Twenty Years of Impunity Book Review

Twenty Years of Impunity: The November 1984 Pogroms of Sikhs in India. Jaskaran Kaur, ENSAAF. Foreword by Barbara Crossette. Published by Nectar Publishing (2004). ISBN 0-9548412-0-4.

Twenty years after the government-sponsored Sikh pogroms of November 1984, the Indian government continues to deny survivors the rights to knowledge, justice and reparations. Twenty Years of Impunity, an ENSAAF report written by Jaskaran Kaur with a foreword by former New York Times reporter Barbara Crossette , analyzes 6000 papers from the Misra Commission, a governmental body of inquiry set-up to investigate the violence against Sikhs in November 1984 in the cities of Delhi, Kanpur, and Bokaro. By dissecting the government record, the in-depth 150 page report reveals the identity of the perpetrators and nature of the violence and its organized dynamic. After a thorough discussion of administrative and judicial impunity, the report applies the international law of genocide and crimes against humanity to the pogroms, relating the massacres with international understandings of gross violations of human rights.

Kaur’s analysis of thousands of pages of official records, including over one thousand affidavits from eyewitnesses and survivors of the massacres, conclusively establishes that the government planned, organized, and participated in the murder of thousands of Sikhs and in the destructions of their homes, businesses , and places of worship. In addition to the Misra Commission papers, Kaur analyzes news articles from over 25 news sources, reports of administrative committees, and human rights documents, among other secondary material. As Brad Adams, Executive Director, Asia Division of Human Rights Watch writes, “Jaskaran Kaur’s meticulous account of the failure of justice for Sikhs brings to life a period that many in India wish they could forget. With many connected to the violence now enjoying prominent positions in public life, Kaur makes it clear that India continues to ignore this dark chapter of its modern history at its own risk.”

Chapter One of the report provides context to the November pogroms by discussing the politics of the time and major events leading up to the massacres, including Operation Blue Star–the Indian army assault on the Sikh’s holiest place of worship, the Harimandir Sahib, or Golden Temple and 41 other Sikh shrines (It was done on the martyrdom anniversary day of Guru Arjan Dev). Chapter Two discusses the patterns and characteristics of the November 1984 pogroms, such as: the Congress-led meetings where they distributed weapons; the identification and tracking of Sikhs killed; slogans of extermination; sexual violence; refusal of medical treatment by government doctors; and attacks on the media covering the violence. This chapter, like the third, fourth and fifth chapters, ends with further questions or points of study.

Chapter Three analyzes the role of the police. Kaur first describes the police structure, and the police’s failure to act to stem the violence, as per the orders of senior police officers. The chapter then focuses on police instigation of violence against the Sikhs including instructing mobs to kill, ensuring they would be protected from retaliation or prosecution, and disarming Sikhs who were defending themselves. The chapter next discusses the destruction of evidence and investigations against perpetrators of the massacres, from failing to properly record police reports, to tearing out pages from the logbooks of senior police officers. Kaur also demonstrates that senior police officers had sufficient knowledge and force to counter the pogroms. Chapter Three ends with sections on the role of the Railway Protection Force and Fire Brigade in engaging in violence or failing to protect Sikh victims.

The next chapter establishes the complicity of the Congress (I) Party and Delhi Administration in the massacres. This chapter, among other things, further examines the Congress (I) party massacre planning and the role of the administration in preventing the deployment of the Army in a timely manner, rendering them ineffective, and its failure to provide adequate relief measures.

The fifth chapter focuses on the aftermath of the violence and the twenty years of administrative and judicial impunity. Post-massacre elections, where Sikhs were portrayed as a threat to the nation, alienated the minority Sikh community and solidified the majority vote, leading to landslide victories for key perpetrators and organizers of the pogroms. Kaur uses government papers to analyze the establishment and lack of transparency in the operations of the Misra Commission, and compares the analysis in Misra’s report to the actual contents of the Misra papers in ENSAAF’s possession. Kaur demonstrates, for example, how Misra dismissed allegations against senior Congress party leaders on the basis of the legitimacy conferred by their political positions thus dismissing serious allegations of abuse. Kaur also compares the findings of subsequent inquiry committees, and the judicial impunity resulting from the police’s destruction of evidence, the failure of the prosecution to properly prepare cases, delays in filing cases, and the failure to comply with legal procedures.

In the sixth chapter, Kaur applies the international law of genocide and crimes against humanity to the facts related by the government papers. In her legal analysis, Kaur defines and applies the elements of genocide, including intent, the quantitative criterion, and theories of responsibility. As the Nazis had marked the homes of Jews before they were visited; so too were Sikh homes identified to direct the murderers. As the Rwandans were chanting slogans to eliminate the Tutsis, so too were mobs chanting for the blood of Sikhs. As Serbs had targeted Mosques, besides massacring Muslims in concentration camps, so too were Gurdwaras and their occupants burned to the ground and desecrated.

Through this report, Kaur has challenged its readers and the Indian government to acknowledge the continuing injustice inflicted upon the survivors of November 1984. The government and its supporters totally deny the organized nature of the violence and its extent, and insist upon forgetting it. For the survivors, these are not issues of the past. Each day they are denied justice and reparations, their anguish is compounded and their nightmare prolonged. However, the duty to acknowledge and remember the carnage is not the government’s alone. To ensure that neighbors do not become killers, wives widows and children orphans, the public must share this obligation–to read this report. Since India is striving to be a world leader, it is in its own interest to give just closure to this unfortunate scar on its secular and democratic image.

ENSAAF ( works with survivors to engage in advocacy and outreach, documents violations, and educates the public about human rights violations in India.

A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, Jaskaran Kaur is a lawyer focusing on documentation, research, writing and advocacy on human rights issues in India. She currently serves as Executive Director of ENSAAF.

To order this report, please order online via . For credit card orders, telephone Bookmarks at +44 (0)20 7637 1848 or email (₤7.99 or $15.00)

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