Doshi Kaun? As evidence fades on 1984 Kanpur riots, SIT finds clues in a booklet | Delhi News

The BJP government in Uttar Pradesh set up a Special Investigation Team to reopen the anti-Sikh riots cases in Kanpur, but the probe hit a dead end until the investigators chanced upon a report by human rights body PUCL. A rare inclusion in an official probe, the booklet has become the proverbial straw the SIT is clutching at, reports Ishita Mishra

The BJP government in Uttar Pradesh set up a Special Investigation Team to reopen the anti-Sikh riots cases in Kanpur, but the probe hit a dead end until the investigators chanced upon a report by human rights body PUCL. A rare inclusion in an official probe, the booklet has become the proverbial straw the SIT is clutching at, reports  Ishita Mishra

Avtar Singh turned 65 this year but his neighbours hardly know his name. He is still called by his father’s name, Vishakha Singh, the man who died protecting his family and daughter’s honour.

Mr. Avtar lost seven members of his family when a mob barged into his house in the Dabauli area of Kanpur on November 1, 1984, a day after former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her two Sikh bodyguards in New Delhi.

“My father asked me, my mother, four brothers and sister to run. He took a sword and ran towards the mob to save us. My brothers and I rushed to the terrace and jumped from there but only I managed to escape, the rest were caught and killed on the spot. My mother could not run and met the same fate. When the rioters attacked my elder sister, my father beheaded her to save her dignity and then killed himself,” Mr. Avtar told  The Hindu.

He ran to a nearby building and hid there till some people came to rescue him. Mr. Avtar said he went back home in the hope of finding someone alive but could not even identify the bodies of his parents from his siblings as they were charred and dismembered.

He later moved with his three elder brothers who lived at Gumti number 5, about 10 km from Dabauli, and started a grocery store, named after Vishakha Singh, to earn a living.

Almost 38 years since the killings, not a single accused has been convicted of the gruesome crime. Even the First Information Report (FIR) and post-mortem details of the bodies have gone missing from police records.

In February 2019, the Yogi Adityanath government set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the cases registered at two police stations in Kanpur — Nazirabad and Bajaria. The investigating team was also asked to re-examine the FIRs in which the police had filed a final/closure report. The SIT could not find any FIRs, post-mortem reports or even names to start its probe with but a 61-page booklet published by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) became the proverbial straw it is clutching at now.

The booklet,  Doshi Kaun, is perhaps the only documented record, apart from the Ranganath Misra Commission inquiry report, available on the crimes and casualties of the Kanpur carnage.

The cover of PUCL’s report on 1984 Kanpur riots.

The cover of PUCL’s report on 1984 Kanpur riots.
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

No convictions

Though the official death toll in the Kanpur riots stands at 127, residents insist the actual number was much higher. A total of 1,251 FIRs were lodged during the riots – the second highest after Delhi – for heinous crimes, including murders, dacoity and rapes.

In 2018, a Supreme Court Bench headed by former Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra directed the Uttar Pradesh government to get the anti-Sikh riot cases reinvestigated by top officials from the judiciary, bureaucracy and police. The apex court’s order came while hearing a petition by Manjit Singh, president, Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee in Delhi, demanding justice for the forgotten victims of the Kanpur riots.

The SIT constituted by the State government is headed by former Director General of Police, Uttar Pradesh, Atul Gupta and includes former Judge Subhash Chandra Agarwal; former Additional Director, Prosecution, Yogeshwar Krishna Srivastava; and Deputy Inspector General, Balendu Bhushan Singh. Over a dozen policemen are attached to the team, which moved its base to Kanpur from different cities in the State.

Deputy Inspector General Balendu Bhushan Singh

Deputy Inspector General Balendu Bhushan Singh
| Photo Credit: R.V. MOORTHY

Formed initially for six months, the SIT was given multiple extensions by the State government after reviewing its performance.

The SIT started its probe in the last week of May 2019. “About 95% of the crime evidence — fingerprints, DNA, weapons, forensic-related clues — had been erased as people had renovated the homes burnt during the riots. The shops ransacked by the mobs were nowhere to be found as the map of the city had changed in 35 years. We literally had nothing to start with,” said Mr. Bhushan.

