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A new generation of Sikhs is reclaiming the 1984 narrative

Young Sikhs who grew up hearing brutal stories of violence are writing the history of their own community, fighting for justice and documenting testimonies of trauma

Protests against the 1984 anti-Sikh violence on November 1, 2015 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Protests against the 1984 anti-Sikh violence on November 1, 2015 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Laashein hi laashein bicchhi thi Dilli ke sheher mein, kitni hairani ki baat hai ki koi qatil nahi mil raha.

(There were bodies strewn across the city of Delhi. It is a wonder that a killer cannot be found.)

This was one of the comments that 29-year old Harpreet Singh Hora, a criminal lawyer from Amritsar, Punjab, got on a Facebook post, as the country observed 36 years of the anti-Sikh violence of 1984. On 31 October in that year, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards, both Sikh men, in what was believed to be a reaction to Operation Blue Star—the military action carried out earlier in 1984 to capture Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale along with the demolition of the buildings of Harmandir Sahib complex in Hora's hometown.

"Her assassination triggered genocidal killings around the country, particularly in India’s capital city, New Delhi," wrote Simran Jeet Singh in 2014, a Senior Religion Fellow for the Sikh Coalition with a PhD from the Department of Religion at Columbia University, in TIME. "Frenzied mobs of young Hindu thugs, thirsting for revenge, burned Sikh-owned stores to the ground, dragged Sikhs out of their homes, cars and trains, then clubbed them to death or set them aflame before raging off in search of other victims." Within three days, according to official reports, nearly 3,000 Sikhs had been murdered.

It was nearly three and a half decades later, in 2018, that then Congress leader Sajjan Kumar was convicted by the Delhi High Court for his role in the violence. Over the years, between obfuscation and invisibilisation, the road to justice for the community has been slow and often denied.

For Preetika Nanda, a 29-year-old Delhi-based independent researcher, this invisibilisation has happened on several fronts. “Until this weekend, I had to call out a top editor on Twitter who called it a 'riot'. It was a genocide. A pogrom. Calling it a riot is the violence of language,” she says.

But now, whether through film, research or litigation, young Sikhs like Hora and Nanda who grew up hearing brutal stories of violence are working to undo this injustice. They are writing the history of their community and documenting the testimonies of trauma.

The conflict through her lens

Teenaa Kaur Pasricha, filmmaker

“When you jump a wall to escape violence, you bruise your elbows,” says Teenaa Kaur Pasricha, 40. She remembers a time, somewhere between 1988 and 1990, when her family had to flee their house in Punjab as the violence after the 1984 massacres erupted across the region. They hid in their neighbour’s home as a mob burned down a room in her grandfather’s home.

Pasricha grew up hearing stories about the genocide of 1984—her maternal uncle was travelling, when he was confronted by a mob. “He had to cut his hair, they would have killed him that day but on the way, some villagers gave him a place to hide. He never met anyone from the family until his hair grew back.”

Around the same time, three women—Kuldeep Kaur, Harbans Kaur and Meera Kaur—were in the epicentre of violence in different parts of New Delhi. All three lost their husbands—Harbans and Meera never saw or received the bodies. Today, along with many others, they live in the decrepit, worn-down widow’s colony in Tilak Nagar, government accommodation granted to women whose husbands were killed and homes destroyed in 1984. Meera’s son admits to a life of drug abuse.

The two instances may seem disjointed but they are shared memories of trauma among the Sikh community during November of 1984, across class and caste. While her family history of 1984 was what Pasricha had engaged with from a young age, in 2011 she spent 5 years shooting the National Award winning documentary 1984, When The Sun Didn’t Rise, a dialogue between her and the residents of Tilak Nagar, including Kuldeep, Harbans and Meera.

Teenaa Kaur Pasricha grew up in Ajmer, hearing stories about the genocide of 1984. (Photo courtesy: Teenaa Kaur Pasricha)
Teenaa Kaur Pasricha grew up in Ajmer, hearing stories about the genocide of 1984. (Photo courtesy: Teenaa Kaur Pasricha)

An engineer by qualification and filmmaker by profession, Pasricha grew up in Ajmer, Rajasthan and moved to Mumbai in 2008. “When I was in Mumbai, there came a time in my life when I was trying to understand who I am, what is my identity. I started reading on the 1984 violence. I was so depressed for days,” says Pasricha. “The question that really bothered me was why is this not in the history books? This had to be documented.”

The film, which took her 5 years to complete, also features the views of lawyer HS Phoolka and accused Jagdish Tytler. But that is how long it took for the women in the colony to open up to her. The rage was palpable, as was the neglect. Pasricha recalls a moment when she went back to the colony and the residents were perplexed. “Tu wapis aa gayi? (You came back?),” they asked, used to attention only from the media as the anniversary of the violence grew closer each year.

What really stood out for Pasricha though was the deprivation—financial, infrastructural, even in any quest for justice—with which the survivors and the following generation have now lived for nearly four decades. “They would dress up on Sundays to meet their relatives or just escape to feel like any other person in Delhi or a metropolitan city would, but they always remain marginalised,” she says. A few kilometres away from Parliament in the Capital, Pasricha says the residents of this colony never felt like they were part of New Delhi.

“When I started to make the film, I didn’t know how far it will go and what I will achieve, but I realised it was enough of the majority writing the history of minorities. This had to change,” Pasricha says.

The long road to justice

Harpreet Singh Hora, lawyer 

On 30 October, a memory from two years ago popped up on Harpreet Singh Hora’s Facebook feed. “There was a case I was fighting in the Delhi High Court—we were fighting for the jobs which were promised to the children of the violence-affected families from 1984, but were still not given.”

