“Once again, the fearful memories of 1984 post-Indira Gandhi assassination were ignited as post-traumatic stress. What if this was the handiwork of Sikh extremists? I braced for the ground to shake again as another big tree fell”. News had arrived that dozens of Odia labourers working in the fields of Punjab had been massacred by Sikh militants. Their dead bodies were coming in Odisha (then it was called Orissa). It had ignited passions in the local people and they were planning a demonstration to protest against the atrocity.
The local Sikh residents, mainly centred in Punjabi colony were in utter remorse too at the tragic loss of innocent lives. But they were helpless and passive observers with no strong connection to Punjab, as most of them were settled in Odisha 30-40 years ago when much of the prime lands of Bhubaneswar were forests and promenaded by leopards and tigers.
My father, Sardar Sarjit Singh, said that although it was possible that the extremists who massacred Odia labourers in Punjab were some Sikhs who were anti-establishment, equally it also couldn’t be ruled out whether they were from a country across the border masquerading as Sikhs. He described his experience during the India-Pakistan partition of 1947, where bearded individuals masquerading as the Sikh military would approach Sikh refugee camps, separate women and children from male adults and take them in separate army trucks. The trucks would diverge at a point where the male adults would be massacred, and the other truck with women and children would proceed to the interior of Pakistan. Another theory was that it was the government establishment under Congress itself that conducted these massacres to malign the separatists at an international level.
No one can put an end to conspiracy theories, and whether true or false, certainly these theories were a succour to Sikhs outside Punjab to distance and dissociate themselves from separatists in Punjab and avoid from being in anyway even remotely connected to the militants who massacred innocent Indians. This was essential because the fate of patriotic minorities heavily rested on the deeds (read misdeeds) of their brethren. It did not matter that for a handful of separatists there was a far greater proportion of Sikhs in the army and farming who were true patriots of India, and who did not subscribe to the views of the minority separatists.
The large mob of youth Congress made its way through those streets of Punjabi colony. The fear and insecurity that this generated in the minds of the Sikh minorities cannot be defined. It did not occur to anyone that the Sikhs residing in Odisha were rather far more upset, sad and resentful for this heinous act committed by some unknown group of extremists who massacred their Odia brothers.
As a relief, the large mob left after demonstrations and sloganeering but without causing any property or physical damage. We heaved a sigh of relief.
My father was a treasure house of knowledge which was borne out of direct experience and was unadulterated and unbiased. He was conversant in Urdu, Pharsi, Punjabi and Hindi, and to an arguable extent in English as well, although I could never convince nor correct him that the correct term was ‘successful’, and not ‘sexiful’ as he always believed.
My father used to have a discussion with me about the sordid political affairs in Punjab. He said that it was surprising that there was a separatist movement in Punjab for Khalistan, spearheaded by some individuals residing in the West. His view was that the actual Punjab where Sikhs had dominated in numbers and strength was West Punjab which had now become Pakistan. If anything was justified it was for Sikhs to try and reclaim the ‘once upon a time’ Sikh provinces of Rawalpindi, Lahore and Gujranwala from Pakistan if they were interested in creating a Khalistan. He felt that the separatists were barking at the wrong tree.
Father said that we had come to India as refugees and the Sikhs of West Punjab had taken shelter in East Punjab where Sikhs were relatively sparse and there were greater number of Hindus. Almost half of the displaced refugee Sikhs settled in East Punjab, and the remaining half of them settled in Delhi, UP and the rest of India outside Punjab .
Therefore the Punjab separatist movement of Khalistan made no sense to my father. Nor did the attempt made to create a Hindu Sikh divide. My grandmother was from a Hindu family when she married by grandfather, who was a Sikh in the British army. Several villages of Daultala area of Rawalpindi were owned by my grandfather and his brothers. The lands of Kahuta, where Pakistan built its nuclear reactor were lands also belonging to my grandfather. And one fine day, this was all gone. Grandfather came to Odisha in early 1950 and became a forest Ranger in the dense forests of Nachuni. Likewise there were almost half a million more who settled in other parts of India.
My two aunts were married to Hindu Kapoor families. Our relative tree in Punjab was of mixed Hindu-Sikh heritage which could never be dissected out into neat categories.
As far as my memory goes, we would be visiting Punjab only to attend an occasional marriage or bereavement. During our social gatherings with relative, there was hardly any passionate discussion about politics. And even if it were, most of the political events and happenings would be outright condemned.
