Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | 1984 is a symptom of a bigger disease

The lack of political and institutional accountability for the anti-Sikh riots is the norm

Congress chief Rahul Gandhi’s defence of his party’s role in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots is brazen and ahistorical. His party’s defence of him goes further yet, descending into bathos. Party luminaries such as P. Chidambaram and Amarinder Singh do him no favour by suggesting that his youth at the time of the riots absolves him of responsibility for what he says today. Such arguments diminish him. They should not come as a surprise, however. The Indian state has a long and troubling history of failing to fix political and institutional accountability for riots and mass killings.

Claims that the Congress party had nothing to do with the frenzy of violence targeting Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination are hokum. Ten commissions have been formed in the decades since. The majority of them have found the state machinery and police to have either been complicit or having played an enabling role for the rioters. Many of the commissions, most notably the Nanavati Commission, have pointed to the likely involvement of local Congress leaders and workers, including Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar. Yet, little action has been taken.

It is a familiar story. In the wake of the 1969 Gujarat riots, the Justice Jaganmohan Reddy Commission of Inquiry found police complicity. No action was taken by the state’s Congress government led by Hitendra Desai. In Mumbai’s Worli riots in 1974, Shiv Sena supporters took on the Dalit Panthers with, by all accounts, police backing. Nothing much came of the judicial inquiry led by S. B. Bhasme. The Justice Saxena Commission report on the 1980 Moradabad riots in Uttar Pradesh was quietly brushed under the carpet.

The Tiwari Commission report on the 1983 Nellie massacre in Assam was never made public to begin with. The work done by the commission of inquiry set up after the 1989 Bhagalpur violence in Bihar came to little despite its indictment of the police under superintendent of police K.S. Dwivedi. The Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission report on the riots that swept Mumbai from December 1992 to January 1993 indicted the Shiv Sena and several policemen but was roundly ignored by the Maharashtra government. As for the 2002 Gujarat riots, despite Maya Kodnani’s conviction in 2012, the response has been lacking on multiple fronts—from credibility and timeliness of inquiries to convictions.

There are several common elements to these and the hundreds of other riots that have taken place over the decades. First, political rhetoric attempts to paint the violence as a spontaneous upsurge of common sentiment and resentment. The corollary, of course, is that politicians can’t be held responsible for failing to stop the violence, or for inciting it, depending on where they stand. This is specious. Time and again, effective deployment of Central forces has stopped the violence when the police have failed to do so. Journalist Shekhar Gupta’s eyewitness account testifies to this in 1984, for instance ( This points to the role of the police on the ground and the political establishment directing it—either in enabling the violence, or, by failing to respond adequately, allowing it.

Second, political incentives in India work against the logic of the social contract. Maintaining law and order doesn’t always provide the greatest electoral rewards. In their 2016 paper, Do Parties Matter for Ethnic Violence? Evidence from India, Gareth Nellis, Michael Weaver and Steven C. Rosenzweig put this in empirical context. Based on Election Commission of India data and the 1950-1995 dataset on Hindu-Muslim violence in India prepared by Ashutosh Varshney and Steven Wilkinson, they look at the effect of local Congress incumbency on the probability of riots breaking out. The results are flattering for the Congress—but their dampening effect is roughly proportional to the size of the Muslim population. In other words, how much of an effort the Congress—or, undoubtedly, any other party—makes to maintain law and order is tied directly to polarized voter behaviour, not constitutional norms. This should not come as a surprise to even a casual observer of Indian politics.

Third, India is a weak state with compromised institutions. This is apparent at every stage of a riot and its aftermath. It starts with the police who lack institutional support and structures for functioning effectively—or resisting political pressure to do otherwise. The lack of sanction for any number of policemen indicted by the various commissions, meanwhile, establishes the low cost of doing business with the political establishment. It continues with the commissions themselves: often, their reports gestate for so long that they lose relevance and the probability of meaningful evidence fades. The Central Bureau of Investigation further muddies the waters. Its susceptibility to political pressure means that when it has stepped in, its findings have lacked credibility. This weakness on the part of a state ties into electoral incentives. As political scientist Milan Vaishnav has argued, in the absence of a strong state, the criminality of a politician—in other words, the kind of local strongman who is often in the thick of riots—becomes a qualifying factor rather than a disqualifier.

Pushing back against the rot in the system will require immense political wherewithal and courage. Based on the reactions and counter-reactions to Rahul Gandhi’s statements, these are in short supply.

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