Rajiv Gandhi and 1984

The grainy footage on state-run television revealed mourners filing by the bier of assassinated Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi. Occasionally cries of "we will avenge blood with blood" rent the air. Indira's son, Rajiv, would emerge from time to time to pacify the crowd.

1984 was the year of death in India. During the first half, goons of the Sikh separatist leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, killed Hindus in the hundreds, as well as some non-conforming Sikhs. To shield himself, Bhindranwale sought refuge in Sikhism's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple.

Convinced that he was about to secede Punjab state from the union, Indira Gandhi ordered the army to storm the temple and kill him. He put up a valiant fight. The Golden Temple was mauled. Sikhs were appalled. Bhindranwale became a martyr for many.

Indira knew that she had signed her death warrant. Rumors of her killing swirled around Delhi for months, until she finally fell to her Sikh bodyguards. Now Hindus were disgusted, especially as some Sikhs celebrated by distributing sweets to all and sundry. India's president, Zail Singh, a Sikh himself, rushed back to India from overseas. His cavalcade was stoned.

The key to deciphering ensuing events lay perhaps in his return drive from the airport. Arun Nehru, Indira's nephew and Rajiv's buddy, coerced Zail Singh to bypass established precedence and appoint a novitiate Rajiv prime minister. India suddenly had a 40-year-old as its ruler. The 40-year-old suddenly had India as a millstone around his neck.

Nehru was as hard-boiled as Dick Cheney, a backroom power-broker, famous for his bullying tactics. No one, perhaps not even Rajiv, dared challenge him. The initial rioting against Sikhs seemed spontaneous. But then Delhi erupted into an orgy of violence.

Most of India stayed aloof, transfixed by Indira's funeral on television. Rajiv seemed composed, if solemn, seemingly oblivious to the mayhem around him. A close friend of Indira's, Pupul Jayakar, claims to have urged him to call in the army to quell the violence. But he seemed to have paid little heed.

Perhaps he was misinformed about the orgy's scale, perhaps he was too grief-stricken over his mother's death. Many Hindus refused to believe that he could have ordered the killings. Had he not reproached the bloodthirsty mob? But someone had unleashed Congress party goons to gore thousands of Sikhs. Who was it? For 30 years the question has remained unanswered.

Three days after Indira's death, the army restored order, and Rajiv made a tour of the city. He subsequently committed the faux-pas (or cardinal sin, if one was less forgiving) of declaring that when a big tree falls (meaning Indira), the earth shakes (meaning the Sikh killings).

Shortly thereafter, Rajiv called for federal elections. Parts of his electoral ad campaign, which was believed to have been personally managed by him, alluded to Sikhs as terrorists, if only subliminally. He went on to sweep the elections.

Even as he was creating a negative image for himself, Rajiv surprised by reaching out to Sikh leaders to heal wounds. No effort though was made to identify the mastermind behind the riots, or take to task the perpetrators.

Judicial investigations that have explored the pogrom have consistently assigned blame on local Congress bigwigs. Most have gone scot-free, some dead never being charged, others living and elevated to leadership positions. Police investigations, inevitably controlled by politicians in power, have turned up little of consequence.

The Congress party loses no opportunity to bait its prime political opponent, Narendra Modi, for his alleged role in the anti-Muslim attacks of 2002. Modi is being investigated by India's Supreme Court. But the seeds for 2002 were laid in 1984. Never before 1984 had India witnessed a massacre so unabated, so one-sided, and that too in the heart of its capital.

For three days, as Delhi burned, the police looked away. For three days, as Modi's Gujarat state burned, the police looked away too. Three short days in the life of a nation. Three excruciatingly long days for minorities.

Rajiv's widow and Congress party chief, Sonia, has tried to conciliate the Sikhs. She has visited the Golden Temple and apologized, installed a Sikh prime minister, who too has apologized. He has appointed a Sikh army chief, a longstanding Sikh demand, not once but twice. Sikhs have apparently been integrated back into India.

But why are the suspects of 1984 seen to be patronized by the Congress? Is it because they might spill the beans about Rajiv? Or that they could blackmail Sonia by threatening to falsely implicate him, thereby compromising her.

Almost 30 years after 1984, India owes it to itself to come clean. If the remaining few alleged mob-leaders are not tried, fairly and squarely, the ghost of 1984 will continue to haunt the country. And in case someone other than Rajiv had triggered the violence, as very well might be the case, would it not be fair to identify and try that person and clear Rajiv's name once and for all? Just like he is now rid of the stain of personal pecuniary corruption.