In Odisha, I was disillusioned too. It was difficult for me, as a youngster to discern the rhyme and logic behind the happenings in Punjab. I had read and learnt enough of Sikh history to know that the Hindu Sikhs were communities in continuity with inseparable bonding.
We were aghast as we witnessed an increasing resentment towards Sikhs in India commensurate with the drastic happenings in Punjab, which had by now reached a near climax with Operation Blue Star operation. We had no TV in our house, and were invited by our neighbour Mr Padhy to come and watch how that tragic blue star incident was unfolding itself.
Father said to me that prior to the events of the 1980s Sikhs were the most respected community of India. A turbaned Sikh (known affectionately and respectfully as Sardar Ji) drew respect which was straight from the heart and out of proportion. But all this had changed now. There used to be times when during any searches or checks, Sikhs were exempted from a serious brisk search and respectfully let off addressed as ‘Sardarji, you are fine to go’. But now it was the other way round, and Sikhs would be viewed with suspicion, be the first ones to be whisked away for search and addressed as ‘Sardar’ with the ‘Ji’ having vanished. That transition was quite understandable given what was happening in Punjab.
However the worst wasn’t over yet.
It was 31st October, 1984. Indira Gandhi had been assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards who purportedly did this to take revenge for Operation Blue Star operation carried out by her orders.
I was playing cricket in the fields with my Odiya friends. An local unruly lad in his 20s came up to me and said that now all Punjabis will be killed and all their women will be raped because we had killed Indira Gandhi.
I simply had no idea as to what had happened. The audacity with which this lad confronted us was shocking! However, a well built older Kashmiri Punjabi friend of mine intervened and brushed off the threat saying ‘It won’t be that easy as you think’.
I came home. My father and sister had gone to New Delhi at that time. My sister was getting married in Jagadhri, Haryana, and she and father had gone to Delhi for shopping. Later, I learnt that both of them were in Shahdara area of Delhi during the Sikh genocide, which was one of the worst affected along with Trilokpuri.
They were hidden inside a cupboard of my Hindu uncle (Kapoor) and thus saved their lives. Thousands had already been butchered and raped in Delhi.
Congress led mobs were on the rampage. Just a road across from where father and sister were hidden, a truck belonging to a Sikh man laden with coal was set on fire. The man was burnt alive. Sikhs were caught and dragged and thrown on the back of truck laden with burning coal embers.
Back here in Bhubaneswar, I was completely unaware of these happenings. It was only my elder brother and I in the house. Mom was with relatives in Punjab, and relatively safe. We had a cantankerous maid working in our house in Bhubaneswar. She continued working for us but took some unhealthy sadistic pleasure by describing the events happening outside that several trucks belonging to Sikhs had been set on fire. She said that it was likely that we would be attacked soon too. ‘Kaka’, the elder brother of my friend Ghugga was killed and was set on fire with his motorcycle. Later it was seen that this was a solo incident of a Sikh being killed in Bhubaneswar, and the perpetrators of this murder were known enemies of Kaka. No other fatality was reported from Bhubaneswar, although some deaths were possibly noted in Rourkela.
The then Congress CM of Odisha, Shri Janki Ballabh Patnaik, had always been friendly towards the Sikhs. Prominent Sikhs of Bhubaneswar had met him promptly, and he had reassured us with protection and safety. True to his word, and blessed be his soul that there was no widespread massacre, loot, rape, murder or arson seen in Odisha as compared to North and Central India, despite that he belonged to the Congress party.
We owe a deep gratitude to the peaceful people of Odisha too, who did not go on a Sikh killing spree as was the case in Delhi, Kalka and Kanpur. The Odia people knew very well about the Sikh heritage, and the incidents of Punjab did not affect their love and respect for Sikhs living with them for decades despite the incitements.
In about 14 days, the anti-Sikh riots gradually ceased after ‘the ground had shaken plenty enough after the fall of the big tree’ to Rajiv Gandhi’s heart content and after the bloodhounds of Delhi had had plenty of blood. It was now time for my father and sister to come out of the cupboard in Shahdara and have a passage through to Punjab.My brother and I also made our train tickets to go to Punjab from Odisha.