Months after the probe began, a Sikh community leader gave the officials a copy of  Doshi Kaun. Published barely days after the violence in Kanpur, the book had graphic details of the killings, interviews of the victims’ kin and description of the deceased as well as the accused. Even those who helped the victims found a mention in the booklet.

Doshi Kaun enters probe

“I was given the PUCL report by my senior Atul Gupta who received the copy from a Sikh leader associated with Gurdwara Bhai Banno Sahib. I read it thoroughly and got what we needed to start the investigation,” said Mr. Bhushan.

The booklet mentioned that the police remained a “mute spectator” during the riots. It also described how hospitals allegedly turned away some critically injured victims and the administration turned a blind eye to the accounts of the eyewitnesses who volunteered to identify those involved in the violence, including politicians and their supporters.

“A few leaders of the Congress in 1984 held a press conference in Delhi and criticised the contents of  Doshi Kaun. They said the booklet had declared some people ‘dead’ who were later found to be alive. This may have happened because it was the first on-ground investigation done by anyone into the riots. There were cases where those who escaped the attacks kept hiding for several days, forcing their relatives to add their names to the list of the dead,” said Sardar Mokam Singh, former president of Gurdwara Bhai Banno Sahib, one of the biggest gurdwaras in Kanpur.

The gurdwara committee too had no idea about the PUCL booklet till March 2019. Soon after the SIT was formed, the shrine organised a few camps in a bid to bring together the relatives of the riot victims who had moved to other places. “A man travelled all the way from Jammu to meet us and gave us a copy of  Doshi Kaun. After reading it we realised everything written in the book was true,” said Mr. Mokam.

The DIG agreed with Mr. Mokam’s opinion. “I can say that 99% of the things written in the booklet are true. PUCL’s inquiry into Delhi riots also finds a mention in the report of Justice Ranganath Misra Commission, set up by the Congress government in 1986 to probe the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, Kanpur and Bokaro [Jharkhand],” said Mr. Bhushan.

The Ranganath Misra Commission report, however, had rejected the PUCL’s findings in the Delhi riots cases, stating that it was not an officially authorised inquiry.

PUCL: then and now

The PUCL, a human rights organisation formed in 1976 by socialist icon Jayaprakash Narayan, has been documenting and highlighting incidents of rights violations across the country. It has worked extensively in Uttar Pradesh too, bringing out reports on heinous crimes such as the gang rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Hathras in 2020 and the killing of protesting farmers allegedly involving the son of a Union Minister in Lakhimpur Kheri last year.

The “reliance” of the SIT on  Doshi Kaun has surprised even the members of PUCL. N.D. Pancholi, founder member and vice-president of the organisation, who was one of the key authors of  Doshi Kaun, said neither the police nor the Uttar Pradesh government ever responded to any PUCL reports, be it the Hathras case or the Lakhimpur Kheri incident.

“In the 1970s and 80s, the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] and the BJP were part of the people’s movement against the Congress government and leaders like [the late] Arun Jaitley helped the PUCL in public outreach… We are not affiliated with any political party but they often choose to cite our reports that suit their agenda,” Mr. Pancholi said, citing the example of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi who mentioned the PUCL report on the Hathras case.

Mr. Pancholi told  The Hindu that during the Kanpur riots they went door to door documenting the incidents of violence. “We met hundreds of people who agreed to share their trauma with us, helping the PUCL bring out a report that is now proving vital for the police in acting against the accused,” said Mr. Pancholi.

He said the situation is very different now as people hardly speak for others. They don’t even speak for themselves as they want to avoid more trouble, said the PUCL founder-member.

“Intimidation from the government acts as a deterrent in conducting a thorough probe. Earlier, we never faced FIRs for writing such books but now even a tweet can land us in jail for years,” said Mr. Pancholi.

Challenges for SIT

In over three years of its investigation, the SIT has shortlisted 40 cases of heinous crimes from the 1,251 FIRs lodged in 1984. It has filed closure reports in 29 cases and zeroed in on 96 accused involved in the remaining 11 cases. Among them, 23 are dead and four are bedridden due to prolonged illness. Thirty-six people are behind bars, many of them Congress workers from that time.

