Thursday, August 11

The Canary In The Coal Mine

I.J. Singh, a Professor of Anatomy at New York University, shares some thoughts on the Nanavati Commission Report

Miners carry canaries to warn them of dangerous air in the coalmines, the Catskills have their songbirds to measure air pollution. And now India has the Nanavati Commission.

It has been a full 21 years since the Indian government inspired carnage of Sikhs erupted, not just in the capital city of New Delhi, but also simultaneously in several cities across India. Within hours of the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, armed mobs in trucks carrying lists of Sikh owned houses and businesses appeared in cities of India, including New Delhi. What followed was a systematic carnage of thousands of Sikh men, women and children. The army was not deployed to maintain order. The police stood by to watch. Credible witnesses labeled it attempted genocide by a government of its own people.
Why did the charge stick is not surprising if you know the socioeconomic realities of India. Arms - guns and all kinds of ammunition - are strictly controlled. Licenses to carry weapons are neither freely available, nor are they easily accessible, because they are so expensive and require the filing of a zillion papers with multitude of bureaucrats. Kerosene that was used to burn down houses, businesses and victims is rationed; it is not freely available in the marketplace. Trucks are hard to come by. Lists of property owners cannot be downloaded in an instant; such service does not exist in India. Then how is it that a poor country, not previously known for its organizational efficiency could muster, hordes of people within hours of Indira Gandhi?s death and start them on a rampage? This speaks of awesome efficiency that is still not visible in much of Indian society.
Two days later the carnage stopped as suddenly as it had begun, as if the job had been completed to the extent that it had been desired and directed. Canny observers suspected the hand of the Indian government in the killing of Sikhs across India. After much stonewalling the Indian government admitted that in Delhi alone about 2300 Sikhs were killed in the 48 hour period, but labeled the killings random acts of violence spurred by the death of Indira Gandhi at the hands of her two Sikh bodyguards.
Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother Indira as the Prime Minister, continued to deny that there were any human rights violations in India, while reputable organizations like Amnesty International documented horrendous violations in Punjab and all over India. Six months later, under national and international pressure, Rajiv Gandhi signed a memorandum of understanding with Sikhs that agreed to an inquiry into the killing of Sikhs in 1984. Justice might happen, we thought.
I have lost count of the Inquiry Commissions that were appointed by the government. There was the Mishra Commission, the Jain Commission, the Bannerjee Commission, and perhaps others that I do not even remember. Each started hopefully, with its report to be buried. For some reason none of the reports was released to the public. None could identify any major or minor characters that might have committed any crimes against Sikhs. Finally last year five individuals were indicted - for killing over 2000 people within 48 hours in the capital city of the country! This bespeaks unparalleled levels of incompetence or dishonesty by the judiciary and the government or, alternatively, of a an efficient killing machine, the likes of which has never been seen in this world.
In the meantime evidence has been mounting against the continuing denial of justice and against some of the prominent leaders of the pogrom against the Sikhs. A comprehensive report ?Reduced to Ashes? was published two years ago by a team headed by a non-Sikh human rights activist, Ram Narayan Kumar. One of his colleagues on the report, Jaskaran Kaur Grewal, a Harvard trained lawyer released an update ?Twenty Years of Neglect? last year.
The latest commission headed by Justice Nanavati was fortunate to come into being as times were changing. The report was ready a year ago, but to a government headed by the political party that masterminded the killings, its release was awkward. I have to commend the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, that he finally mustered the courage to release it.
The problem is that the Nanavati Report now finds credible evidence of criminality against two and perhaps three stalwarts of the ruling party - Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar and Dharam Das Shastri. In fact Jagdish Tytler is a minister in the current government, in charge of building bridges with non-resident Indians. The irony is that survivors of 1984 have never wavered in their affidavits and evidence that these men were the ringleaders in directing the carnage. In the past this evidence statements was dismissed. I suppose this was a war of attrition with the hope of the Indian government that soon enough evidence will become lost or tainted and the perpetrators will be home free.
The security forces of the Indian government killed thousands of Sikhs in Punjab, some in fake encounters, during the troubled 1980s and 1990s, all without trials and in the name of national security. Many Sikhs remain incarcerated without trials even today. It cannot be that the Delhi Police could not find any killers of Sikhs in over 20 years. Don?t the police forces of Delhi and Punjab operate by the same laws and by the same training manuals?
Just as the canary speaks of the health of the mine and thus the safety of the miners, the Nanavati Commission report at this time speaks of the health of the Indian nation and the safety of its citizens. Actions must follow words. And that is the onus on the government.
I know that indictment in a report does not equal conviction in a court of law. The canary has spoken. Is there a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel?

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