The Rakab Ganj Sahib Sikh temple in central New Delhi stands white and gleaming against the punishing May sun. Inside its spacious guesthouse is Jagdish Kaur, a stout 76-year-old woman, who has been waging battle for the past few weeks. Every morning since April 30, at around 9 a.m., she leaves the guesthouse, braving the heat, a bad knee and high blood pressure, in order to lead a sit-in at Jantar Mantar, an 18th century observatory that doubles up as a popular site for demonstrations. The gatherings are to decry the exoneration of former Congress leader Sajjan Kumar, accused of playing a major role in the 1984 riots that saw the massacre of around 3,000 Sikhs nationwide.
Kumar had been charged with directly organizing some of the attacks, which took place in retaliation for the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Kaur, who says she personally witnessed Kumar’s involvement in the mob attack that killed her husband and her 19-year-old son, was shattered when a Delhi court let Kumar off the hook in April because of lack of evidence. “For a moment, I felt like the ceiling of the court had come down on me and I collapsed on the floor, so great was my shock,” Kaur tells TIME. “Thirty years back people were murdered, but this time around justice has been murdered in this country.”
For the bereaved, who have endured nearly three decades — and the deliberations of 10 commissions of inquiry — in their quest for closure, Kumar’s acquittal is a painful opening of old wounds. “I haven’t cried since the day they hacked my brother and father to death,” says Gurdeep Singh, Kaur’s son, who survived the slaughter along with three of his sisters by taking shelter in a neighbor’s house. “I cried again after 29 years at the court when Kumar was acquitted. In a moment I was once again the traumatized 6-year-old. I am not hopeful of justice anymore.”
Kumar, charges against whom were not framed until 2010, was given “benefit of doubt” by judge J.R. Aryan because, as the 129-page judgment explained, three key prosecution witnesses had not named him till more than two decades after the riots. The witnesses said they had seen Kumar inciting a mob to kill Sikhs in the Raj Nagar area of New Delhi on Nov. 1, 1984, which led to the murder of Kaur’s husband, her son and three other male relatives. However, the judge said two witnesses, including Kaur, did not name Kumar in their testimony before 2007.
Kaur maintains that the Delhi police manipulated the records, when they were in charge of the investigations, to shield Kumar. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which took charge of investigations in 2005, also told the court of a conspiracy of “terrifying proportions” between Kumar and the police during the riots. Kaur says she lodged a report “on Nov. 3, 1984, immediately after my husband and son were killed — that report just vanished.”
Kumar’s exculpation, however, could be transient. The CBI plans to mount a legal challenge to his acquittal, as does prominent Sikh lawyer H.S. Phoolka, who has been representing the victims virtually single-handedly for the past 29 years. Kumar’s acquittal has also aroused the indignation of many young people, who have been turning out in large numbers at Jantar Mantar, demanding justice. “1984 was always a closed wound,” Phoolka says. “Hence the outpouring of public support since Kumar’s acquittal has been unbelievable. Till 10 days back, I was a lone crusader. That’s not true anymore.”