‘Catch­ing the mas­ter­mind means a lot’

In­ter­view with Se­nior Ad­vo­cate H.S. Phoolka.


ONE of the per­sons closely in­volved in the case re­lat­ing to the anti-sikh riots of 1984 was Se­nior Ad­vo­cate H.S. Phoolka. He took it upon him­self to seek jus­tice for as many vic­tims as he could, all pro bono .He gave up his po­si­tion as Leader of the Op­po­si­tion in the Pun­jab As­sem­bly when the Delhi Bar Coun­cil barred him from ap­pear­ing for the cases cit­ing a con­flict of in­ter­est. Phoolka, 73, is op­ti­mistic that the guilty will be brought to book. Ex­cerpts from an in­ter­view he gave Front­line.

How do you in­ter­pret the High

Court judg­ment in­dict­ing Sa­j­jan Ku­mar, com­ing as it does after three decades?

This is a big suc­cess. It is sym­bolic, we can­not call it com­plete jus­tice. Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial fig­ures, 2,733 Sikhs were killed. At least 20,000 peo­ple must have been in­volved in killing them. Had at least half of them been con­victed, one could say jus­tice had been de­liv­ered. But at this stage, catch­ing the mas­ter­mind of the mas­sacre means a lot.

Was he one of the mas­ter­minds?

Yes, he was. The max­i­mum num­ber of wit­nesses came out against him. He was go­ing around in­sti­gat­ing mobs. He was ev­ery­where, cov­er­ing six to seven main colonies in Palam, Nan­gloi, Sul­tan­puri and Janakpuri.

Often, in cases in­volv­ing po­lit­i­cally in­flu­en­tial fig­ures, wit­nesses do not come for­ward to de­pose against them. But in this case, wit­nesses came for­ward to tes­tify and yet it took so long.

The whole sys­tem was there to shield them. It was the job of the in­ves­ti­gat­ing agen­cies to in­ves­ti­gate. But there was an at­tempt to scut­tle the process. It has not been easy.

Sikhs were killed in Kan­pur and Bokaro Steel City, too. Has there been clo­sure for those cases?

After Delhi, it was in Kan­pur and Bokaro Steel City that the max­i­mum num­ber of Sikhs were killed. In Kan­pur, 127 Sikhs were killed and in Bokaro Steel City, 69. Not much progress could be achieved in the crim­i­nal cases there as most of the sur­vivors mi­grated. Peo­ple were scared.

Were they afraid of de­pos­ing?

No­body could stand up against the per­pe­tra­tors. Peo­ple were scared. In Delhi, we had mem­bers of civil so­ci­ety, se­nior judges and lawyers, which gave courage to the vic­tims to speak out.

Most of the vic­tims were women; they were the wit­nesses. The men were in hid­ing. Non-sikhs did not come out to de­pose. For these women, it was tough. They had to bring up their fam­i­lies. In an or­di­nary mur­der case, even in a blind mur­der case, the po­lice do the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. But in this case, that did not hap­pen. Some­body else had to do the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. It was left to the women in this case.

Has the role of the po­lice changed over the years? We have seen a se­ries of pogroms after 1984.

The role hasn’t changed much. The judg­ment talks about the mi­nori­ties, not just re­li­gious mi­nori­ties. The or­der talks about caste mi­nori­ties. What hap­pened in Haryana? Traders were tar­geted. Mob vi­o­lence takes place due to po­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age. The court was

most pained that the law was not able to catch up with [those in­sti­gat­ing] mob vi­o­lence. This [sen­tenc­ing of Sa­j­jan Ku­mar] is a clear mes­sage that the law will catch up [with the per­pe­tra­tors], even at an old age.

Many felt that the worst was over with 1984 and that there would not be an­other 1984. Do the mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties feel in­se­cure?

1984 was a be­gin­ning. The way the ac­cused were re­warded with plum po­si­tions was an in­di­ca­tion that it was a be­gin­ning for more such in­ci­dents to hap­pen.

Mob vi­o­lence has grown as the guilty have not been pun­ished. A bench of the High Court ob­served ear­lier that if the guilty had been booked, the coun­try would not have seen fur­ther acts of vi­o­lence as we see to­day.

In all like­li­hood, the judg­ment will be chal­lenged. What is the sta­tus of the other cases?

We are pre­pared for that. We have al­ready filed a caveat in the Supreme Court. The High Court judg­ment is well writ­ten. I doubt the Supreme Court will go against it. Four cases are pend­ing against Sa­j­jan Ku­mar. The ti­tle case is pend­ing. Not many cases are left. About five cases are in the lower courts.

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