June 4, 1984
It was a Monday. And, as far as I can remember, it was just a normal school day at St. George’s College, my Catholic boarding school in the rolling hills of northern India. There were several Sikh students throughout our schooling town of Mussoorie in the state of Uttar Pradesh and, to tell you the truth, I don’t think any of us had any idea of what was happening in Punjab. I knew not then.
Less than six months later, I remember walking up to my dorm with my friend Shilpan Patel. Mandatory sports time had just ended and we were heading back to our dorms. As we reached the upper field next to the cafeteria, I looked out at the beautiful scenery, but stopped upon observing an unusual sight – we saw four or five buildings ablaze. All I can remember thinking was that the fire trucks must have been busy. I knew not then.
A day earlier, our Social Sciences teacher had cried in class, lamenting that the “Mother of the Nation” had died. He didn’t elaborate.
The next two weeks passed without any notable incident. During this period, I hadn’t realized the connection between the fires on the hill and Indira Gandhi’s death. I knew not then.
Finally, Sunday came. It was our “outing day,” meaning that they would give us spending money so that we could go enjoy ourselves. As usual, we picked up Tibeten food before heading over to the movie theater. I would always stop by a travel agency and clothing store to say “Sat Sri Akal” to its Sardar owners. This time, though, I noticed that the travel agency had been burned down. The charred furniture was strewn about the courtyard. The store was lifeless and the owner was missing. I can’t recall if I enjoyed my lunch of momos and noodles and the movie that day. I probably did. I knew not then.
Three weeks later, I was back in New Delhi visiting my grandparents. They told me that I will be going back to my parents’ home in Japan for the winter vacation as usual. But they also mentioned that I wouldn’t be going back to my boarding school in the hills. I remember them telling me, “It’s too dangerous for you here now.”
Before leaving for good, I wanted to hang out with one of my classmates, Hargurdev Singh. He was a Sikh friend of mine who lived in Defense Colony, New Delhi. I met him for snacks and was surprised at his story.
“They didn’t tell me,” he narrated. “My parents didn’t tell me that our shop was destroyed by mobs. They [my family members]are all alive, but our shop is gone. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
I vaguely remember the mood that evening. I clearly remember wondering why such bad things happen to such good people.
The subsequent years passed quickly.
I graduated from high school in Japan and entered an American university in the state of Massachusetts in the U.S. I occasionally picked up tidbits of panthak issues along the way but, to be honest, I can’t recall the single experience that brought me closer to Sikhi or to the trials and tribulations of our contemporary history.
It may have been what happened in November of 1993.
I was in France and my professional career had recently begun. I was working on a civilian project based in the city of Brest, which has a nuclear submarine base on the northwestern coast of France. One weekend I took the TGV to Paris and visited the gurdwara. I was welcomed and served by a young sevaadar there. I was honored to attend and experience a divan and langar, organized by approximately 120 refugees from Punjab!
The young sevaadar explained that some of the refugees would settle in Germany while others would be moved to Canada. He mentioned that he would be content with returning to Punjab to defend his people.
I never kept in touch with him. Wherever he is, I trust that he has kept the faith with Guru as his guide.
I am struck by the fact that the young sevaadar couldn’t have been more than 18 or 20 years old. That would mean that he must have been around the age of 10 during the attacks in June 1984. What did he experience which gave him the conviction to fight and possibly die for his nation?
After reading countless books, discussing issues for hours on end, watching numerous documentaries, and attending a number of conferences and candle-light vigils, I now understand the conviction of the young sevaadar I met in France. But in addition to everything I learned, I realized one more thing – I still didn’t know what really happened.
A few years ago at a gurmat retreat that I was helping to organize, I had the honor and privilege of being a real-time translator of a gentleman who survived the June 1984 battle in Darbar Sahib, Amritsar. At the time of the clash, this eyewitness served as the tabla player for the ragi jatha of the Damdami Taksal. He recounted:
“It was 4:30 am on June 4, 1984. It is a tradition to do Asa ki Vaar kirtan right outside the Akal Takht Sahib in the summer months. In the winter months, it is done inside the Akal Takht. We started the Asa ki Var and were on the first chhakka [segment] when a missle of about 40 lbs. struck the upper left side of the Akal Takht. It had been fired from Jallianwala Bagh. The shrapnel and pieces of the upper dome fell right in front of us.
“We immediately got up and ran to our positions to begin preparing for the battle. Some Sikhs went to Babaji (Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale) and complained that the raagis had run away. Babaji summoned us and said: ‘Your duty is to perform kirtan and uphold the responsibilities of the Akal Takht. Go and complete the kirtan.’
“We came back and completed Asa di Var in the midst of heavy firing. That evening, I also had the duty of reciting So Dar Rehras for the jatha …”
I don’t share these experiences to parade my encounters for posterity. Rather, I feel that I’m relating everyone’s stories. In some way, shape or form, no matter the degree of significance, the events of 1984 have touched and shaped the current and future generations of Sikhs. The 1984 holocaust, as well as the violent injustices thereafter, will remain an integral part of the Sikh psyche and memory. Just as our daily ardaas has etched the time capsule of Sikh history onto our hearts, the recent atrocities have been seared to our collective soul.
Every Guru Nanak-loving-Sikh ought to be aware of our nation’s past and present so that we can progress together in the time to come. With open minds, compassionate hearts, and iron resolve, let us make sure that we are ever aware, always know and never forget.
Inderpreet Singh is the Chair of SikhRI’s Board of Directors. He is also a frequent presenter on behalf of SikhRI.