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The trial of Kamal Nath

By Sheela Bhatt
August 09, 2005 19:45 IST
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Inquiring into the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the Nanavati Commission has gone into great detail recording evidence against Congress leaders. examines the alleged role of Kamal Nath, currently India's minister of commerce and industry, based on a reading of the Commission report.

At the time of Indira Gandhi's assassination on October 31, 1984, Kamal Nath had grown close to Rajiv Gandhi, whose brother Sanjay he went to school with. In 2002, when the Nanavati Commission took up the hearing of crimes that had occurred within the range of the Parliament Street police station in October-November 1984, a Sikh named Mukhtiar Singh filed a fresh affidavit.

Singh, who lived within the premises of the Gurdwara Rakab Ganj, made a statement against Kamal Nath. According to him, on November 1, 1985, a big mob attacked the gurdwara at 11 am, raising anti-Sikh slogans and pelting stones. An old Sikh man who tried to pacify the crowd was burnt alive. His son, who ran to his rescue, met with the same fate. The police refused to take them to hospital. Both died due to a lack of medical assistance. The mob then tried to enter the gurdwara, failed, and set it on fire.

Mukhtiar Singh, with the help of others inside, extinguished the fire. They tried to dissuade the mob by throwing stones and setting off firecrackers. When the mob persisted, someone inside the gurdwara fired warning shots from a licensed gun. Mukhtiar Singh told Justice Nanavati that the mob only got bigger. He added that Congress leaders Kamal Nath and Vasant Sathe were recognised as part of the crowd.

According to Singh, the police, following instructions from Congress leaders, fired several rounds at the gurdwara. Ajit Singh, another Sikh witness living inside the gurdwara, supported Mukhtiar Singh's statement, but did not refer to the presence of Kamal Nath or Sathe.

Monish Sanjay Suri, an Indian Express photographer, told the Commission that, when he reached the gurdwara at 4 pm, he saw a crowd of about 4,000 people led by Kamal Nath. However, he said he did not hear Kamal Nath give the mob any directions. Suri merely saw him speak to a few people, but reiterated that Kamal Nath made no attempt to control the situation. Incidentally, Justice Nanavati writes that Suri's written statement stated he had reached the gurdwara at 4 pm, while he told the Commission it was between 2 and 4 pm.

The Commission sent notices to Kamal Nath and Sathe. The latter denied his presence at the site of the incident. Suri and Ajit Singh did not mention Sathe either. Only Mukhtiar Singh alleged Sathe's involvement, that too for the first time in 16 years. Sathe said he was at Teen Murti Bhavan, where Indira Gandhi's body lay in state. He claimed to have given Doordarshan an interview that day, appealing to people to stay calm while praising the patriotism of Sikhs.

Mukhtiar Singh claims he saw Kamal Nath and Sathe together. Records Justice Nanavati, 'On consideration of the other material, which does not support the version of Mukhtiar Singh, it appears Singh had a wrong impression about the presence of Sathe.'

As for Kamal Nath's role in the riots, the Commission has gone into more detail. In his affidavit before the Commission, Nath states that as a senior and responsible leader, he went to the gurdwara after receiving information about violence there. When he arrived, he asked people why they were agitated, and also noted the presence of paramilitary personnel.

Kamal Nath said he was told the mob was agitated on account of some Hindu men and women being forcibly kept inside the gurdwara. By that time, the commissioner of police arrived. Satisfied that the police would be able to control the situation, Kamal Nath said he left after trying to persuade the crowd to disperse. He denied giving instructions to anyone to resort to firing. He also denied leading the mob or having any control over it.

Justice Nanavati, however, felt, 'The reply filed by Kamal Nath is vague. He has not clearly stated at what time he went there and how long he stayed. The situation at the gurdwara become very grave at 11.30 am and continued to be grave till 3.30 pm. Evidence shows Kamal Nath was seen there at 2 pm. The Police Commissioner arrived at 3.30 pm, which means he was there for quite a long time. He has not stated whether he went to the gurdwara alone or with other persons, or how he went there. He has not stated if he looked for the police or tried to contact policemen who were posted there to ensure the situation remained under control. He left that place after the Commissioner arrived. He has not stated that he met him. He was a senior political leader who went to the gurdwara feeling concerned about the law and order situation, therefore it appears strange that he left abruptly without even contacting the police officers who had come there.'

Justice Nanavati did give the benefit of doubt to Kamal Nath though, by adding: 'At the same time, it is also required to be considered that he was called upon to give an explanation after 20 years and probably, for that reason, was not able to give more details with regards to when and how he went there and what he did.'

The photographer, Suri, told Justice Nanavati that Kamal Nath tried to pursue the mob to disperse, and it had retreated for some time. Says the judge, 'Therefore, it would not be proper to come to the conclusion that Kamal Nath had in any manner instigated the mob.' The Commission also noted that Mukhtiar Singh and Ajit Singh stood quite far from Kamal Nath. 'They could not have heard anything Nath said to the mob. What Mukhtiar and Ajit have stated is by way of inference drawn by them from gestures made by Nath while talking to the mob.'

In conclusion, Justice Nanavati wrote, 'In the absence of better evidence, it is not possible for the Commission to say that he had in any manner instigated the mob or that he was involved in the attack on the gurdwara.'

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Sheela Bhatt