Rebuilding lives, seeking justice

Minna Zutshi in Ludhiana

Thirtyfour years have not healed their scars. For these women who lost the male members of their families in the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, it is hard to forget those searing memories. The trauma of wanton destruction that left them widowed, homeless and impoverished is now part of their psyche. Picking up the threads to rebuild their lives has been an onerous task. Each small step was fraught with difficulties, disquieting apprehensions and horrifying memories that would never leave them. Women, once secure in the warmth of their families, were suddenly left alone to fend for themselves. Earning their livelihood, raising their children, toiling hard to make ends meet — each day for them has been a tough struggle. These women braved all odds and chose to lead a life of dignity. They toiled hard, fought with their pain and anguish and refused to let the sorrow crush their spirits. They share with us stories of their arduous journey….

Trying hard to cope up

The frail 80-year-old Gurdev Kaur finds it hard to control her tears when she talks of her husband. He was a taxi driver in Kolkata. The year was 1984, she recalls. She had gone to her village, Chaunkimann, near Jagraon in Ludhiana, to attend a wedding. Her world came crashing down when she learnt that her husband had been murdered in the anti-Sikh riots. “We were not able to perform even his last rites. Some members from a gurdwara committee there cremated him,” she says, as tears flow copiously. She never went back to Kolkata. Some kind-hearted people managed to send to her the photograph of her husband’s body.

She is suffering from age-related ailments. Her two sons have died since then. It is a lonely life. The brave woman is trying hard to cope up.

No closure in sight

Gurdial Kaur’s wrinkled face is testimony to the scars of time she has borne for over three decades. This mother’s two young sons left home on that fateful day in 1984 but never returned. Her elder son was 22 and the younger just 16 when they left their house located near Sabzi Mandi in Delhi. That was the last time she ever saw her sons.

In 1985, the family shifted to Ludhiana in Punjab. “People were fleeing from Delhi to Punjab. It was the beginning of our struggle for survival,” she says.

She did not have any formal education, so getting a regular job was not possible. Her two daughters and her youngest son were too young to earn a livelihood. The need for financial sustenance was immediate. She started making wheat flour sacks and sewing quilt covers in bulk. Her eyes ached as she worked long hours. Her husband died soon after, grieving the loss of his young sons killed in the riots.

“Jadon vadha birkh girdaa hai, taan dharti hildi hai…. Jadon ehne chotey birkh gerey, ki dharti nai hillee?” she wails, alluding to the reported statement of a Congress leader at that time.

Failing health, crushing weight of memories of young sons who never returned and the trauma of forced displacement have been imprinted permanently on her face. “In times of adversity, even your own shadow forsakes you. Ameer de saaray rishtedaar…garib daa koi rishtedaar nai.”

Revisiting the trauma

Bhupinder Kaur and her sister-in-law Surjit Kaur saw the brutal killings of seven members of their family. “They (the killers) came in large numbers. A mob of around 2,000 came, armed with iron rods and inflammable substances. They went about torching the houses. They killed my brother-in-law and my husband, who was burnt alive. My youngest brother-in-law, who tried to put up a brave fight, was also killed. I saw them kill my uncle and the son of my husband’s sister. Even two-day-old twins were not spared. They were flung into fire,” recalls 70-year-old Bhupinder Kaur.

The three widows — Bhupinder Kaur and her two sisters-in-law — fled from Delhi and reached Ludhiana in 1985. They did odd jobs to survive. They stitched clothes and worked as domestic help.

Their problems, however, were far from over. Relatives stayed away as they thought that these helpless women may seek financial help from them. "Asee aapda time paas aap hi kitaa hai (We have been fending for ourselves)," says Surjit Kaur. Sajjan Kumar's conviction, after 34 long years, has provided some consolation to these grieving widows/mothers who lost all male members of their family on that horrifying night. “Sajjan Kumar should be hanged for his crimes,” says Bhupinder Kaur.

Shared sorrow

Life has not been the same for many Sikh women after the riots, say Harbans Kaur and Narinder Kaur. The families of these two women, like many others, had to flee from Delhi after the riots. Harbans Kaur’s husband was murdered in the carnage. “It is not easy to rebuild your life when you are displaced from your home,” says Gurdeep Kaur. In 1985, Gurdeep Kaur, along with her husband, shifted from Delhi to Mohali and later moved to Ludhiana. Since then, she has been spearheading the cause of the massacre-affected families, particularly widows. As state president of the women’s wing of the 1984 Sikh Katleaam Peerat Welfare Society, she has had many brushes with law.  “I saw the carnage. My husband survived, but the attack left him with a permanent disability,” she says.

Targets of terror

  • The anti-Sikh riots broke out on October 31, 1984, after the then PM Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards Satwant Singh and Beant Singh.
  • Armed mobs targeted Sikhs in Delhi, attacked their houses, vandalised their business establishments. Sikhs were also targeted in Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and some capital cities like Kolkata.
  • According to a government report, around 3,000 Sikhs were killed in these riots.
  • Thousands of Sikhs fled from Delhi and other places.
  • Congress leaders HKL Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, Arjan Das and Dharam Dass Shastri were allegedly among the instigators of the carnage.
  • On December 17, 2018, the Delhi High Court convicted Sajjan Kumar of “criminal conspiracy to murder five persons of the minority community”. He has been sentenced to imprisonment for the rest of his life.