My brother, afflicted with a genetic skin disorder had no hair, hence he couldn’t be classed as a Sikh to an external eye. My ‘kada’ was removed, and a monkey-cap was put over my head to cover my long head hair. The train took off from the Bhubaneswar railway station. To my pleasant surprise, one person sitting next to us in our berth was Mr Ambrose, my favourite school teacher from Stewart School. His presence was very reassuring.
As the train entered the territory of Bihar (during those times Jharkhand was a part of Bihar) and later in UP, many Sikh ladies started embarking on the train in Bokaro and Kanpur. In no time it became obvious to other passengers in the train that these ladies were carrying with them a huge burden of grief along with their luggage. Some were in a state of silence due to shock, and some were wailing inconsolably as they described the massacre of male members of their families and their dishonour by marauding mobs led by Congress politicians. One lady mentioned to us that her husband and five sons were murdered in front of her eyes. You can imagine the affect this would have on the psyche of a young boy hiding his Sikh identity wearing a monkey cap. That left an indelible imprint in my memory. The grief was unfathomable.
Time passed. Few years later, I got admission in SCB Medical College in Cuttack. So far I had never been aware of any discrimination in India or by my Odia brothers. Once again the system was fair to a Sikh to be able to obtain a medical seat in Odisha for joining MBBS.However the turmoil of Punjab continued. Once again, in rapid succession, first Bihari, and then Odia labourers were again massacred in Punjab.
I was having my morning breakfast on the SCB medical college campus. A hyperthyroid senior medical student with exophthalmia confronted me, saying: ‘Even Ravan did not kill his own people. Why are you guys then killing us in Punjab, when we are your own people?’
The depth of truth of his remark wasn’t obvious to me during that time as I was scared of him having confronted me. Later, the message sank in, and I understood what he had implied. That there was no difference between him and me, them or us. We were their own. That was one of the saddest days of my life and I wept a lot. Here, I was living with a community that considered us as their own, and on the other hand, some people of my community were trying to sever this bond. Alas, how I wished I could change the perception of those who had strayed, to heal Punjab and restore the same bonding that was getting weak and the faith in our community that was getting eroded.
It was 21 May 1991. I was now in my 3rd-year MBBS. The news came in that ex-PM Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated in Perumbudur, Tamil Nadu. However, the details of the assassination were unknown at this time. Once again, the fearful memories of 1984 post-Indira Gandhi assassination were ignited as post-traumatic stress. What if this was the handiwork of Sikh extremists? I braced for the ground to shake again as another big tree fell.
My father, a heart patient, approached our neighbour Surjit Singh, who offered his car to bring me from Cuttack to Bhubaneswar.
My MBBS classmates came to my room in Cuttack and took me to Gautam Agarwal’s house, just in case the ground shook. Gautam was also my batch mate and the son of my teacher and an orthopaedic surgeon, Professor NK Agrawal. They took good care of me. My father arrived around midnight, and I was then brought to Bhubaneswar. After spending a few days, and once it was evident that the assassination had nothing to do with Sikhs and that no backlash was anticipated, I returned to my Old Gents Hostel room in Cuttack.
After that incident, there were no further scares.
I passed out from SCB Medical College with flying colours, having bagged three honours to my credit. A year later, again, I faced no prejudice or discrimination and got selected to do post-graduation in Surgery. The seniors and juniors alike greatly liked me, and the love and affection I received were exemplary. At times I felt that I was even more loved and respected than many others. I am sure that this was borne out of love for the Sikh community in general by the generous people of Odisha. This could perhaps be attributed to the traditional legacy left by Sikh Gurus, the role of Sikhs in safeguarding India and religious freedom throughout their inception, especially of Hinduism from Mughals and Afghans, and of mother India during Indo-Pak and Indo-China wars. However, the only factor that came to erode this love and trust occasionally potentially was the incidents in Punjab affecting the Sikhs outside Punjab.
I also happened to undertake a journey to Kolkata (Calcutta in those days). One of my best friends, a Bengali chap named Kausik Bhattacharya, accompanied me, and we stayed in his cousin’s house in New Barrackpore, 24 Parganas, West Bengal. Their hospitality was legendary. Kaushik had put a mortal fear in the Bengali bhadralok that they better take good care of me, especially in ensuring that I had excellent Bengali food, including their exotic fish dishes.
