A senior leader from India’s opposition Congress party was sentenced to life in jail on Monday, in what is seen as the most significant conviction to stem from deadly anti-Sikh riots in 1984.
The Delhi High Court found Sajjan Kumar, 73, guilty in the killing of five members of a family in the Indian capital and sentenced him to jail “for the remainder of his natural life,” lawyer HS Phoolka, who represented the victims, told reporters.
The judges cancelled a lower court ruling from 2013 which acquitted Kumar, a former parliamentarian, of charges of murder and instigating mobs in the riots. The court ordered Kumar to surrender by December 31.
“It is important to assure those countless victims waiting patiently that despite the challenges, truth will prevail and justice will be done,” the court said in its judgement, referring to Jagdish Kaur, whose husband, sons and three cousins were the five killed and who fought for action against Kumar.
“The aftershocks of those atrocities are still being felt,” the court observed in its 207-page order, referring to the mass killings as a “genocide” and “crimes against humanity”.
More than 3,000 Sikhs were killed, mainly in New Delhi, after Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, also the Congress party supremo, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984.
The Sikhs were angry that the Gandhi had approved an army operation in the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, to flush out Sikh militants.
Shortly after Gandhi was killed, Congress leaders had allegedly led mobs in a four-day long carnage to avenge their leader’s assassination.
Although many witnesses and survivors testified that Congress leaders incited mobs and targeted Sikhs, Kumar is the the first top leader from the party to have been convicted in the over three-decade long case.
“In the summer of 1947, during the partition of India the country witnessed horrific mass crimes where hundreds of thousands civilians were massacred … Thirty-seven years later, the country was again witness to another enormous human tragedy,” the judges said.
“The criminals enjoyed political patronage and were aided by an indifferent law enforcement agency,” the court noted, adding there was an “abject police failure” in the cases. It said the trial court had erred in acquitting Sajjan Kumar as he instigated the mobs.
Jagdish Kaur and Nirpreet Kaur, whose father was burnt alive, reportedly wept as the verdict was announced.
“I have got justice after 34 years … But we are not satisfied, other guilty Congress leaders must also be punished,” Nirpreet Kaur told reporters.
“I heard Sajjan Kumar giving speeches and inciting mobs that not a single Sikh behind Gandhi’s killing be left alive. There were false cases lodged against me. My mother also wasn’t spared and had to spend three years in jail. My life became hell since then”.
Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who said the 1984 violence was perhaps the “worst genocide” in India in recent times, welcomed the verdict.
Jaitley accused the Congress and Gandhi family of trying to prevent victims from getting justice and attempting to coverup the case.
“Sajjan Kumar’s conviction by the Delhi High Court is a delayed vindication of justice. The Congress and the Gandhi family legacy will continue to pay for the sins of 1984 riots,” he said.
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