November 2009 
Year 16    No.145
Cover Story

Fight to the finish

From the front lines of the legal battle for Sikh victims of the 1984 massacre


I am frequently asked how the thousands of cruel, brutal and miserable stories affect me. Some of them are so ghastly they could easily be
scenes from a grisly horror film. People often ask me how, after hearing these stories again and again, reliving them at every stage of the legal battle, I manage to digest and absorb these tragic truths.

I have been hearing these stories from as far back as November 1984, when I was a young lawyer with just three years of experience. The first 1984 case that I handled, in the Delhi high court, related to the release of four orphaned sisters from the government-controlled womenís shelter, Nari Niketan. Before doomsday struck on November 1, 1984, the four girls lived happily with their parents and family in the Nand Nagri area of Delhi. Their father owned a factory in the capitalís commercial hub, Karol Bagh. They enjoyed a middle-class family life with basic creature comforts like a television, a refrigerator and so on.

On November 1, 1984 everything changed. Four members of their family, their father, mother, brother and uncle, were killed and only the four sisters were left alive. The eldest, Satpal Kaur, was 13 and the youngest girl only four years old at the time. Satpal tried to save her father but to no avail. The girlsí 16-year-old brother was killed right at the door of the police station but the police did not come to his rescue. Not content with killing four members of this family, the mob, led by local Congress leaders, also barged into their home and looted household articles. Satpal Kaur knew the culprits and even named them. I helped their grandfather gain custody of the children by filing a habeas corpus petition in the high court.

Since then, they have been in constant touch with me but I have no answer to the questions that Satpalís children ask: Why didnít the police help their uncle? Why did they take no action at all against the police officers or the accused whom their mother identified by name?

There are hundreds of similar heart-rending tales. One such story is about 21 widows, all from one family, who lived in the Sagarpur area of West Delhi near the Delhi Cantonment. On November 1, 1984 a resident of the area suggested that the male members of the family should all take shelter in a tube well room located near their house. The men were locked up in the room ostensibly to save their lives but later the mob was informed of their whereabouts. They came and set fire to the room, roasting the men alive.

The youngest of these 21 widows, Manjit Kaur, was just 20 years old and had only been married for two years when tragedy struck. She had no children and after this traumatic incident, did not marry again. For the past 25 years she has been trying to get a government job but her attempts have gone unheeded.

Recently, there have been several reports in the press commemorating the 25th anniversary of the anti-Sikh carnage. As victim survivors relived the events of 1984 and narrated once again the horrendous and gruesome accounts of that fateful winter, many in the media were visibly moved, often unable to contain their tears.

Now, when they ask me how I have lived through these 25 years, listening to such stories, they are surprised when I tell them that the stories do not affect me. I treat them as legal cases. I do not allow myself to be emotionally affected because if I lose my balance as a lawyer, I cannot handle the cases properly. Lawyers who have worked with me have often complained that after hearing some of these accounts, they could not sleep at night. But when I am working as a lawyer, I maintain a distance, which is required and expected of a professional. It is only by maintaining this attitude that I have managed to survive working on these cases for all these years.

Failures do not frustrate me. We need to pursue these cases and persist in the hunt for justice with continuing vigour and it is with this spirit that I and other members of the team have been fighting. This struggle does not seek revenge. It is a fight to ensure a secure future for the country and to uphold the rule of law. It is a fight to prove that in this country, no one is above the law and no politician, no matter how highly placed s/he may be, can blatantly break the law and get away with it. Until we are able to spread this message loud and clear, that no one can get away with flouting the law so openly, no citizen is secure in this democracy.

If those guilty of the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage had been punished, the violence in Gujarat in 2002 would not have taken place. If we forget the massacre of 1984 and let the guilty go scot-free, and then go on to forget the violence in Gujarat as well, we should be prepared to face yet another bloodbath. And there is no telling who the next target will be. It is in the interests of democracy that the fight must go on and those guilty of such heinous crimes must be punished.

(HS Phoolka, a senior advocate, Supreme Court of India, has been at the forefront of the legal struggle for justice for victims of the 1984 carnage.)

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