The celebration of 25 years of India’s economic reforms has triggered an intellectual battle over the legacy of the late Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao. His supporters hail him as the principal architect of India’s success story who has been denied his due place in history. In their enthusiasm to create a halo around Rao, they have tried to absolve him of the ignominy of failing to prevent the mass killing of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 and the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992.
Two distinct methods have been adopted to justify Rao in the cataclysmic events of 1984 and 1992.
Since he was the prime minister in 1992 and could not but take flak for the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, his supporters rationalise his failure by arguing that he committed a political blunder in trusting Sangh Parivar leaders who assured him their intention wasn’t to damage or destroy the medieval mosque.
By contrast, the supporters find it relatively easier to absolve Rao of any role in the massacre of Sikhs in 1984. After all, he was only the Union Home Minister then. Even though the Delhi Police reported directly to him, they argue that the primary responsibility for ensuring that Delhi did not burn and bleed rested on the Prime Minister.
In this narrative, Rao is blamed for being merely cynical. Or for not nobly risking political banishment by standing up to his boss, Rajiv Gandhi, and party leaders who were allegedly keen to teach Sikhs a lesson because two of their religious brethren had assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984.
The battle over Rao’s legacy reminds me of the story Amit Prakash and I did for The Pioneer. Published on November 1, 1992, we sought to recreate the 1984 riots through the experiences of an eminent band of five Sikh personalities and politician IK Gujral, who was to later become India’s prime minister.
Between October 31 and November 3, these six gentlemen tried to coax the public authority to impose curfew and call in the Army to prevent the mobs from killing the Sikhs. We bolstered their accounts with reports of official inquiries and those of civil and democratic rights groups, besides speaking to police officers.
The eminent band of Sikhs included two who are celebrated for their heroics in war – India’s only Marshal of the Indian Air Force, Arjan Singh, and Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, the hero of the 1971 Bangladesh war. The other three were the noted writer Patwant Singh, diplomat Gurbachan Singh and Brig (retd.) Sukhjit Singh, a scion of the Kapurthala royal family.
Of them, I spoke at length to Patwant Singh, Lt Gen Arora and Arjan Singh, who is alive. During the traumatic days of November 1984, Gujral kept a diary, from which he quoted at length to us.
In our story, 1984: The Price of Inaction Revisited, Narasimha Rao appears four times. On each occasion, his role did not seem confined to cynical inaction and indifference, as is now being made out. His seemed to have been more a case of connivance.
Evidence No 1
Our story says that on the evening of October 31, Deputy Commissioner (South Delhi) Chandra Prakash felt the rioting had spiraled out of control. He suggested to Additional Commissioner (New Delhi Range) Gautam Kaul to impose curfew and call in the Army. In a memorandum to the Home Ministry, Prakash said, “Kaul turned down my recommendation stating that a meeting had already taken place sometime earlier in the Prime Minister’s house, where the Home Minister was also present, and a decision had been taken not to impose curfew and call out the Army at that stage”.
Prakash presumably stressed upon the presence of Home Minister Narasimha Rao because the Delhi Police reported to him. It is difficult to vouch for the veracity of Prakash’s memorandum as he too was indicted by inquiry commissions that probed the 1984 riots. A caveat, however, is: just about every inquiry commission and committee was deemed to have protected those who fomented the rioting and found scapegoats to put the blame on for rioting.
Evidence No 2
On November 1, as Delhi turned into a killing field, Gujral spoke to Lt Governor PG Gavai at 11 pm. Our story quotes the entry Gujral made in his diary: “I suggested the Army should be called in. Gavai says it will cause panic. I replied, ‘You are talking of not causing panic, but the whole city is already burning.’”
Could Gavai have taken the decision alone? Our story goes on to say, “However, another version says that Gavai asked for the Army the previous evening, but was overruled by the Home Ministry.” In this version, therefore, it was Rao who overruled Gavai’s request.
This account fundamentally challenges Vinay Sitapati’s in Half-Lion, a recent biography of Rao based on his personal papers and interviews with bureaucrats who were in service then.
