Harvinder Singh Phoolka, better known as H S Phoolka, is an eminent jurist, an advocate of the Supreme Court of India, who is known for spearheading one of the longest crusades in Indian legal history to gain justice for the 1984 anti-Sikh riot victims. In an interview with Organiser’s associate editor Ashish Joshi, he discusses one of the darkest chapters in Indian history, and his hope that someday the victims’ families will be served justice for which they have fought so relentlessly.
You were 29 when the 1984 anti-Sikh riots broke out. How did you survive the carnage?
I was lucky, by the grace of our Wahe Guru. On Oct 31, 1984 I drove my wife through the backstreets of Delhi to escape the mobs which were hunting helpless Sikhs in the city. I was hidden by my Hindu landlord in the loft at his house. Later I fled to Chandigarh in the cockpit of an overcrowded plane. This incident led me to fight for the cause of the families who had lost everything in the riots.
What motivated you to drop everything and pursue justice for the riot victims? How has this changed you as a person?
During the days when I was filing cases on behalf of the victims, I came across a number of people who changed my outlook toward life. One such person was Justice Tarkunde. He was a lawyer who fought Indira Gandhi during the dark days of the Emergency. He is considered the Father of Human Rights in India. He had a very good private practice but he gave that up to pursue the cause of the people who suffered during Mrs Gandhi’s rule for free. Another such person was S K Malik, a leading lawyer who fought cases on behalf of the dispossessed free of charge.
What were the kinds of hurdles that you faced while trying to prosecute powerful politicians involved in the riots?
There was a big cover-up by the government on all fronts. It shielded the accused leaders who were responsible for thousands of deaths during the riots. And it is still trying to protect the guilty. It is really simple-if the police had done their job properly, there would have been no reasons for us, the activists, to come into the picture at all. But that did not happen and that is why we had to step in.
You formed the Citizens Justice Committee after the riots. Has this helped, in any way, to secure justice for the victims?
Actually, I did not form the committee; it was only my suggestion that led to its setting up in the first place. The actual people who formed it were very well-known in their fields. I was lucky in that my 3-4 years experience as a lawyer came in handy. The committee was set up in May-June 1985. It was considered as an umbrella organization that took up cases of the ’84 riot victims. Soli Sorabjee played an active part in its inception. Another was the writer Khushwant Singh. General Arora also contributed his bit to the cause. Justice Sikri, a Supreme Court Chief Justice, became its president. I was appointed as its secretary.
I learnt a lot during this time. It was a big jump for me working with such eminent people. I learnt that you don’t need power to do everything in this world. Soli Sorabjee is such an eminent jurist, but whenever I used to go to meet him, even if he was in the middle of a meeting, he used to break off and attend to me first. This period was an eye-opener for me.
Tell us about the book When a Tree Shook Delhi, which you co-authored with journalist Manoj Mitta.
The well-known writer Pathwant Singh suggested I write a book detailing my role in the ’84 anti-Sikh riots. But I told him I am a lawyer, not an author. He still urged me to write it as people must know what had actually happened during those days. Finally I collaborated with Manoj on the book, which was a first-hand account of the riots. We were not satisfied with the first manuscript and prepared a second one. This was a third-person account. Finally, it was decided to have half the book as a third-person narrative and the other half as a first-hand account of the events.
The book was well-received by the media. Outlook magazine called it the ‘Book of 2007’. It became a national best-seller on the India Today list of books. Khushwant Singh had suggested we put a human angle in the story but I told him it was not possible as it is a legal work and the actual story of the cases.
Sajjan Kumar, HKL Bhagat and Jagdish Tytler were never punished for their role in the riots. Do you ever feel a sense of frustration?
Yes, I often feel frustrated that even after so many years, justice has still not been served. Recently, when the court acquitted Sajjan Kumar of all charges, I felt very low. But each failure only infuses more energy in me. Seeing how brave the families of the victims are, and the media, which took up their cause, are, I have resolved not to quit fighting.
Do you feel that the many enquiry commissions appointed to probe the truth behind the ’84 riots achieved anything at all?
There have been 10 enquiry commissions so far to investigate the ’84 anti-Sikh riots. A lot of them did some good work but you tell me, where is the implementation of their suggestions? With the government shielding the accused, what can we do? When the Nanavati Commission tabled its report, there was a lot of anger against the government. The government was forced to implement some suggestions of the Nanavati Commission. But so far, we feel that nothing much has been done at ground level to alleviate the suffering of the victims’ families.
Will there ever be a sense of closure for the families of the ’84 riot victims? Will justice ever be served?
See here, if Sajjan Kumar had been punished, the people would have felt a sense of achievement. But I still do not believe that it has been a complete failure. Nobody should say this. The anger inside people can always erupt in some other form.
Our second generation is still fighting for justice. Our third generation (school-going children) are being prepared to continue the struggle till justice is done. We will continue the fight till the end.
I must also mention here the role of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which, I feel, has played an active role in the struggle. Arvind Kejriwal was an IRS officer, an additional commissioner, I think, who was in the line of being promoted to commissioner, but he gave up his post to engage in his struggle against corruption. I feel that he is sincere toward helping us get justice for the victims’ families.