I was born in Delhi to Tamil parents and spent my early years in a flat across the street from a large park. In a corner of the park grounds was a tiny gurudwara which faced the lane dividing my home from the park. Faith was not a factor within communities back in the 1970s, so the gurudwara continued its work quietly, while we didn’t even notice the shabads and kirtans (religious songs) that were sung softly in the early morning as we waited for the school bus. However, ‘Ik Onkar, Satnam’ – the principal chant of Sikhism – was, like the azaan, a part of our tapestry of sounds.
Once when I was about eight – perhaps looking for something different to do during the long summer vacation – a couple of friends and I wandered into the small gurudwara. Only a diminutive granthi (custodian of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book containing the writings and hymns of the Sikh gurus) was present, fanning a very large book, covered with a gorgeous bit of brocade, with a peacock feather. He did not seem put out to see a bunch of tousled kids troop in, and merely smiled and said in a gentle voice in English, “Bachhe (children), cover your heads and come,” pointing to a boxful of scarves kept near the entrance.
I took a liking to the granthi and the shrine, and I returned there many times, to just sit quietly imbibing the atmosphere, or to look at the vivid murals of scenes from Sikh history, which were larger and more striking than the images in our local library’s Amar Chitra Kathas (illustrated comics on Indian mythology and history). My parents, practising Hindus, didn’t seem to mind these outings, just as they quite enjoyed the hymns we learnt at school and sang at home on Easter and Christmas. On the birthdays of the gurus, though, they would shut the doors on that side of the house to stem the barrage of speeches being broadcast from the gurudwara all day.
At some point, however, these visits tapered off, as schoolwork, games, and friends left no time for anything out of the way. By this time, the gentle granthi had also gone, to be replaced by another that we children found quite funny. This fellow had the habit of singing his kirtans to the tune of popular Bollywood hits. This certainly made the songs memorable, but knocked out quite a bit of the sanctity, especially as he was also off-key most of the time.
Then there was the usual Singh taxi stand down the road. It was low key through the week but positively gung ho on Sundays, when the merry brigade of sardarjis would literally let their hair down after the week’s labours, comb out their curly locks and generally have an easy day off on their manjis (wooden cots or charpais) ribbing each other.
In this predominantly Punjabi neighbourhood of West Delhi, we had many Sikh neighbours, but another kind of Sikhs we encountered non-socially were the men that used to arrive at our doorstep twice a year, and for the sum of one rupee, leave us with the little bangles called kadas. This was such an exciting and unusual gift that we never could resist it and we clamoured for that rupee, which was a fairly large amount for our parents to spare those days. The dignified bearing of these men and their apparent indifference to whether or not they made the ‘sale’ also made them imperceptibly different from the chanda (donation) types that turned up from time to time on various dharmic days (mainly Hindu religious) or the Christian missionaries hectoring us in the Connaught Place bazaar.
However, ‘Ik Onkar, Satnam’ – the principal chant of Sikhism – was, like the azaan, a part of our tapestry of sounds.
We are all creatures of our environment, and somewhere the influences of what we absorb, make us what we are. Even today, I wear a kada, and that little hoop of steel on my wrist gives me a feeling and identity very different in symbolism to the other kind of steel (pans) that some of my aunts obsess over. As children, we learnt unthinkingly to respect different cultures and faiths.
In my mid-teens, we moved to the other end of town, and after a while, settled down in the more cosmopolitan and secular milieu of a sedate government housing estate in South Delhi. These years, full of personal changes that absorbed me completely, were also times of tremendous political upheaval in the country.
The term Khalistan – a homeland for the khalsa (meaning pure or real, in reference to Sikhs) – was first mooted in a pamphlet in 1940. Despite the carving out of a Punjabi state from Haryana and Himachal in 1966 by the new government under Indira Gandhi, and with Chandigarh being promulgated as a Union Territory – at the time, with the assurance it would be a temporary measure – demands only grew. In the early 1980s, Sikh separatist groups began reviving the existing idea of Khalistan, which was envisaged to be a land drawn from both sides of the Punjab in India and Pakistan. The Indian Union, which had already experienced the horrors of Partition in 1947, found this unacceptable and negotiations ended in stalemate. The subsequent militant activities towards achieving autonomy created terror and turmoil in Punjab. Several people, including owners of newspapers campaigning against Khalistan, were killed in sniper attacks. It had become unsafe to travel within Punjab, and occasional shootings happened even in Delhi. In response to the wave of armed violence, the government planned what it called Operation Bluestar.
