H S Phoolka: Courting justice for victims

After Sajjan Kumar's acquittal in one of the three anti-Sikh riot cases, the man who fought the most legal battles for the victims alone says he is down but not out

jasleen

Jasleen Kaur | August 8, 2013


H S Phoolka
H S Phoolka

On April 30, the Karkardooma court in Delhi acquitted Congress leader Sajjan Kumar of all charges in one of the three 1984 anti-Sikh riots cases against him. Kumar, a former MP from Outer Delhi, was accused of murder and instigating a riotous mob that killed five Sikhs in Delhi’s cantonment area on November 2, 1984. Five other people accused in the case have been convicted, three of them of murder.

The Delhi cantonment riots case was registered against Sajjan Kumar in 2005 on the recommendation of the Nanavati commission.Kumar is also accused of instigating a mob during riots in Sultanpuri area. He is facing trial in a third case related to anti-Sikh riots in Nangloi area of Delhi.On April 30, the pronouncement of judgment witnessed a huge uproar by the protesters, one of whom hurled a shoe at the judge soon after he acquitted Kumar in the case of riots that broke out 29 years ago on October 31, 1984, soon after then prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

The violence engulfed most parts of Delhi from the following day, November 1, and Congress leaders Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar and HKL Bhagat, among others, were said to have incited mobs to kill Sikhs. More than 3,000 Sikhs were massacred in Delhi.

Nearly three decades on, the man who has been fighting the legal battle for families of the victims – senior advocate Harvinder Singh Phoolka – knows he still has a long fight ahead. For Phoolka, now 58, it has been a journey of delays, struggles and pressure, something which can easily test anyone’s patience, but certainly not his. He has persistently pursued justice for these families over all these years, and not always for a fee.

Phoolka says the first time he went to a relief camp as an uncertain 29-year-old lawyer, who had landed in the national capital after graduating in law from Panjab University in Chandigarh. He saw the anger and helplessness among the victims. These families, he says, needed legal assistance and advice. That was how he got involved in their fight.

When the riots broke out in Delhi, young Phoolka was on his way home. His wife, Maninder Kaur, was four months pregnant and he says the owners of the south Delhi house they stayed in helped them when mobs came looking. But it couldn’t have gone on that smoothly for Phoolka when the ground shook beneath  the feet of scores of Sikh families in the city – the couple was asked to move out. Phoolka was even advised to cut his hair and shave his beard in a bid to save his life. He refused.

He took shelter in other localities before leaving Delhi for Chandigarh on November 5. Back home, the couple faced pressure from respective families to leave Delhi forever. Phoolka returned to the capital with Maninder when the situation was back to normal with just that in mind – he intended to wind up work and leave forever.

But it was not to be.

A friend in court told Phoolka about the need for legal aid to families of riot victims in east Delhi’s Farash Bazaar relief camp. It was one of the worst-affected districts. That visit, Phoolka says, changed his mind. “People were anguished. They were mostly from the poorer sections and needed help to prepare affidavits. There were hardly any male members left in their families,” he recalls.

He told his wife that he would never be able to forgive himself if they left Delhi at that juncture. Phoolka’s wife agreed and they stayed in Delhi.
“That was the only time I went to a relief camp to help the victims. After that, they have approached me and I do not keep any personal links with them,” says Phoolka, who has been accused of putting up false witnesses in the court. “Whenever a witness turned hostile, I never approached them,” he says.

Initiation by fire
The first case he handled, Phoolka recalls, was in December 1984. It was for an old affluent man whose daughter, son-in-law and grandson were killed in the riots and his two granddaughters were sent to women’s shelter home. He was fighting for the children’s custody.

When Phoolka started working for the riot victims, he had just three years of experience as a lawyer. “Whatever a lawyer with that much experience could do, I wanted to do that. I used to stand next to lawyers working on these cases in the courtroom for around three months, helping them collect documents,” he says. “At that time a team of topmost lawyers were working on the case for free... people of such calibre as VM Tarkunde, Soli Sorabjee, Govinda Mukhote and justice Narula.”

In May 1985, after the justice Rangnath Misra commission was appointed, Phoolka approached India’s topmost lawyers and urged them to unite and form an umbrella organisation to fight for the riot victims. By that time, three human right groups had come out with their reports on the anti-Sikh riots. “I asked the human right groups also to join in. It was not an easy fight because we had to face the government,” he points out.

Through his efforts, Phoolka was able to convince many senior lawyers and judges to form a group called Citizen Justice Committee. Justice SM Sikri, a former chief justice of India, became its president and others, including one representative each from the human rights groups, became panel members. Phoolka was appointed secretary of the committee and was given the responsibility of collecting all documents, including affidavits. That’s where his journey began.

The committee had collected thousands of affidavits but only 650 were filed with the commission, says Phoolka. “Government lawyers tried their best but they could not break a single witness.” 

After the Misra commission’s work got over, all the lawyers got back to their own work. Phoolka, though, continued to work with the victims.    

During his association with the group, Phoolka left his practice for around two years. He says his anger motivated him to work for this cause: “How could this happen to us in our own country? We wanted to see the guilty punished. We did not want those responsible for the massacre to go unpunished. “We were aware of what we were facing but we had never expected that it will take us so long to get justice.”

His struggle to help the victims get justice had a positive impact on Phoolka’s life and career – his practice flourished and he became a senior advocate at just 44.

But it has not been an easy journey so far as the riots cases are concerned, as many witnesses have turned hostile over the years. But Phoolka says one cannot blame them for that: “Those who were affected were mainly from a poor financial background. You cannot expect them to stand against the system. Only a few were able to show courage and fought on. We cannot expect everyone to do the same, (especially) when they are threatened with dire consequences if they open their mouth. So if witnesses turned hostile, the system, which could not protect them, has to be blamed.”

He says apart from one threat from Tytler on television, no one else has ever threatened him. “(But) he is the one who carries 100 security men along, so he is scared, I am not. That’s because he knows he is guilty,” he says.

Drawing strength from each other
Now 45, Nirpreet Kaur was a teenager when she saw her father burnt alive in Palam Colony, in Delhi Cantonment area, in 1984. A fighter herself, Nirpreet says Phoolka helps them get strength to fight the system. “As individuals, it would have been really difficult for us to fight. But Mr Phoolka has been a real strength. He even helps victims financially through his trust.”

For Nirpreet, and many like her, Phoolka has taken the place vacated, unwittingly, by political parties and leaders. “Be it the Akali Dal or Congress, we cannot trust any party. If the Akali Dal says the Congress is to be blamed, then what did the BJP do for us when they were in power? We trust Mr Phoolka – we do not know whether we will get justice or not but we know at least he raised a voice for us (when few others came out).”
Phoolka, in return, draws strength from them – people who lost everything and yet had the courage to fight on.

He knows that the April 30 verdict is only a beginning ahead of a long fight, and he says there cannot be complete justice now but the closure of the case has to come with some kind of a symbolic justice. “There should be some satisfaction in the minds of the victims. Else, the anger will keep coming out in one form or the other.”

He says, “We were prepared to work towards the closure of the case if Sajjan Kumar was convicted. But unfortunately that did not happen.” Phoolka still hopes that justice, which has been delayed for so long, would not be denied.

“If the guilty of 1984 had been punished, Gujarat would not have happened. If today you forget ’84, tomorrow you forget Gujarat and be prepared for something bigger,” says Phoolka, who has co-authored a book on the incident, When A Tree Shook Delhi, with senior journalist Manoj Mitta.

(This was first published in June 1-15 issue of the Governance Now magazine.)

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