Sitapati quotes an anonymous Home Ministry bureaucrat to say Rao had received a telephone call around 6 pm from a young Congressman known for his proximity to Rajiv Gandhi. The young Congressman told Rao about the need to “coordinate a single response to violence”, and summarily instructed that all information on the violence was to be sent directly to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Sitapati writes, “The reason was one of efficiency, but the result was that Home Minister Rao was bypassed. An hour or two after Rao had been sidelined, lawyer Ram Jethmalani met him… Jethmalani was struck by the fact that Rao was unconcerned”. This is as good as absolving Rao of having a role in the riots.
Is it hard to imagine that Rao was “unconcerned” because he, like so many Congress leaders, might have been momentarily overtaken by the lust to wreak vengeance on hapless Sikhs who were collectively – and wrongly – held responsible for the killing of Indira Gandhi?
In fact, at 6 pm, Rajiv Gandhi hadn’t yet become Prime Minister, sworn-in as he was 55 minutes later. As No 2 in the Union government, Rao was the de facto head of the government and, therefore, responsible for curbing the rioting which had already broken out with bestial ferocity.
Evidence No 3
On November 1, the five Sikh luminaries managed an appointment with then President Giani Zail Singh. At 12.05 they trooped into Rashtrapati Bhavan, each in their own way beseeching him to call in the Army. Since Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was at Teen Murti House, where the body of Indira Gandhi was kept for people to pay their respect, the President suggested to Lt Gen Aurora that he should speak to Rao.
A presidential aide put in a call to Rao. Guess what the caller was told? Rao was in a meeting and couldn’t therefore speak to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Quite obviously, Rao must have sensed what the President would ask him and therefore chose to shy away.
Evidence No 4
Once the meeting was over at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the five Sikhs dispersed. Lt Gen Aurora went with Patwant to his residence on Amrita Shergill Marg. Gujral joined them there. In sheer frustration, the trio decided to barge into the 9 Motilal Nehru Marg residence of Home Minister Rao.
To the trio, Rao looked very relaxed, unmindful of the killings taking place a few miles away from his residence. They asked him what he was doing to “control the situation”. Rao replied, “The Army will be here in the evening.” Lt Gen Aurora pressed on, “How will it be deployed?” An unflappable Rao said, “The (Army) Area commander will meet the Lt Governor for this purpose.”
Aurora shot back angrily, “You have called the Army 30 hours too late.” He then advised Rao: “Your first task should be to set up a Joint Control Room to coordinate between the police and the Army.” Unflustered, Rao responded coolly, “I will look into it.”
At this point, the meeting ended. For a man who had been chief minister and held important portfolios at the Centre, it does seem surprising that Rao wasn’t aware of the protocol that is followed when the Army is called to assist civilian authority.
In his book, Sitapati observes, “It is true that commission after commission investigating the massacre have cleared Narasimha Rao of any role in the violence and, as the evidence suggests, he was under a direct order from the prime minister’s office to stand down”.
The only evidence he provides is flimsy, as the anonymous bureaucrat’s account of a telephone call from a young Congressman allegedly close to Rajiv Gandhi wasn’t corroborated by anyone else. To appear unconcerned, as Rao did to Jethmalani, can’t necessarily signify that the Home Minister has been sidelined. It could also be construed as extreme callousness.
However, to Sitapati’s credit, he does write, “He (Rao) could have defied his prime minister’s henchmen… called in the Army on 31 October itself. Rao’s career in the Congress would have surely ended had he ignored instructions…. But it would have set him apart from others who allowed evil to take place in those four days of 1984. It was his vilest hour”.
“Vilest hour” seems an inadequate phrase. Even if we go by Sitapati’s narrative, Rao entered into a Faustian bargain, selling his soul for worldly gains, becoming India’s Prime Minister eight years later.
Postscript: Our story was published at the time Rao was the Prime Minister. The accusations against Rao were not denied, nor did the newspaper’s editor, the late Vinod Mehta, receive any calls countering the narrative Amit Prakash and I had pieced together about the nightmare called 1984.