Presently, he is part of a different battle, a more immediate result of the violence. “I'm fighting a case in Karkardooma Court in New Delhi wherein there have been seven casualties in the same household. There is only one man who is the eye witness in the case and he is currently alive and we are fighting for him.” Hora has also been part of the case in which then Congress leader Sajjan Kumar was convicted by the Delhi High Court in 2018 for his role in the violence.

As a criminal lawyer, fighting for justice for the victims and survivors of the 1984 massacres is how Hora upholds what he sees as the ethos of his community—giving back to society. “I got picked in the legal panel of the Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee, which had been overseeing these cases as their panel counsel, which brought into the centre of this whole criminal litigation relating to 1984,” says Hora. “It was the opportunity I was looking for.”

His family did not speak much about what they endured in 1984 with their children. Hora says it was their way of either moving on or protecting the future generations from the trauma or resentment they live with. This, Hora believes, was a blessing. He learned of the violence from the local and national news, conversations among families, books, speeches in the Golden Temple on commemorative days in June and November—for operation Blue Star and then the massacre of 1984. He engaged with the points of view of then Congress supporters, the neutral bystanders and, most intimately, those who were targeted.

This also meant he had to piece together his family’s experiences through various sources—whether it was shared experiences among the communities discussed in shops in Amritsar, where he grew up, or other conversations within the family. His parents, along with his paternal side of the family, were based in Ramgarh Cantonment in what is present-day Jharkhand.

“It was the place which was one of the bases for the Sikh Regiment. The Sikhs in the cantonment were, I believe, on the frontlines in the revolt at the time Operation Blue Star happened. There was an attack that year and many of them were later arrested,” he says.

This brought Ramgarh Cantonment into the limelight in 1984, and Hora’s family decided it would be safer to leave for Punjab. His father made it safely, but since violence spread across Punjab subsequently, the family remained divided, with half of it having to stay back in Jharkhand.

“There were certain families which were given identity cards when they migrated to Punjab. There's a card called red cards. There were certain families that were called lal card wali families (the red card families). My family was among them.” It was on producing these red cards that the victims could avail facilities and concessions announced by the Punjab government.

Hora’s politics and work are informed by this history. “From the beginning of my career, I had started working for the survivors and victims of 1984," he says, "indirectly it has a major impact on my identity.”

Documenting hidden histories

Preetika Nanda, independent researcher

Preetika Nanda was raised by her grandmother, who endured the brutality of Partition in 1947 as well as the anti-Sikh violence of 1984.

“My grandmother was a teacher and after the announcement of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, word started spreading that Sikhs were being targeted,” says Nanda. “She had to travel back using the bus to Bhogal, where they lived, from South Extension, where her school was. She told me she already saw turbaned Sikhs being attacked and was scared for my grandfather. She had no knowledge if he had gone back from work.”

Nanda was nearly a decade away from being born when this incident took place, but as she grew up with these stories, she could vividly visualise the journey her grandmother took that day.

“Then there was this other instance where the curfew was announced, the army had arrived where my family was. The washroom was outside the two rooms where my family was," says Nanda. Her grandmother walked out of the room with her hands raised. “She had to ask the army for permission to use the washroom.”

Nanda lost her grandmother in 2017. Since then, she has been researching the ramifications of violence and trauma on communities—and it was only natural, she says, to start with her own. She seeks to undo the erasure of Sikh voices and narratives both from the “mainstream discourse as well as academia”, a quest she began with her master’s thesis at Jamia Millia Islamia, on the extrajudicial killings and mass disappearances in Punjab between 1984 and 1995.

Shortly after, she became a researcher with the Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project (PDAP), which involved travelling across villages in Punjab, recording the testimonies of people whose family members were disappeared by the forces. She has written widely on her findings and helped set up an independent tribunal under the PDAP to take up the cases of these families.

“I am deeply inspired by the life and work of Jaswant Singh Kalra, who was disappeared and later killed 25 years ago for his work exposing the mass secret cremations in Punjab,” she says. This year, she started The Secondary Witness Project, a page on Instagram which "foregrounds the complex lives of people of Punjab "beyond the dominant lens of terrorism and security".

The Delhi-based researcher, while acknowledging the resilience and compassion of her community, is also bothered by the fetishisation of these qualities in the mainstream discourse today.

“Sikhs have resisted and shown the most spectacular solidarity to movements outside the state, whether it was Shaheen Bagh or after the Pulwama attack helping Kashmiris, who were being targeted across the country,” says Nanda. “But there is a fetishisation of this concept of Sikh humanitarianism. For instance, people celebrate the work of Khalsa Aid a lot. But the brother of the CEO of Khalsa Aid was disappeared by the armed forces during the conflict. Such fetishisation erases these lived realities and also ignores fractures within the community.”

Documents and photographs kept by Baldev Singh’s family in Punjab, whose testimony Preetika Nanda recorded in 2018. (Photo by Preetika Nanda)
Documents and photographs kept by Baldev Singh’s family in Punjab, whose testimony Preetika Nanda recorded in 2018. (Photo by Preetika Nanda)

Through all this, Nanda says, she celebrates her identity. She asserts it, even as she hears the stories of violence and resistance. As a young woman in academia, and someone who is politically engaged, she draws linkages with the reality of her community and what is inflicted on other minority communities under different regimes—whether it was the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 or the the violence that erupted in Delhi in February 2020. “It is important to talk about cross-community solidarities," she says.

But 36 years later, “What could justice mean?” she asks. “I don’t think we can expect justice from a system that ensured impunity instead of redressal and continues to inflict violence on other communities. So what we do is we tell our stories. Not have people speak over us. And fill in this silence which is there in the discourse.”

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