The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

India’s new prime minister promised to investigate a genocide against Sikhs. Why hasn’t he?

Holding back accountability: Narendra Modi. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

Early in the morning of November 1, 1984, a man anonymously telephoned my grandparents’ house in New Delhi, India, coolly threatening that we leave “or else.”Although Sikhs had long been targeted in the northern state of Punjab, where some Sikhs were seeking an independent state, we hadn’t expected any problems for our family in India’s tolerant capital. But the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards the previous afternoon unleashed an explosion of anti-Sikh hatred. And the easily discernible identity of the gruff voice on the phone only reinforced to us how close to home that hatred came: it was our next-door neighbor.

I had just arrived in India along with my parents and brother for what we had hoped would be the first of many visits to my parents’ homeland. It was almost my last. According to the government of India, 2,733 Sikhs were murdered in the span of three days in the capital alone. Most unofficial estimates put the number much higher. Hiding in a neighbor’s servant quarters, I barely survived.

Recently elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi promises a new era for India, and especially for Sikhs. He made many overtures to the almost 20 million-strong population before the election, and his campaign marked the first time in India’s history when high-ranking government officials were willing to call the events of November 1984 what they were — a genocide — rather than euphemistically characterize them as mere “riots.” (Riots, after all, do not elicit the prosecutions that follow crimes against humanity.) His campaign promised a new investigation of the 1984 bloodshed. As a result, he won some 30 percent of the Sikh vote, almost four times the Congress Party candidate. His valedictory speech in New York’s Madison Square Garden last month praised Sikhs for their leadership in the fight for an independent India. Just this week, Modi added that the slaughter was a “a dagger through India’s chest.”

But as prime minister, Modi has not followed through. Although his government upped the compensation for the next of kin of 1984 victims this week — a very welcome development — he has been tight-lipped in seeking justice for his Sikh countryman with the complicity of a government he now leads.  Some consider his silence a strategic necessity: After all, his demanding a new investigation of 1984 would only embolden Congress Party officials to do the same for the 2002 pogroms in Gujarat.  It would be the pot calling the kettle black.

But a functional democracy — the world’s largest, in fact — requires that rule of law prevail. The failure, 30 years on, to prosecute and punish those officials responsible for the massacre remains an affront to humanity that dishonors every Indian and diminishes India’s standing in the world. The architects of the violence that engulfed New Delhi, taking thousands of innocent lives with them, remain at large. And the trauma they caused wasn’t just national; it was personal.

I was only 3 years old, but I can still see my grandmother doggedly crossing her arms after hanging up the phone on our neighbor. She believed that our Sikh faith, founded on selfless service and courage, demanded that we stand up for ourselves. Even after a motorcyclist stopped at our gate and marked an “X”on the metal beams, confirming our address against a government voter registry, she wouldn’t abandon her home.

Soon, shrieks echoed down our street as the Sikh taxi stand on the corner exploded. Still, my grandmother refused to flee. Only when a mob appeared outside our house chanting “Blood for blood!”did she finally surrender to my parents’ pleas. We snuck out through the back door as the mob charged through our front gate. I remember my father holding me in his arms, clutching our American passports in his left hand. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen him cry.

A courageous Hindu family across the alley provided us shelter. Throughout the city, Sikh men were being hacked to death in front of their wives and children. Others were burned alive with kerosene-soaked tires hung around their necks. At the peak of the violence, one Sikh was being killed every minute in the capital.

Because my father and grandfather wore turbans, which identified their faith, we hid in the servants’quarters on the second floor. The balcony afforded us a horrific sight of my grandparents’ house below: their car and motorcycle ablaze, the broken windows hinting at the devastation within. After five long days, our neighbors connected us to a high-ranking police official visiting from another state; he gave us an escort to the airport, where, on the night of Nov. 6, we flew back to California.

To this day, the Indian government has failed to offer a meaningful accounting of what transpired, despite the appointment of three separate commissions and seven committees. At every step, the credibility of these bodies has been compromised, seemingly purposefully: from conducting proceedings behind closed doors to disallowing victims’ counsels the opportunity for cross-examination. The publication of one commission report was even scuttled after it became clear that several high-ranking police officials might be implicated. More flagrantly, the Delhi police themselves closed some 241 cases after survivors finger-pointed particular senior officers.

Nevertheless, these government reports make clear that the violence would never have occurred if not for two factors: first, the hundreds of police officers who turned a blind eye to Sikh suffering; second, the senior officials from the reigning Congress Party who facilitated the murderous rampages by distributing weapons and kerosene, providing municipal transportation for the attackers, and earmarking Sikh properties for destruction.

For Sikh victims of the 1984 “riots,” justice and due process are little more than empty rhetoric. Modi, the leader of a Hindu nationalist party, has said that all citizens deserve to be treated as equal participants in a country founded on the democratic values and rule of law. If he wants to show his commitment to that idea, he should convene the special investigation he promised — now. Let the evidence speak for itself, no matter which senior government official’s doorstep it may lead us to. Thirty years is a long time to wait. But it is never too late for justice.