Mr. Bhushan, however, said the SIT conducted a thorough probe and only after ascertaining all the facts, did they arrest the accused.

The SIT head, Mr. Gupta, said they did not hesitate in making arrests in cases where there was ample evidence. “We had clear orders from the government that those who are not guilty must not be framed and those who are guilty shouldn’t be spared, despite their age and political leanings.”

Arrests and protests

In July this year, the SIT arrested Yogesh Sharma, 65, and Bharat Sharma, 60, on charges of murder, dacoity and arson (Section 396 and 436 of the Indian Penal Code) at Vishakha Singh’s house.

The accused are brothers of Manish Sharma, a former Congress corporator from Dabauli, who alleged that the arrests were “politically motivated”. “A policeman came to our house in January this year and asked several random questions, including where we were during the 1984 riots. The policeman warned me of arrest and left. My elder brothers were arrested in July. They [police] waited all these months just to ensure the BJP got Brahmin votes in the Assembly polls that were held in February-March this year,” said Mr. Sharma.

Amarjeet Singh Pammi, a Sikh leader, however, said the SIT action has helped the ruling BJP in Uttar Pradesh pacify the Sikh community, which was angry with the government over the farmers’ protest and the Lakhimpur Kheri incident.

“We fought for years with the State government and the Centre for compensation and justice. Finally, we are getting it now,” said Mr. Amarjeet, who is also national vice-chairman of the All India Riot Victims Relief Committee.

Political affiliations

The BJP may have sought some political mileage out of reopening the 37-year-old cases, but things have not turned out that straightforward. Many people who were with the Congress then are now with the BJP, including Raghvendra Kushwaha, a key suspect, whose brother Indrajeet Singh Kushwaha is Ghatampur block chief from the ruling party. Their uncle Shivnath Singh Kushwaha was the local Congress MLA at the time of the riots.

Mr. Raghvendra is absconding since the SIT started making arrests, said the police.

The PUCL booklet stated that Mr. Raghvendra “brought rioters in buses from Ghatampur to Kanpur and killed many”, including war hero Mahendra Singh Siddhu and 10 members of his family by throwing them from the terrace of their house.

“Raghavendra’s family has shifted its loyalty to the BJP now. His brother has managed to escape arrest due to his political influence in the party,” said Mr. Manish.

Kuldeep Singh Bhogal, a prominent Sikh leader from Delhi who fought for the justice of the riot victims, is enraged at Raghvendra still being at large. “Why no bulldozer has been sent to demolish Raghvendra’s house,” he asked.

Among those who did not get any benefit of switching loyalties to the BJP is Lalit Pal, son of 70-year-old Kailash Pal, a former Congress corporator. Mr. Kailash was arrested on July 12 on charges of burning a house and looting the assets during the riots. “There is no truth in the charges. My father is innocent,” said Mr. Lalit, who is currently a BJP worker.

Chinks in the probe

Ravi Gupta, son of 68-year-old Siddh Gopal Gupta who has been arrested by the SIT on charges of robbery and arson, said the probe is faulty with “overwritten” FIRs and questionable evidence.

“The FIR showed to me has the name of our shop, Grihasthi General Store. There is no mention of my father’s involvement in the riots. We had three workers in our shop at that time. It could be them too. But the policemen arrested only my father who, during the riots, was performing the last rites of his dead mother,” Mr. Ravi told  The Hindu.

“The way the SIT is working, all people above 60 years of age in Kanpur should be wary as they can be randomly picked by the police. They have failed to arrest the real criminals,” said Mr. Ravi.

Rohit Singh, son of Ganga Baksh Singh, another sexagenarian arrested by the SIT, said his father had helped a Sikh boy, Paramjeet Singh, who was just seven years old at the time of the riots. Mr. Ganga Baksh was arrested for killing and looting. “What is the police trying to establish? That my father killed a Sikh and saved another? Paramjeet is ready to give his testimony but the court is not allowing us to show any proof,” said Mr. Rohit.

Sanjay Jha, the government counsel representing the police, says that bail pleas of the accused are being rejected by the court only because the police have concrete evidence.

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