This month marks the 30th anniversary of Operation Bluestar, the attack by the Indian military on Darbar Sahib (also known as the Golden Temple) in Amritsar, Punjab, in June, 1984. In November of that same year, thousands more Sikhs were murdered in organized pogroms in India’s capital city and across the country to avenge the assassination of India’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards.
In commemoration, we are sharing excerpts from our forthcoming short story collection Her Name Is Kaur, in which authors have recounted the personal impact of the events of 1984. The following is an excerpt from the short story My Sikhi Simarna by Harsohena Kaur.
In the early‘80s, Sikhs in the Punjab were in political turmoil. While the primary thrust was increased political autonomy for the state, there were factions demanding a separate homeland, and a few using violent means to make their point. The political machin- ery of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi effectively labeled all Sikhs as separatists and terrorists. Then came 1984, a year that burned holes in the fabric of our lives, leaving an acrid stench that still lingers just beyond the pale of everyday memory. In June of 1984, Mrs. Gandhi ordered the army to attack the Darbar Sahib, or Golden Temple, our holiest gurudwara. That horrific attack led to a stupendous loss of life of innocent pilgrims, the destruction of the Akal Takht, the devastating loss of the Tosha Khana and our historical relics, and all our broken, betrayed hearts. In October of that year, two Sikh men assassinated Mrs. Gandhi. In the days that followed, in a government-orchestrated pogrom, thousands of Sikhs were burned, chopped, raped, tortured, and killed maliciously by neighbors and acquaintances, all justified by Rajiv Gandhi because “When a great tree falls, the earth will shake.”
Following the carnage, I went to the cantonment, or army area gurudwara. It was a “safe” place, and Sikh refugees from other parts of Delhi were living there, waiting for the fires to die down. I remember the woman who told us how her six-foot-tall husband and son had been killed by the mob. Her neighborhood was burn- ing, and she had nowhere to go. She sat there, all night long, their dead bodies beside her, doing her nitnem. The mobs laughed at her, calling her mad, for still doing her paath while her men lay dead. She looked at me and said, “What else could I do? What else did I have left?”
Another woman who spoke of her two young sons. The mobs came by and mocked them. “Cut their hair, and we’ll spare their lives,” they called out, laughing and drunk from killing. She said she took her sons in, tied their dastaars and said, “They are not my sons. They are Guruji’s sons.”
“The mob just smashed kerosene bags on their heads and set them on fire,” she said quietly.
Would I do the same? Is that courage or insanity? Was there even a choice, given the intent of that mob? Was she at peace that they had died in saroop rather than have their hair shorn? Or did she wonder if they would have been spared had she cut their hair? Was this vile hate really the will of Waheguru? Those questions grated on me like rarak in my eyes. That year shook me to my core; it’s a bead on my simarna that still throbs with pain. Yet, despite the ash of those fires, I could not abandon my love for Sikhi. I had to con- tinue to hold on, to have faith, to hope for courage. I also realized the importance and need of having a community, and the need to nurture that community and keep it safe. Now that I have children of my own, it hurts even more.
Life brings with it many challenges and choices. What we choose determines the course of our future.