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Road to justice in case of mass violence and riots

Published: 10th Jan, 2019

  • The Delhi High Court convicted Congress leader Sajjan Kumar for conspiracy to commit murder in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots case and sentenced him to imprisonment for life.
  • The bench of Justices S. Muralidhar and Vinod Goel convicted Kumar of criminal conspiracy and of promoting enmity and acts against communal harmony.



  • The Delhi High Court convicted Congress leader Sajjan Kumar for conspiracy to commit murder in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots case and sentenced him to imprisonment for life.
  • The bench of Justices S. Muralidhar and Vinod Goel convicted Kumar of criminal conspiracy and of promoting enmity and acts against communal harmony.
  • The High Court also upheld the conviction of five accused other than Kumar in the case.

Background of 1984 Sikh Riots:

  • The 1984 anti-Sikh riots, also known as the 1984 Sikh Massacre, was a series of organised pogroms against Sikhs in India in response to the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.
  • Independent sources estimate the number of deaths about 8,000 - 17,000 whilst government estimates project that about 2,800 Sikhs were killed in Delhi.
  • Violence continued in the early 1980s due to the armed Sikh separatist Khalistan movement which sought independence from India.
  • Operation Blue Star was an Indian military operation carried out between 1 and 8 June 1984, ordered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to remove militant religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed militants from the buildings of the Harmandir Sahib complex in Amritsar, Punjab.
  • The military action in the temple complex was criticized by Sikhs worldwide who had interpreted it as an assault on Sikh religion.
  • On 31 October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated in vengeance by her two Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh.
  • Public outcry over Gandhi's death led to the killings of Sikhs in the ensuing riots. The most-affected regions were the Sikh neighbourhoods of Delhi.
  • The collusion of political officials in the violence and judicial failure to penalise the perpetrators alienated Sikhs and increased support for the Khalistan movement.
  • The Akal Takht, Sikhism's governing body, considers the killings genocide.
  • In 2011, Human Rights Watch reported that the Government of India had "yet to prosecute those responsible for the mass killings".

Related terminologies:

  • Hate crime: A hate crime also known as bias-motivated and prejudice-motivated crime occurs when a perpetrator targets a victim because of his or her membership (or perceived membership) in a certain social group or race.
    • Examples of such groups include and are almost exclusively limited to: sex, ethnicity, disability, language, nationality, physical appearance, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation.
  • Riots: A riot is a form of civil disorder commonly characterized by a group lashing out in a violent public disturbance against authority, property or people. Riots typically involve theft, vandalism, and destruction of property, public or private.
  • Pogroms: The term pogrom is ascribed most often to the deliberate persecution of an ethnic or religious group either approved or condoned by the local authorities. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the term is usually applied to anti-Jewish violence in the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • Massacre: A massacre is the deliberate slaughter of members of one group by one or more members of another more powerful group. A massacre may be indiscriminate or highly methodical in application. A massacre is separate from a battle (an event in which opposing sides fight), but may follow in its immediate aftermath, when one side has surrendered or lost the ability to fight, yet the victors persist in killing their opponents.
  • Mass killing: A mass killing is "killing members of a group without the intention to eliminate the whole group or killing large numbers of people without a precise definition of group membership. This term is used by a number of genocide scholars because the term "genocide" (its strict definition) does not cover mass killing events when no specific ethnic or religious group is targeted, and when perpetrators are not intended to eliminate of the whole group or its significant part.

History of mass violence in India:

    1. Bhagalpur riots of 1989:
      • The total dead numbered around 1000 and around 900 were Muslims. It was difficult to establish the religious identity of other victims.
      • Two false rumors about the killing of Hindu students started circulating: one rumor stated that nearly 200 Hindu university students had been killed by the Muslims, while another rumor stated that 31 Hindu boys had been murdered with their bodies dumped in a well at the Sanskrit College.
    2. Bombay riots( December 1992-January 1993):
      • It took place in Mumbai where 575 Muslims, 275 Hindus, 45 unknown and 5 others died.
      • It was a Hindu-Muslim communal riot as an effect of Demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.
    3. 2002 Gujarat riots:
      • It mainly took place in Ahmedabad.
      • As per Government reports, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus killed, 223 reported missing, 2,500 injured, but other sources estimated death tolls in excess of 2000, most of them were Muslims.
      • It was communal violence between Hindu and Muslim communities which took place consequent to Godhra massacre case where train was burned.
    4. 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots:
      • It took place in Muzaffarpur district of U.P. where 42 Muslims and 20 Hindus were killed and 93 others injured.
      • It started with eve-teasing of Hindu Girls that led to murder of a Muslim boy, then public lynching of the murderers (two Hindu boys) triggered communal riot between the Hindu and the Muslim community.


Issues related to riots in India:

  • The main lesson what can be taken from the verdict is that need is stronger than ever for a root-and-branch police reform.
  • Although the problem is well known, no leading political party or mass movement has managed to focus attention on police reform.
  • As the Delhi High Court points out, there were multiple failures in the administration of justice after the 1984 violence, such as
    • the repeated failure to file FIRs,
    • abetment of the crimes committed by the mobs, and
    • failure to prosecute or gather material evidence.
  • The Court highlighted the key issue of the lack of a credible witness protection programme in India, which hampers the willingness of witnesses to come forward or to maintain consistency.
    • Many cases arising from the Gujarat violence of 2002 have had serious trouble maintaining a credible and consistent witness line up due to fear, intimidation, and retaliation.
    • In the Best Bakery case where 37 of the 73 key witnesses including Zahira Sheikh, her mother and her brothers retracted their statements before the judges.

Impact of the verdict of Sajjan Kumar case:

  • One of the most important innovations of the Sajjan Kumar verdict is the reliance on the crime of criminal conspiracy under Section 120B of the IPC to convict Sajjan Kumar, and also expand the conviction of the other accused.
  • The Delhi High Court has firmly entrenched the use of criminal conspiracy as an independent crime against those who are accused of mass crimes.
  • The significance of the Delhi High Court ruling on this matter goes beyond this single case and sows the seeds of an Indian law on mass crimes, which is more aligned with an Anglo-Saxon approach.
  • The Delhi High Court’s verdict is also notable for its open call for a new law on “Crime against humanity”, and does much to point out the recent developments under international law including ongoing work at the International Law Commission.
  • India has been a party since 1968 to the convention on the non-applicability of statutory limitations to war crimes and crimes against humanity, while India extends universal jurisdiction (over crimes committed by anyone anywhere globally) over war crimes under the Geneva Conventions Act of 1960.

Way Forward:

Taking the cue from the Delhi High Court ruling and these legal commitments, India’s Law Commission, legal advocates, social activists and lawmakers should make appropriate changes to the IPC, incorporating the criminalisation of mass crimes including genocide, crime against humanity and the legal principle of non-applicability of statutory limitations under the 1968 Convention.

Learning Aid

Practice question:

Justice has been delayed but not denied in case of anti-sikh riots case. Analyse the status of justice in case of riots and mass violence in India.


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