Gurpal Singh, remember him? He would have been 40 this year. Entering middle age, probably a kid or two starting college. Likely contemplating an expanding waistline, the first hints of grey in his hair.
But of course, Gurpal never got the chance to live all that. He never got the chance to drink legally, nor be eligible to vote; nor even to merely exit his teens. No, he died a cliche: a callow youth is all he was. Gurpal was murdered when he was just seventeen, and you know what I mean.
Yes you do. For Gurpal died on November 2, 1984.
Gurpal's killers were Hariprasad Bhardwaj, RP Tiwari and Jagdish Giri. These three men also killed Gurpal's brother-in-law Mahender Singh and his father Niranjan Singh. They lynched the three, then set them on fire. You know what I mean indeed. The murdered Singhs were three of nearly 3000 Indians who were killed in Delhi in early November 1984. Killed solely because they wore turbans.
And why mention Gurpal Singh today, over 22 years -- count 'em, 1, 2, 3, 4 ... 19, 21, 22 -- after he died horribly? Because Bhardwaj, Tiwari and Giri have just been convicted for their crimes. A Delhi Sessions Judge, Rajender Kumar Shastri, awarded them life sentences.
Most times, the punishment of murderers should give us a measure of satisfaction. Justice at work, taking criminals off the street, making our lives safer. It should reassure us. And it does. As Punjab's Minister for cooperation, Captain Kanwaljit Singh, told Punjab Newsline, it even gives "solace."
Yet here's the thing: it's been 22 years. As far as I can tell, this is just the second conviction of killers in that time. The vast overwhelming majority of those 3000 dead -- meaning something like 2990 of them, if you subtract the victims in the two decided cases -- yes, the great majority has still not found justice. Over the years, nine official inquiry commissions have inquired into the massacre and issued reports, identified senior Congress politicians who led the slaughter. A few cases have made it to the courts, then struggled and foundered. One of those senior Congress politicians, the execrable Bhagat, has even died.
So what do we have, 22 years later? Convictions that you can count on one hand.
No, Captain Kanwaljit Singh, this verdict gives me no solace. In fact, I don't know: should I applaud the wheels of justice? Laugh at the absurdity of them turning for nearly a generation? Weep for thousands of fellow Indians, slaughtered by their own countrymen, whose families lose more faith in justice with every day, every month that passes? And this: Just where does this stack up in ready-for-prime-time India? Is it a measure of the functioning legal system that many say sets us apart from China? Or does it mock that notion, our nation itself?
Is this solace? Or despair?
Questions I cannot answer, of course: like so many my country throws up. Yet in these years, it's not the questions that have most troubled me. It's a phenomenon that does a macabre dance around great crimes like Delhi, 1984: the way so many of us, whether in our minds or out loud, explain them away.
Consider a few examples from just the responses to my writing on these Indian massacres. I assure you I am not making these up, that they are verbatim, and that they came to me in all seriousness.
* "What happened in 1984 does not represent India. India has a broader, bigger and brighter side to it. What about the S class Mercs which your fellow Indians drive?"
* "I must say, I wouldn't have been so sad to see 3000 christians/muslims die as much as watching a single Sikh/Hindu die."
* "Yes, I agree that killing Sikhs was at its worst [sic], but while the massacre of Sikhs is deplorable, it is still only 3000."
* "The attack on Sikhs was due to many factors; 1) People knew that some of them had liaison with terrorists from Pakistan requesting for a separate nation (Khalistan), 2) Killing of Indira. It was an emotional outburst that led to killing Sikhs."
* "You mentioned Sikh massacre in delhi riots. But when Hindus were singled out across Punjab and shot in buses and villages ... ?"
If you check around, you'll find your own crop of similar explanations. The Bhiwandi killings of 1970 and 1984, the Delhi killings of 1984, the Mumbai killings of 1992-93, the Gujarat killings of 2002: pick any one, plenty of your fellow countrymen rationalize it, using words like "retaliation", "justified", "lesson", "water under the bridge" and more. Why, on the day I read about the conviction of Gurpal's killers, I also read a report in the Times of India with this title: "For RSS, Gujarat riots are history."
There's no justice for so many ordinary Indians slaughtered, but it's "history."
To me, these are pointers to why so many great Indian crimes escape justice. Pointers to why we have brought justice to no more than a handful out of 3000 Delhi murders, and that after 22 years.
So yes, let's be glad that Bhardwaj, Tiwari and Giri have been convicted. But no, I don't want to hear talk of "solace". Not until every one of the killers of 1984 has been punished. That would be some kind of history.