The High Court of the Indian capital of New Delhi on Monday convicted Sajjan Kumar, a former member of the federal parliament, for conspiracy and murder during the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom and awarded him imprisonment for “the remainder of his natural life.”
It is the first time that a powerful politician has been held guilty 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. Kumar, a member of Gandhi’s Congress Party, was accused of having incited mobs to carry out revenge attacks on Sikhs in parts of Delhi.
The appellate court reversed a 2013 decision by a trial court and held Kumar guilty of the offenses of murder, mischief by fire, promoting disharmony and sectarian hatred between groups, and defiling places of worship, under Indian Penal Code sections 302, 436, 153A, and 295, read with section 120B (criminal conspiracy).
At the same time, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision convicting five others—Bhagmal Singh, Kishan Khokhar, Balwan Khokhar, Mahendra Yadav and Girdhari Lal—confirming life imprisonment for them.
Often criticized for its delays and low conviction rates in sectarian violence cases, it appears that the Indian judicial system has a newfound urgency.
A district court in the same city had, less than a month back, handed the first death sentence to a man convicted of murder during the 1984 rioting. The judge in that decision had called the violence “mass genocide,” in what was perhaps a first for any court in India.
Judge Muralidhar, who authored the judgment, referred to the violence as “crimes against humanity,” and said that it “will continue to shock the collective conscience of society for a long time to come.” Citing jurisprudence from the Nuremberg Tribunal and other international tribunals, Muralidhar lamented that in India, “criminals responsible for the mass crimes have enjoyed political patronage and managed to evade prosecution and punishment.”
He flagged the inadequacy of existing Indian criminal law in addressing crimes against humanity and genocide, calling for a “strengthening of the legal system” and the inclusion of these offenses in the country’s domestic law of crime.