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'Why did I have to sacrifice my life for the cause of justice?'

Last updated on: November 06, 2009 11:08 IST
Jarnail Singh, the journalist who hurled a shoe at Home Minister P Chidambaram last April, has written a book on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Krishna Kumar P met him on the eve of the book's release.

"This book is my other shoe in the face of injustice," says Jarnail Singh about his book I Accuse: The anti-Sikh violence of 1984.

In the six months after his "symbolic protest" -- when the journalist hurled his shoe at Home Minister P Chidambaram -- of April 7, Singh has put together the book.

"I had always been following the issue and developments," he says. "When my publishers contacted me after the incident, I started conducting interviews with the victims and after researching the various committee reports, I have put together this book, which will clearly expose that what happened in 1984 was a State-sponsored massacre of the Sikhs, and not 'riots'."

At the heart of the book lies Singh's surprise that there was not much documentation of the days when Delhi burned after then prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards and Sikhs in India's capital were murdered and assaulted.

"When the issue got highlighted on April 7," he notes, "I realised that there was nothing in the media about this. I went back to the reports of that year, and again found that barring the Indian Express, there was no reporting of the incident. DD (Doordarshan, the government broadcaster) was interested only in Indira Gandhi's funeral when the capital was burning."

"If you take the Gujarat riots, everyone now knows about all the individual incidents, like the Best Bakery massacre and so on. But when you think of the Delhi riots, it is just a vague, 'it happened somewhere in Delhi' is the idea one gets," he says.

When Penguin India asked him to write a book on the anti-Sikh riots, Singh went to the affected areas and painstakingly documented individual cases.

"The book starts with my personal experience as a 11 year old. In this same Lajpat Nagar (the South Delhi neighbourhood where Singh lives) my grandmother had to hide me in the attic. My brothers were beaten up. My uncle was almost killed. Form there I have moved on to the sufferings of others, and then documented how the police, the adminstration and the politicians were involved in the massacre. I wanted to shame all those who were involved. The book ends with the chapter, 'Why I hurled the shoe.'

So, why did he hurl that white sneaker at Chidambaram?

"On April 2, there was a PTI report quoted the home minister as saying: 'I am happy that my friend (Congress leader Jagdish) Tytler has been exonerated by the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation).' What kind of home minister says that? If he gives such a statement, what kind of message is he sending down to the investigators in the CBI, which is an investigating agency under the home ministry? If your agency has failed to prove a case against a mass murderer how can you be happy? The clean chit is a sign of your negligence and you express happiness at that?"

"So, on April 7, at the press conference I asked him about it. He said I was using the press conference for my own agenda. That is when I got emotional. How can he brush aside a question about a massacre where the victims have not got justice for 25 years and say it is my agenda? That is why I protested (in the way I did)."

"It is not a publicity stunt or anything," Singh adds. "If he had not made that statement, it would not have happened."

He also defends his book as necessary. In fact, writer Khushwant Singh says the book opens wounds that have not yet healed and recommends it as a must read for those who wish that such horrendous crimes do not take place again.

"Books like When A Tree Shook Delhi (Roli) talk about the legal battle that the massacre has become. My book talks about the sufferings of the victims and also explores what has transpired in these 25 years. Basically nothing has happened in 25 years. There have been 11 commissions and committees. Hearings are still going on. Witnesses are dying. It has become a mockery of justice," he says.

Singh says he also realised how the political system itself is deeply rotten.

"Instead of being punished, the perpetrators were rewarded. H K L Bhagat became a Cabinet minister. Jagdish Tytler became a minister of state. Sajjan Kumar became an MP. And it is amazing that the first FIR was filed after 11 years against Sajjan Kumar. Bhagat came to the court surrounded by 1,000 supporters."

He says there is a lot to be done in India to stop communal violence. "There is something wrong with the political system. The anti-communal law is still not in place. This in a place where the (Kashmiri) Pandits have been subjected to severe communal violence. Sikhs in Delhi, Muslims in Gujarat, Christians in Kandhamal (Orissa). How long will this continue?" Singh asks.

His book also documents how the killings were carried out. "I have documented how the murderers came by bus and trains from outside Delhi. It is not that neighbours turned around and killed the Sikhs one fine night. It was a systematic massacre carried out with the help of voters's lists. There were public meetings in places like Yamuna Park and Paharganj to plot and plan the killings. The police, instead of protecting people, killed them," alleges Singh.

Houses, owned or rented by Sikhs, he adds, "would be marked with an 'S' overnight so that the mob could come in the morning and finish them off."

Will his book keep alive the demand for justice and pass on the memories to another generation? "There is no need for a book to do that," says Singh. "I am saying it is not late even now. If justice is not provided even now, then there are chances that it will be used to misguide youngsters of another generation. And there is no issue of passing on a legacy. Because you don't forget history."

Singh has been in a lot of personal trouble ever since he threw his shoe at the country's home minister. Though Chidambaram accepted his apology and forgave him, his newspaper terminated his services.

"I have to rely on the help of my brothers in paying off my house loan," says Singh who refused to accept any reward from Sikh organisations for his act of defiance.

"Why are things in such a state that I had to hurl a shoe to bring attention to something?" he asks angrily. "Why did Jarnail Singh have to do it? Why did I have to sacrifice my life for the cause of justice? For something that had happened 25 years ago. That tells you something about the system, doesn't it?"

Image: The cover of Jarnail Singh's book I Accuse: The anti-Sikh violence of 1984.

Krishnakumar P in New Delhi