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1984 Anti-Sikh Pogrom Lingering Memories


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Lingering memories

For many who live through communal conflict, the suffering does not end even though years, sometimes decades, pass. Instead, their pain frequently sustains a heart-breaking immediacy and anguish, as though the killings, rape and arson happened just days earlier, not many years past. The rest of us move on – some indifferent and impatient, others ashamed of painful episodes of our recent history, but genuinely believing that time heals all wounds. Yet there are some wounds time does not heal, even with the passage of generations.

Healing and recovery after conflict are even more painful and protracted for survivors who are further disadvantaged by gender, class and caste. This was confirmed by an investigation into the conditions of survivors of the anti-Sikh carnage in Delhi in 1984, which I undertook with two young comrades, Navjot Singh and Manisha Sobhrajani, in two adjoining but contrasting localities of Delhi. In one of these, Tilak Nagar, live many middle-class and upper-caste Sikhs, who suffered grave losses in 1984, whereas in Tilak Vihar live widows of the poor, often low-caste and even non-Punjabi Sikhs, many of whom work as domestic helps in the wealthy homes of Tilak Vihar.

Opposite ends

‘The survivors of 1984 riots, living in Tilak Nagar and Tilak Vihar today, represent two ends of the experiences of Sikhs in Delhi in rebuilding their lives following the riots.' reports Navjot. Both still have painful memories from 1984 and share deep frustration, especially about the abject failures of justice. ‘Yet, their lives since 1984 have moved along different trajectories and provide a study in contrast despite their living in adjacent spaces'.

We found the upper middle-class survivors residing in Tilak Nagar optimistic and upbeat; they had successfully reconstructed their lives after the riots, and often acknowledged having economically improved their status. Naunihal Kaur, a married working woman employed with a bank, lived formerly in Janakpuri, where she lost three male members of her family including her grandfather, father and an uncle during the riots. Today she proudly recalls, ‘We lost (male) earners in our family, both our shops and most of our belongings during the riots. My mother (Praneet Kaur) and uncle considered it humiliating to then have to go to the very State that was responsible for our plight for what was peanuts being offered in name of compensation. Instead she restarted my father's transport business and ran it with my uncle's help. The first few years were very tough and they incurred heavy losses. Besides, unscrupulous relatives took advantage and cheated her. However, things turned around by the 1990s, and my mother was able to not only educate all of us three children but also arrange our marriages. Today I work as a bank manager. My mother lives with my eldest brother. But all three of us have independent families and enjoy lifestyles that are better than that we ever saw as children before or after the riots. My mother taught us Guru Govind Singh's message that every “Sikh of the Guru is equal to one and a quarter lakh of other adversaries”. That gave us courage when even the State turned against us (in 1984).'

By contrast, nearly all the survivors in the working class colony of Tilak Vihar felt that life today was far more difficult and full of hardships than before the riots. Most households depend on the ageing widowed matriarchs who were provided with a pensionable government job as peons and sanitary workers as part of the rehabilitation package by the state. These women and their jobs are the sole regular sources of incomes among most survivor families till date, even though the new generation of sons and daughters are all in their late twenties or thirties.

Many residents of Tilak Vihar are Sindhi Labana Sikhs, whose traditional occupation was charpoy making (a bed with a wooden frame on which are woven cloth ropes); and Sikligars, who were blacksmiths. But the death of adult males in the families also meant that the next generation was deprived of training in these traditional professions. Navjot observes, ‘The lack of educational and vocational qualifications has resulted in large-scale unemployment. This in turn has fuelled extreme frustration and lack of purpose among the youth; a problem further compounded by a sense of unbelonging and rootlessness due to their having grown up in absence of both, their (dead) fathers and (working) mothers… Drug abuse, small crime and domestic violence against women are the resulting features of this situation'.

Gone astray

The women survived mainly by petty government jobs which they got as part of their rehabilitation package. This resulted in their absence from home for long durations of the day, when the children were left without supervision. Vidya Kaur put it evocatively, ‘A generation of children in Tilak Vihar raised itself. They would play truant from school. The boys would hang around in bad company. Many took to drugs and then to thefts at home and outside to feed their addiction.'

She added, ‘Earlier the problem was restricted to older boys and young men. But now even very young boys do drugs. There is no one to stop them. The first generation of drug users went ignored because their (widowed) mothers were out at work. Now the situation has got completely out of control. Adults are scared of even broaching the issue with their wards as those who intervene or speak out risk getting assaulted and worse by both addicts as well as the drug peddlers.'

Apart from drug abuse, petty crime and domestic violence against women are the dominant realities of life in Tilak Vihar today. Mathri Kaur recalled, ‘ My husband started drinking heavily after the riots when he saw his father burnt to death, and his house and shop razed to the ground. He also became violent and ill-tempered after 1984 and started raising his hand on me and other family members. Today he refuses to work and spends all his time drinking. My home disintegrated, both materially and emotionally, after the 1984 riots'.

Among the men who are haunted by the memories of the riots, many have lost their sanity while others have sought refuge in alcohol and drugs. Nirmal's nana (maternal grandfather) was the sole male survivor in her family despite his having received sword wounds. She recalled, ‘He lost his mind after seeing all his three sons as well as a grandson killed in front of him. All day he would either speak to the wall or roam around with an unsheathed sword fighting imaginary duels. He died seven years back.' Lachmi's older son also spends his entire day pacing the small apartment and muttering to himself.

Deep wounds

Women in Tilak Vihar bravely defended and raised their families for a quarter of a century, despite being completely unprepared for this challenge in a patriarchal society in which they rarely worked outside the home and were barely lettered. But they too show heart-rending symptoms of unmistakable deep continuing psycho-social distress. Surinder Singh (a Sikh volunteer working among the survivors) testifies to 117 women witnesses of the killings, known personally to him, who committed suicide in the years since 1984. Lachmi Devi, like many of these ageing widows, complains of ‘constant headache and frequent memory lapses'. According to Nirmal Kaur, ‘high sugar, hypertension, blood pressure etc afflict every second woman in the colony'. She says, ‘Today I have reached a point where I feel neither much elation, nor any great sadness. I feel cynical and indifferent to most things and to the plight of all people. Whether somebody lives or dies is of little consequence to me. I have no clue what is going to happen to my children. And at some level I am beyond care.'



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