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India court delivers death sentence over 1984 pogrom
© WikiMedia (Jan Bockaert)
India court delivers death sentence over 1984 pogrom

A district court in the Indian capital of New Delhi on Tuesday handed the death penalty to a man convicted of participating in the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom.

This is the first death sentence to be awarded in any case related to the 1984 violence, which saw 3,000 Sikhs killed across northern India in the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. Yashpal Singh was sentenced to death by hanging, and Naresh Sehrawat, the other convict, was handed imprisonment for life.

India’s justice system has been criticized for its handling of the 1984 riots cases. The fact that it has taken 34 years for the first death sentence to be awarded is, to many, an indication of the inordinately slow process so far. This particular case was closed in 1994, after the police filed an “untraced report,” declaring that they had been unable to find sufficient evidence. It was only in 2017 that charges were eventually filed after a fresh investigation conducted by a special investigating team formed at the direction of India’s federal interior ministry in 2015.

In the words of Judge Ajay Pandey, the convicts “took out the victims, who were hiding inside a room, injured them with dangerous weapons with the intention to kill and threw them down from the first floor,” causing their deaths. Both Sehrawat and Singh were found guilty under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (murder), read with Section 149 (committing an offense as part of an unlawful assembly with a common object). They were also convicted under Sections 307 (attempt to commit murder), 324 (voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons), and 436 (mischief by fire or explosive substance).

Referring to the violence as “mass genocide,” the judge said, “victims of mass genocide cannot be left (in the) lurch and (a) fair hearing of their allegations is necessary.” This appears to be a first for the Indian judiciary, as no other court in India’s history has labeled sectarian pogroms or riots as acts of genocide.

Human rights groups and Sikh leaders have welcomed the judgment, but it remains to be seen if the verdict will provide the necessary impetus in securing justice for victims in other cases that have dragged on since 1984.