By resigning as the party general secretary and giving up charge of Punjab and Haryana, senior Congress leader Kamal Nath — and one of the few who managed to save their skin in the 2014 defeat of the party in the general elections — has stirred a hornet's nest.
Despite his intentions to pre-empt and save the battered Congress from any more damage — as his appointment as the in-charge of Punjab ahead of the Assembly elections in the state next year has come under immense public flak because of the stigma of 1984 riots that he still carries — he may just have underscored the party’s insensitivity and laid it open in front of the public at such a crucial moment.
Is this how bankrupt the party has become in terms of leadership? They had to pick up the one allegedly tainted in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots to prepare for an election in the state of Punjab?
Soon after Kamal Nath's appointment, Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal had said, "It is an unbelievable brazen act of insensitivity towards Sikhs and crass and vulgar disregard of national opinion on the guilty of the massacre of thousands of innocent Sikh children, men and women by Congress goons in November 1984. I just cannot believe a political party can be so brutally insensitive to the sentiments of Sikhs."
With eyes on forthcoming assembly polls next year, Congress president Sonia Gandhi appointed Ghulam Nabi Azad and Kamal Nath as general secretaries respectively for Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana, which was seen as an important organisational revamp.
However, little did the Congress realise that Kamal Nath's appointment would backfire. Soon after that, the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Punjab, and the Aam Admi Party (AAP) had gone all guns blazing at the former Union minister. Eminent lawyer and an AAP leader, HS Phoolka had said, "The Congress is rewarding Kamal Nath for obeying (then Prime Minister) Rajiv Gandhi’s orders during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi."
Phoolka is well known for spearheading the crusade to seek justice for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots of New Delhi, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Nearly 2,733 Sikhs were killed in the riots and over 50,000 were displaced within two days. Though the Nanavati Commission, investigating the riots, eventually absolved Kamal Nath of any wrongdoing during the 1984 riots, he has been alleged, by at least two eye-witnesses of the riots, as being present in the mob outside Gurudwara Rakabganj in New Delhi that attacked the devotees on 1 November, 1984, the day after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
One is a certain individual who resided in the Gurudwara, and was called Mukhtiar Singh (with reference, the Nanavati Commission report).
The other is Sanjay Suri, a staff reporter with The Indian Express, who told the Commission that he saw Kamal Nath at the head of a mob of about 4,000 outside Gurudwara Rakab Ganj. On Suri’s testimony, the Commission noted, "The mob was making attempts to enter the Gurudwara. But the Congress Member of Parliament [Kamal Nath], and other leaders of the Congress Party were able to keep them under control."
Suri, a first-hand observer and now CNN-News18's Editor in Europe in his book '1984: The Anti-Sikh Violence and After' has narrated riveting account of facts related to the riot. In the book, he raised questions about Kamal Nath’s presence at Rakab Ganj gurdwara. After he quit as the party general secretary and gave up charge of Punjab on Wednesday, Kamal Nath said, "Till 2005, not a single public statement, complaint or FIR was ever made against me and the first time my name was ever mentioned in any forum was 21 years after 1984." He added that the Nanavati Commission, set up by the previous NDA government, "after proper investigation fully absolved me."
Reacting to the developments, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra reportedly told ANI, "Way he (Kamal Nath) has tendered his resignation it's clear that he was somewhere guilty in 1984 riots."
Phoolka, in a tweet, said:
Kamal Nath's resignation does not absolve him of murder, neither does it absolve Badal from his responsibility to reopen Kamal Nath case.
— H S Phoolka (@hsphoolka) June 15, 2016
Nath, 69, a nine-time Lok Sabha member from his pocket borough Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh, has close ties with the Nehru–Gandhi family, which goes back his close association with Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay, who was his schoolmate at Doon. Despite the ups and downs that the party has faced in all these decades, Kamal Nath has remained loyal to the family and the Congress.
However, the Sikhs haven’t forgiven him. Globally too, they have protested against him on many occasions. That is precisely why his appointment in the first place was being derided as "insensitive." That’s egregious considering that the Congress party is in serious danger of being wiped out from the states as even in the recently-concluded Assembly elections in five states, it could win only in one.
Moreover, across the country, leaders big and small, are deserting the party to either form their own or join the Opposition. The most recent case is that of former Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi, who has quit the party after building it in the newly-formed state of Chhattisgarh at the opening of the new millennium. Is it pure insensitivity on the part of the Congress top brass where they have no idea what the people at the grassroot level are going through? Or is it merely the ivory tower syndrome? Or perhaps, the bankruptcy of leadership has left them with no choice?