The victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots are perpetually advised to put a blanket on their past and persevere to build a better future. For a moment, put yourselves in the shoes of these victims and try to understand the inhuman circumstances in which they were plunged, and then ask yourself: is it feasible to forget the past? How can it be the path to reconciliation?
The answer is bound to be in the negative. For the victims, there could be no reconciliation without justice. It is imperative to empathise, understand and realise their pain and agony. Let me walk you through some of the unknown and often ignored stories of the victims, who clamour and crave for closure in the mould of justice.
“I remember hearing the news of certain violent clashes around my place but I wasn’t worried about us because we did not kill Indira (Gandhi). In some time, I realised my mistake. Even the police did not protect us; rather they were equally complicit in what unfolded to be a massacre. I can clearly recount how my son and husband were beaten to death with sticks. I left my home with some money and gold in my hand. Later, all of my belongings were robbed, and the perpetrators tore my clothes,” Kaur told me.
She continued, “We spent three nights in the Chilla Gaon to stay away from what was unravelling outside. It has been 35 years with no justice whatsoever. We feel helpless. The mob killed our men, and women were raped. Our people were burnt and houses looted. However, the custodians of our protection did not bother to care. It felt like Partition, when none cared for the common people.”
“Are we not Indian citizens? We have faced atrocities at the hands of our people.”
We are still stuck in 1984, looking for some help from the government but to no avail.
“Every day, it plays in front of our eyes like it happened yesterday.”
“My parents tossed me and my siblings to our neighbour’s place. They wrapped us in some bedsheets and promised us safety. We saw our parents hopelessly and helplessly wait for the inevitable to happen. Tears rolled down their eyes and shivers of fright went down their spine, but the sole relief in their hearts was that we, their children, were safe. Yet scared as they saw the mob who wanted to set our car ablaze to try and kill us,” Nirmal Kaur told me.
The old fear gripped Nirmal Kaur as she recounted that fateful night, 35 years since it happened. She was 15 years old back then.
“A group of over 100 people, wearing red shirts and black pants, marched towards our house. Some of them carried torches. We could hear the mob questioning our Punjabi tenants residing on the ground floor. When asked: is any Sikh family living on the first floor? Our tenants said ‘no’.”
Despite their denial, the mob persistently asked them to hand over the Sikh family. Mrs Kaur told me that the mob knew about her family’s whereabouts. “They wanted to set our car on fire, but some of them suggested that they burn down the nearby gurudwara first. After they were done looting and pilfering the gurudwara, the mob left our street and marched onto the next street, to our surprise”.
The mob attacked other Sikh families residing in surrounding areas, harassing women, and attempting to cut off the hair of Sikh boys to insult, maim and, in many cases, even kill them.
The mob lit fire to rubber tyres and threw them at innocent Sikhs.
I asked her if she still feels scared. She said to this, “My mother panics even today, if the door is closed forcefully. She cannot help but cry when she is asked about these events. I, too, feel horrified remembering that night. Those who saved us were Hindus. My cousin sister and her kids were saved by a Muslim family, who stayed with them for almost a week”.
Whenever we think of the 1984 Sikh massacre, we think of only widows. But there were many children who survived the massacre and continue to be haunted by the memories just as much. Many such children had to abandon their studies to become the breadwinners of their families, especially since many of their fathers were killed. Many of these children who survived, have hazy memories of 1984, and confess that not having their fathers around has affected them significantly. A deep sense of insecurity and the stigma of living in Tilak Vihar (which is also infamously known as ‘Widows’ Colony’) has impacted their lives.
Raja, 35 years old, remembers, “Everyone used to talk about their fathers in school. Before I could say anything, other students used to say tauntingly: ‘He is from Tilak Vihar, a place of no fathers.’”
These children who are adults now, live with the fear that they too, like their fathers, may be killed one day.
During the violence of 1984, all the institutions – police, executive and administration – who are responsible for citizens’ security – failed miserably in discharging their duties to prevent the violence. All the successive governments in India have wronged the victims of the 1984 massacre. Nine committees, two commissions and an SIT (ongoing) – yet justice eludes the victims.
For more than a decade, much has been made of the ‘apology’ made by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Few things need to be recalled at this stage: firstly, the ‘apology’ was issued twenty-one years after the massacre. Secondly, the assertion of regret was made in the course of a debate on the Nanavati Commission report, and not as part of a pre-declared announcement that the prime minister of the country would apologise for 1984.
The failure in delivering justice for the 1984 massacre has however been used to downplay other incidents of mass violence, notably the 2002 Gujarat riots, and Muzaffarnagar in 2013. As long as 1984 goes unpunished, there will be those who try to justify impunity elsewhere too.
For 35 years, the victims have lived in a quagmire, where hopes of justice have been pulled down by the incessant delay in meting out justice. They are seeking – as the elusive State calls it – ‘closure’, to help them go on with their lives. Not that they seek to forget what transpired, or stop grieving, but for the past 35 years they have remained frozen in an unbearably horrific moment, and wish to find closure through the punishment of the perpetrators of 1984.
The article was originally published in The Quint and has been reproduced with permission.
Sanam Sutirath Wazir is a human rights activist, and has been working as a researcher with the victims of the 1984 Sikh massacre since 2013.
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