‘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.