Members of the Sikh community stage a demonstration next to the United Nations office in Geneva. — AFP/File

35 years on, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots are fresh in the minds of victims who wait for justice

Victims have lived in a quagmire, where hopes of justice have been pulled down by the incessant delay.
Published 04 Nov, 2019 02:15pm

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.

Shamni Kaur: Lost her husband, son, and 11 other immediate family members

“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.”

Nirmal Kaur’s 1984 survival account

“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”.

No fathers in the ‘Widows’ Colony’

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.

As long as 1984 perpetrators go unpunished, other massacres will also be justified

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.

Justice, the only route

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.


Author Image

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.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (14) Closed

M. Emad
Nov 04, 2019 04:36pm
Incredible India! For you all.
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Nov 04, 2019 06:03pm
Khalistan is the only route.
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Nov 04, 2019 06:58pm
India has moved on since 1984. It is a secular nation.
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Nov 04, 2019 07:26pm
So, this goes along Pakistan's Kartarpur show.
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Nov 04, 2019 08:51pm
Thanks for provoking communal sentiments as soon as Kartarpur agreement is reached. Those riots were perpetrated by Congress party and people have now moved on. Not sure about the motive and timing of this article here.
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Nov 04, 2019 09:46pm
My humble request to Sanam Satirath Wazir is to do honest research on the happenings before which lead to 1984. If all people would have raised their concern to those, then whether it would have happened, is yet to be decided. Sometimes, mankind does not say much till we reach point 10, and after the happening of that point, mankind start raising all kind of concerns. Sanam please write on the occurrences leading to 1984 and who was responsible for that. I fully agree 1984 should not have happened at all and those responsible should be held accountable.
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Kevin Mathews
Nov 04, 2019 10:32pm
That apology should come from the Gandhis and not from their Sikh PM Manmohan Singh. Because Rajiv Gandhi and his congressmen were the ones who orchestrated those riots .
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Nov 04, 2019 11:18pm
Justice delayed is justice denied.
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Nov 05, 2019 01:57am
Indeed it was a sad day for the nation and we seek forgiveness from our Sikh brothers. Few bad apples and Congress politicians who were in power were responsible and though justice has been slow but few were punished . The masses have voted the party who were ruling India during that time. We are sorry and let’s all seek forgiveness from our Sikh neighbors and friends
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jaan marri
Nov 05, 2019 06:29am
bringing this topic now when kartarpur is opened shows a blighted spot on intentions, nothing of this sort of double edge sword will be beneficial to Pakistan, it stands to lose and distance itself, choice is pakistans, and the chaos will intensify in coming years , show restraint and world will acknowledge your efforts , right now there is no light at the end of tunnel, dont pub;ish this watch for my words in coming years
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P L Bakhshi
Nov 05, 2019 08:30am
Such types of write up, that too on the eve of functions, ceremonies, which are currently being held and will be held in days to come in connection with the ceremonial opening of Kartarpur corridor, are bound to create suspicion in the minds of people in the homeland of Sikhs as hinted by even by the Chief Minister of Punjab Captain Amarinder Singh and many more.
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Nov 05, 2019 11:39am
Great article by DAWN,Indian government and army is committing genocide and brutality against the people of IOK, Khalistan, Dravida Nadu and all north east states.
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Nov 05, 2019 12:04pm
Indian National Congress was a disgrace & continues to be so. Gandhi & Nehru have manipulated history to glorify themselves.
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Nov 05, 2019 07:10pm
@INDMKB, Don't write anything without any knowledge. Half knowledge is very dangerous.
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