I had intense discussions with Kaushik’s elder cousin sisters, Mez di and Swati di about the incidents in Punjab. Both were extremely intelligent and attractive beauties, bold and independent, as is usually the case with Bengali ladies. The Bengali history and literature were replete with respect for Sikhs. From Rabindra Nath Tagore to Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna Paramhansa, the community was full of reverence and gratitude for Sikhs, especially Guru Gobind Singh, Guru Teg Bahadur and Banda Singh Bahadur. Tagore has written ‘Bandi Bir’. In letters and correspondences by Swami Vivekananda, he used to write, ‘Waheguru Ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh!’
There was a chilling story that was described to me by Kaushik’s relatives in New Barrackpore. During the 1984 Sikh genocide in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, violence also spilt over into Kolkata. The taxi business in Kolkata had stiff competition between Sikhs and Muslims historically. Some unscrupulous and jealous Muslim taxi drivers took advantage of the situation and conducted a massacre of Sikh taxi drivers to reduce the competition in their taxi business. Those Sikhs who escaped from Kolkata took shelter in the interior parts of West Bengal. Many families in New Barrackpore, including those of my friend, had provided shelter and protection to these Sikh taxi drivers during the chase and mayhem and saved their lives. It was indeed sad to learn about this incident because instead of sympathising, one minority community took advantage of another minority community simply for a monetary benefit. The greatest religion on that day no doubt, was money and greed.
Later, I continued a further good part of my journey in Odisha. In my entire life, sojourn and travel in India on the eastern side, I only experienced love and reverence for Sikhs. The common questions addressed to me out of affection would be ‘how long is your hair? Do you keep a kirpan?’ And the commonest comment would be ‘had it not been for Sikhs, our Hindu religion would have finished in India’, ‘Guru Teg Bahadur sacrificed himself for Hindu Dharma’.
Sadly, the events in Punjab were undoing our rich legacy and taking it in the opposite direction due to various nuances of the interplay between geographical, religious and political grievances and the apathy by Indira Gandhi and her inept bureaucrats and advisers to address these timely and appropriate. It was an unpardonable folly and ineptitude of Indian intelligence during those times that could not decipher the designs of enemy nations nor see through the conspiracies they concocted to divide our country.
Although thousands of Sikhs were killed in the 1984 genocide outside Punjab by other communities, it was a tragic irony that a more significant, if not equal number of Sikhs were killed by Sikhs themselves in Punjab, some by militants. Still, a far greater number were extrajudicial killings by Punjab police in cahoots with Congress politicians in the state and in the centre. It is said that the inability to identify a few militants led to entire villages being wiped off their youths through false encounters as a matter of convenience by the Punjab police, who were themselves ‘Sikhs’.
Sadly, the loss on both sides was only of the innocent Sikhs who, as a default, were still the bravest loyal and valiant protectors of mother India as well as the granary of the nation. An equal number of Sikhs reside in India outside Punjab as they do in Punjab itself. Most Sikhs outside Punjab are prosperous due to their hard work and excellent work ethics. Barring those in Northern UP who are wealthy farmers, those in the rest of India usually run successful businesses. Those Sikhs affected by grievances in Punjab and who took to extremism failed to appreciate how their activities had affected the Sikhs living in the rest of India. As if the Sikhs residing in other parts of India did not matter to them in the least, nor did they have any sense of responsibility towards them.
While all this injustice was happening to Sikhs, in the meanwhile, the enemy nations of India were having the last laugh, especially those who had orchestrated the entire blueprint of eliminating Sikhs, a traditional thorn in their eyes. Every Sikh killed in India was one potential Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri or one potential Marshal Arjun Singh less for the enemy nations.
The Intelligence of enemy nations had succeeded. That India under Congress was inept and had miserably failed. I hope that some good sense will prevail and communities in India will heal and unite again to serve the nation. The current government should sensibly and sensitively address the concerns which create grievances and conflicts between its communities, especially those afflicting the border states, especially Punjab.
Likewise, it would be ideal (albeit a pipe dream currently) if society could rise above the community level and treat every on an individual basis based on their conduct rather than punish them for acts committed by others. More importantly, robust law and order enforcement is essential. I have written more on this, which can be accessed through the following link: https://thepunjabpulse.com/1984-sikh-genocide-by-congress-led-mobs-in-india/
Honourable PM Modi has done a lot, yet a lot more remains to be done. The wounds created in Punjab by the previous central government and bureaucracy run very deep.