25 Years after Indira Gandhi: The lawyers, the Trial and the 1984 Riots
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25 Years after Indira Gandhi: The lawyers, the Trial and the 1984 Riots

Bar & Bench

Indira Gandhi’s assassination was followed by riots, a change in Government and a series of trials and landmark constitutional cases. Twenty-five years on, Bar & Bench looks at the lawyers who became an integral part of the legal drama.

October 31, 1984- Mrs. Gandhi was on her way to be interviewed by the British actor Peter Ustinov, who was filming a documentary for Irish television. She was walking through the garden of the Prime Minister’s Residence at No. 1, Safdarjung Road. As she passed a wicket gate guarded by Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, they opened fire. Beant Singh fired three rounds into her from his side-arm, and Satwant Singh then fired 30 rounds from his sten gun into her prostrate body. Beant Singh was shot dead by other bodyguards at the scene of the assassination. Satwant Singh was arrested by Mrs. Gandhi’s other bodyguards” – Wikipedia

“Rioters were looking for Sikhs during the anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984. When bloodthirsty mobs ruled Delhi’s streets for three days, I and my pregnant wife managed in the nick of time to find shelter. The plight of orphans, widows and bereaved mothers in the relief camp hit me hard. I immediately changed my mind and instead of returning to Chandigarh, I chose to help victims of the massacre. Clearly their suffering was incomparably greater than ours.” – Harvinder Singh Phoolka, Senior Advocate

Indira Gandhi’s assassination was followed by riots, a change in Government and a series of trials and landmark constitutional cases. 25 years on, Bar & Bench looks at the lawyers who became an integral part of the unfolding legal drama.

The immediate step following the killing was the trial of the convicts, including the thorny issue of legal representation of Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh. Charged with the murder of Indira Gandhi, they were facing more than a dozen other charges which, if proved, could result in a death sentence. Beant Singh’s fate had already been sealed, gunned down by Indira Gandhi’s other bodyguards.

At the trial, Satwant Singh was represented by P.N. Lekhi, a Senior Advocate in the Supreme Court. During the trial, P.N. Lekhi drew the court’s attention to his own security, claiming that certain members of the Gandhi family were plotting to kill the Senior Advocate for defending ‘sikh militants’. K.L. Arora, the then Government Counsel, headed the prosecution team before the trial court, which was convened in the Tihar Jail enclosure. The Judge, Mahesh Chandra, delivered the judgment on January 22, 1986, and sentenced Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh to death. He went on to become a judge of the Delhi High Court in 1990.

A commission of inquiry was appointed, headed by Justice M.P. Thakkar to investigate the conspiracy behind the assassination. Justice Thakkar went on to become the Chairman of the Twelfth Law Commission.

The appeal from the trial reached the Delhi High Court and a number of legal bigwigs joined the battle. Ram Jethmalani, his junior, R.S. Sodhi, and his children, Mahesh and Rani, were at the forefront. R.S. Sodhi, who later assisted Ram Jethmalani in the Supreme Court as well, was the advocate on record for Punjab and was later appointed as the additional Advocate General for Punjab. He retired as a judge of the Delhi High Court.

Justice Sodhi was part of the bench that handled several high-profile cases, including three sensational murders – those of Jessica Lall, Naina Sahni (the tandoor case) and Priyadarshini Mattoo. During the hearing of the Jessica Lal murder, there were media allegations that the accused Manu Sharma had hired Ram Jethmalani because the bench was headed by his erstwhile junior, Justice Sodhi. However, Ram Jethmalani asked Justice Sodhi to recuse himself from the case.

Mahesh Jethmalani treats his defense of the accused in the Indira Gandhi trial as one of his leading achievements and continues to prominently display it in his resume for his subsequent election campaigns. The High Court upheld Kehar Singh and Satwant Singh’s sentences and the matter predictably reached the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court was called upon to decide several issues, including the parameters of the Presidential power to pardon. This case continues to be the leading precedent on that issue. A five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice R.S. Pathak, E.S. Venkataramiah, Ranganath Misra, M.N. Venkatachaliah and N.D. Ojha, heard the matter. With the exception of Justice N.D. Ojha, the remaining three judges went on to be Chief Justices of India. Various questions were raised, some inside the court and others in the forum of public opinion. Was Kehar Singh guilty? And even if he was, was the death sentence warranted? Had the President exercised his powers of pardon correctly? Should the death penalty continue? Was it right for eminent lawyers to defend Kehar Singh and Satwant Singh?

Once again, eminent Senior Counsels like Ram Jethmalani and Shanti Bhushan appeared for the accused. The then Attorney General, K. Parasaran, presented the Union’s case with assistance from G. Ramaswamy, the Additional Solicitor General. The Supreme Court, dismissing the appeals of Kehar Singh and Satwant Singh, upheld the death sentence of the Delhi High Court.

The entire judicial process lasted a little less than four years and within two months of its conclusion, both convicts had been executed. Media questioned Ram Jethmalani on his decision to take up the case of the accused. He, in turn, stuck to the Bar Council Rules on representation and said every person ought to have a free and fair trial and the advice of good legal counsel. Many years later, he presented the same argument in the Jessica Lal matter, where he defended Manu Sharma, engaging in verbal duels with talk show hosts Sagarika Ghose and Karan Thapar. The Court congratulated and applauded the efforts of the lawyers, in particular those of R.S. Sodhi (as he then was) and G. Ramaswamy.

While on one side, the lawyers were fighting for justice for Indira Gandhi, on the other, there were lawyers belonging to the Sikh community in Delhi and Punjab who were being targeted by Indira Gandhi followers. Harvinder Singh Phoolka narrowly escaped death, hidden by his Hindu landlord in the store room of his house. Ever since, he has been spearheading one of the longest and most tortuous legal crusades against the leading anti-Sikh rioters of 1984. Supported by former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee, he has been fighting cases against Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Singh, the main accused in in the 1984 riots. One major battle centers on his attempt to make public the contents of the Justice Nanavati Commission Report, a one-man commission of inquiry appointed by the NDA government in May 2000 to look into certain matters emanating from the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

For many, the riots are hidden in the pages of politically tainted textbooks. However, for Senior Advocate Harvinder Singh Phoolka, the saga continues, 25 years on….

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