This was the code name of the counter-insurgent military action, coordinated by army chief General A S Vaidya, which took place at the Golden Temple in Amritsar in the first week of June 1984. Also referred to as the Harmandir Sahib or the Darbar Sahib, the Golden Temple is the most important Sikh shrine in the world, a sort of Vatican of Sikhdom. The army action was aimed specifically at evacuating top militant and popular religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his cohort from the complex, which they had fortified and made their base for what amounted to a ‘parallel government’ that they were apparently running.
There were no mobile phones, no private news channels, and the government television and radio worked to suppress the news.
In Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s last battle, Mark Tully writes that Operation Bluestar “was not a battle against the Sikhs, a community Mrs Gandhi had always regarded with great affection. It was a battle in which infantry, armour and artillery were used against a small group of Sikhs… The tragedy is that many Sikhs do not accept this definition.” Perhaps that was due to the fallout.
The army killed Bhindranwale on 6 June 1984. But as would happen decades later in Iraq with the target of removing Saddam Hussein by the United States, there was quite a bit of ‘collateral damage’. Buildings were subjected to artillery firing and the heritage structure of the Golden Temple was badly shelled. Since Operation Bluestar’s ill-planned commencement had coincided with a major Sikh religious day, thousands of pilgrims had also gathered there. They were unable to leave the area due to the army cordon. Eventually, more than 5000 civilians caught in the crossfire were killed, according to some estimates. Official reports recorded over 490 civilian deaths.
A wave of indignation swept the country, even among those who had always opposed the militants. No Sikh could bear to see their most sacred gurudwara in ruins and hundreds of sevadaars (volunteers) arrived from all over, to help with the rebuilding efforts. Four months later, in an act of retaliation, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her own Sikh bodyguards as she walked from her home to her office next door. She had been advised to change them in view of the perceived threat, but had refused to do so to avoid alienating the Sikh citizens further.
A night patrol of students was formed to protect the few Sikh families in our midst.
In the three days following her murder on 31 October 1984, angry mobs attacked Sikh men and women across Delhi as an act of planned revenge against the two who had killed the prime minister. Thousands of men and children were killed, and women were raped. As eyewitness reports collected by citizen groups emerged, it became clear that Indira Gandhi’s Congress party men, including several members of Parliament, were complicit and had played a key role in organising the riots. Using voter lists, they had led the mobs to identified Sikh homes. Later, this modus operandi would be used by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to target Muslim homes during the violence in Gujarat in 2002.
I remember reading a magazine article a few months later. As news of Indira Gandhi’s shooting reached the hospital where the wife of one of her bodyguards worked as a nurse, she found colleagues glancing at her strangely. She was unaware that her husband Beant Singh, a personal favourite of Gandhi’s after long years of service, had assassinated her a few hours earlier, and then had been shot by police. To my teenage mind, it seemed unfair that she should have been ostracised for no fault of hers at a time when her own world must have fallen apart at this act.
Our parents and other adults around us were in a blur of grief at the passing of this immensely popular leader who had been at the helm for 17 years. The state television played continuous, repetitive footage from the funeral; at other times, mournful music replaced these bulletins. There was no mention of rioting. It was a sombre time, made worse by being forced to be at home. Schools had just opened after the ten-day Dussehra break in October, but were again closed. Much as we normally would have enjoyed extra time off from school, this was a strange period that we did not like at all. The grown-ups were unusually cagey about letting us go out even nearby, though nobody mentioned the riots. Those were the days when parents shielded their children from all knowledge of violence. At the time, we were completely unaware of the carnage that was raging across the city.
The taxi drivers, who lived in their cabs and open tents, had been slaughtered to a man.
One shocking afternoon, though, it became clear even to us obtuse beings that things were not quite normal. Only eight doors away from us, one specific house was attacked by a mob. Furniture was pulled out and burnt. We ran to see a small group of men moving off, while the middle-aged Sikh man who lived there, shouted angrily after them, “meri beti ka dahej jala diya, dekh loonga sab ko”. [You’ve destroyed the dowry I was saving for my daughter’s wedding; I’ll fix you all]. It was hard to see a grown man in tears, but that this could happen in a colony where senior government officers lived was unimaginable. Perhaps that is why he dared to confront a mob alone at a time when Sikhs across the city were going into hiding or shaving off their beards and cutting their hair so that they could not be identified.
