for these crimes.

In the face of such impunity on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the pogroms, the U.S. government must build on the initiative of the Lantos Commission and champion the cause of justice for the victims and survivors of the violence.

The first step is accurately defining the problem.  Although the 1984 pogroms are euphemistically described as “riots,” even the Nanavati Commission—the latest in a string of lackluster investigative commissions appointed by the Indian government—concluded in 2005 that the violence was organized by government officials.

Although some sources, such as The Economist, estimate the number of lives lost to be around 8,000, the Nanavati report stipulates that the pogroms resulted in the loss of 2,733 lives.  Even if this lower number is accepted, this is a staggering figure for three days of killing. 

The Nanavati report found that meetings were held by political leaders to plan attacks on Sikhs; that mobs were transported to Sikh neighborhoods in municipal buses; that mobs had been supplied with gasoline and flammable powder; that Sikh properties were specifically targeted for looting and arson; that police officials failed to stop the violence; and that police officials even disarmed Sikhs who attempted to defend themselves.  The report noted that Sikh women were often raped and also described the gruesome manner in which Sikh men were killed:

“Male members of the Sikh community were taken out of their houses. They were beaten first and then burnt alive in a systematic manner. In some cases tyres were put around their necks and then they were set on fire by pouring kerosene or petrol over them. In some cases white inflammable powder was thrown on them which immediately caught fire thereafter. This was a common pattern which was followed by the big mobs which had played havoc in certain areas.”

Based on these facts, the characterization of the 1984 pogroms as “riots” is misleading and inaccurate.  In practice, the repeated mischaracterization of the 1984 pogroms could explain why international human rights bodies—and, indeed, India itself—have failed to take proper cognizance of these crimes.  Indeed, crimes against humanity can be appropriately addressed only if they are appropriately defined, and it is imperative that the Obama administration, State Department, and U.S. Congress always recognize the 1984 pogroms for what they were—an organized, pre-meditated, state-sponsored attempt to commit genocide against the Sikh minority in India. The word "riots" is a misnomer.

The second step is meaningful accountability. Although it is true that former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—himself a Sikh—apologized for the pogroms in 2005, apologies are no substitute for justice.  A bystander cannot apologize on behalf of a murderer and expect this to satisfy a victim.  Indeed, unless India prioritizes thorough investigation and prosecution of the 1984 pogroms, the survivors of the violence—as well as the perpetrators—will eventually pass away and make justice impossible.

In the spirit of partnership, the Obama administration and State Department should prioritize this issue in its engagement with India.  The United States can even point to its own history of overcoming impunity—noting, for example, the relentless efforts to prosecute ex-KKK members for the Mississippi civil rights murders and the 16th Street Baptist Church—and share best practices on investigations and judicial administration with its counterparts in India.  Much in the way both countries encourage business partnerships, both countries should also strengthen exchange programs for individuals and civil society organizations that focus on human rights.

The U.S. Congress should introduce resolutions to commemorate the 1984 pogroms and support justice for the victims and survivors.  These expressions of solidarity will give strength to those in India who are told to forget the past, even as they continue their campaign for justice.

Given that India wants a permanent seat on the UN Security Council—and given its strategic importance as a geopolitical ally—the United States and its international partners cannot allow India’s permanent legacy to be indifference toward impunity.  India’s people deserve better, and the world will benefit if the world’s largest democracy begins to heal the wounds of 1984.

Singh is director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh American civil rights organization in the United States.