In the most significant conviction relating to deadly anti-Sikh riots that swept India in 1984, a senior politician of the opposition Congress Party has been sentenced to life imprisonment.
The Delhi High Court found Sajjan Kumar guilty of instigating mobs during the violence that followed the killing of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.
Kumar, now 73, was a member of parliament when nearly 3,000 Sikhs died in the carnage that erupted for four days as rampaging mobs brutally attacked and killed members of the minority Sikh community and torched their businesses.
Calling the riots a “crime against humanity”, the judges said that “a majority of the perpetrators of these horrific mass crimes enjoyed political patronage and escaped trial.” They said that there is “need to assure the countless victims that truth will prevail."
The verdict was widely welcomed by family members of the victims and Sikh activists, who have long accused leaders of the Congress Party of fanning the violence.
Kumar, who was accused of leading a mob in a Delhi neighborhood a day after Mrs. Gandhi’s killing, has been convicted in a case involving the killing of five Sikhs. He had been acquitted by a lower court in 2013, but that verdict had been was challenged by federal investigators.
Some of the family members of the victims wept as they heard the verdict. Many regretted it had taken 34 years to get justice. About 400 people have been convicted in connection with the riots, but Sikh activists say high profile instigators of the violence have evaded justice.
A witness Jagdish Kaur, who said a mob killed her husband and son, said, “Our wounds were very deep. Now a little balm has been applied to them.”
Sajjan Kumar has been ordered to surrender by the end of the month. His lawyers said he will appeal the sentence.
He is not the only high profile politician to be named in cases related to the riots. A former Congress minister, Jagdish Tytler, also faces a trial. Another senior party leader, Kamal Nath, who was sworn in as Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh state on Monday, has been named by witnesses as being involved in the violence, but has denied the allegations.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party welcomed the verdict. In a tweet Finance Minister Arun Jaitley called it, “A delayed vindication of justice,” and said, “The Congress and the Gandhi family legacy will continue to pay for the sins of 1984 riots.”
The Congress Party strongly denies any role in the anti-Sikh violence. Party president Rahul Gandhi told an audience in London this year, “It was a tragedy, it was a painful experience. You say that the Congress Party was involved in that, I don’t agree.”
Indira Gandhi was killed four months after she ordered troops to storm Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, to flush out Sikh militants who had taken shelter inside.
Sikhs make up about two percent of India’s population.