Even this ugly episode did not alert us to how terrible things really were. In those days, there were no mobile phones, no private news channels, and the government television and radio worked to suppress the news. Finally, the rumours trickled in. Sikhs were being attacked all around town. No one had any idea then of the scale and extreme deliberation of these vicious attacks. But the older boys and girls who were home from college decided there would be no repeat of the arson incident. A night patrol of students was formed to protect the few Sikh families in our midst.
At the time, we were just longing to join in as we watched the group outside. Our parents cooperated with our desire to participate by fixing flasks of coffee which we would carry out to the ‘front lines’ and linger till called back inside. At midnight, at 15, this was naturally a heady feeling. Only later would we realise the seriousness of the situation. In the next few months, other college students and their teachers at Delhi University, would do volunteer work in relief camps that had been set up in Delhi for the riot-affected. Shonali Bose, one of these college students who never quite forgot this experience, would go on to write a book and make the film Amu in 2005, on the Delhi pogrom of 1984.
Our thoughts, meanwhile, returned like magnets to our old neighbourhood; could our little gurudwara have been harmed? Would our Sikh neighbours in the next building, with two little daughters, be safe? Suddenly, we began counting the Sikhs we knew. Our friends at school, Ravinder, a sweet, serious type, and bubbly Navkiran who tossed her pigtails back to laugh every ten seconds – was there no way to know if they were safe? We had nobody’s phone numbers; in any case, very few people had telephones in those days.
It doesn’t take long for a minority community to become vulnerable. It had taken only four days of hatred for the veneer of integration to go.
Finally, the 12 long days of forced vacation ceased; we returned to school. So, to my unspoken relief, did our Sikh classmates, looking as though they had passed through days and nights of extreme horror. I wanted to ask them how they had spent this time; my throat hurt with unshed tears. But some unspoken rule of public school, one that forbids any kind of serious talk, prevented speech. They would not meet my eyes. They were quieter and kept to themselves. This was a barrier I couldn’t get through.
In December 1984, my family and I finally made a visit back to our old locality. There the rioting had been very bad. But nobody we met that day wanted to go beyond the usual chit-chat. By and by, we got to know that our former neighbours were safe. But the taxi drivers, who lived in their cabs and open tents, had been slaughtered to a man. The local Congress member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), Dharam Dass Shashtri, was said to have led the mob himself (he denied involvement, despite witness accounts).
The gurudwara next to our old home didn’t exist anymore. Gone was that cosy little open shrine that anyone could walk into. A new complex was coming up; much of the parkland would soon go. An elaborate place of worship was being built. With its high walls, the place looked like a fortress. A school for Sikh children was also under construction. The community was converging on many fronts; it was clear, too, that people from other communities would not be welcome anymore.
This change in architecture reflected the divided character of the city. Sikh painters, intellectuals, singers and theatre practitioners had been an inseparable part of the fabric. After every war, some of our most decorated officers had been Sikhs. But it doesn’t take long for a minority community to become vulnerable. It had taken only four days of hatred for the veneer of integration to go.
Sikhism had always seemed to me a calm, steadfast space to be in. Now the courage was more obvious. Little children of ten or twelve bravely emerged on the main streets of Delhi, selling combs, tape measures and buttons to help their families in the relief camps. Newly homeless, perhaps orphaned, definitely bereft. But not begging. As an adult, looking back, I feel this was the moment when it all came together for me. Seeing those young children managing those difficult days. The Sikhs were not going to go under. Nor were they going to be defined by their victimhood. You see this in the testimonies of Nirpreet Kaur and the others, in the photographs of Gauri Gill, in the poems of Harnidh Kaur, and in the art of Arpana Kaur. No one else was going to write their story for them. They would get beyond 1984 even if they could never forget it.
Today when I think about the recent movement opposing the farm laws on the edge of Delhi (now-repealed), I feel its character was largely formed by the Sikhs leading it, though there was a presence of farmers from many communities. They were not going to give up and go home empty handed, however hard it was going to be. They kept up their agitation despite the pandemic and the bitter winter. Having learned the hard way about the communal tricks of politicians, and the harm that mass prejudice and falsification can bring about, they took charge of their own communication and were careful to weigh speech and action carefully. And they truly used the weapons of ahimsa (non violence) that their creed gave them.
Brotherhood, service and song.