he Delhi high court on Wednesday upheld the conviction of 70 out of 89 people sentenced to five-year imprisonment by a trial court in 1996 for rioting, burning houses and violation of curfew during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in the capital.
Since the convicts accused have been out on bail after serving a short term behind bars, the court asked them to surrender immediately to serve their remaining prison terms for violence in east Delhi’s Trilokpuri — one of the worst-hit localities during the riots — between October 31 and November 3 in 1984.
Of the remaining 19 people, 16 had died during the pendency of their appeals while three had their plea dismissed after they absconded.
Writing the verdict, Justice R K Gauba lamented how the process of deciding the guilt of the accused was “reduced to the level of (an) academic (exercise)” as it came up before the court “34 years after the crimes were committed and 22 years after the trial court had given its decision”.
Pulling up the trial court, the HC noted that it “lacked clarity” as to why no case for a graver offence such as murder was made out as a large number of persons had died in the violence.
Case merits more severe punishment, says HC
The suspicion that a politico-criminal nexus, aided and assisted by police or civil service officials, was “behind the mayhem that was wreaked, virtually with impunity or immunity, continue to abound and haunt,” the HC said.
The court had strong words to say on the failure of the criminal justice system in the case. “(That) the criminal justice administration may falter or crumble, or lose its potency, is no longer a distant doomsday scenario…. It appears to have arrived and stares at us in the face,” the judge observed, while dismissing the 22-year-old appeals.
HC noted in its verdict that prosecutions in this case covered only 73 homicidal deaths, whereas a total of 95 bodies were “gathered during the night of November 2-3, 1984” as per the FIR. “It is likely that 22 homicidal deaths may not have seen any criminal action initiated against anyone till date” it said, asking Delhi’s police commissioner to have the material and the evidence “re-examined by an appropriate agency for further action under the criminal law”.
It pointed out that “the fact that these cases have continued to linger in the courts at the stage of trial or appeals or revisions till date itself is an indicator of the reality that the response of the law has been tardy, ineffective and highly unsatisfactory”.
The court said in view of the extensive damage was caused by the appellants to a large number of houses or other properties of Sikh community, the case merited more severe punishment than the one meted out by the trial court. But in the absence of any appeal seeking enhancement of punishment and the trial court having taken a lenient view “there is no occasion for this court to modify the order on sentence either way”.
Justice Gauba noted that of all the bodies recovered after the rioting, 22 remained unidentified and it was likely that no prosecution was initiated against anyone in respect of these deaths.
HC also suggested reforms, like amending the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952, and the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, to entrust such bodies with the responsibility of taking note of cognisable offences committed during communal riots, investigating through SITs under their control and overseeing prosecution through special public prosecutor(s) engaged by them.
The process of deciding guilt of the accused has been reduced to an academic exercise as it came up before the court 34 years after the crimes were committed and 22 years after the trial court had rendered its decision
— Justice R K Gauba