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Reliving The 1984 Sikh Killings: What The Media Couldn’t Tell You 33 Years Ago

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By Ravleen Kaur

33 years ago, almost to the date, Harinderjit Singh remembers newspapers with entire blocks of blank space where there should have been text. Then, the press didn’t have the freedom to tell this story. Today, the people who lived it are telling it themselves.

In June 1984, Punjab became a virtual concentration camp. Journalists had been removed from Punjab by June 1, and Punjabis were cut off from the rest of the world as horrors unfolded around them. After three decades, these eyewitnesses are finally sharing their stories.


Violation Of The Sacred

With a media blackout and strict, gun-enforced curfew in place, the government launched its military assault on the physical epicentre of Sikh religion, Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, which was and is visited by tens of thousands a day, and feeds up to 100,000 for free – religion, caste, and gender no bar.

In 1984, thousands of worshippers gathered in heightened numbers for Guru Arjan Dev Ji’s martyrdom anniversary, were killed during the attack, their lives anonymized by mass cremations. Dozens of other gurudwaras were attacked on the same day, yet we don’t even know how many of their visitors and worshippers were killed.

Those gathered under the golden domes in June 1984 were ordinary people, like the elderly man from the countryside who came to Amritsar for an eye operation, or the woman from the narrow alleyway around Darbar Sahib whose morning routine included visiting the gurudwara, or the sweet vendor who set up shop nearby for the holiday. Each of them are remembered today by survivors of the 1984 violence.

These worshippers did not realize that in a matter of hours, the military would open fire on their bodies and sacred grounds. They did not know that many among them would lie under the blistering sun with their hands tied behind their backs, dying of dehydration, or that adolescent boys, marked as terrorists for merely wearing a turban, would be beaten to death with sticks.

They could not know that in the nights to come, people, like Rajinder Kaur, sealed away during the curfew, would watch from their windows as trucks filled with the bodies of the dead drove through the blackened streets of Amritsar, out towards rural crematoria. An untold number of bodies were dumped in garbage trucks and hurriedly, secretly cremated to cover up the extent of the violence in Punjab.

And it wasn’t limited to Amritsar. The colour of blood rose up from cities across Punjab, from Muktsar to Ludhiana to Patiala. Witnesses from villages all over Punjab remember the reddened sky and the smell of cremations.

The babies’ stuff [strewn in the gurudwara] is what I remember most,” remembers Manjit Kaur, speaking of a gurudwara a good 150 kilometers from Amritsar. She challenges, through her poignant memories, the often-heard justification and minimization of June 1984: that it only happened because of the militants ‘holed up’ in Darbar Sahib; that it was a quick army operation.

All of these stories are eyewitness testimonies from Sikhs across the world who have shared their stories with the 1984 Living History Project, which is collecting the stories of Sikhs who lived through the brutality, one video testimony at a time. The Sikhs are still filling in the blank spaces.

Spaces For Memory

A five-minute walk east from Darbar Sahib leads you to Jallianwala Bagh, where in 1919, a British general ordered firing on a crowd of unarmed men, women and children. In the decades following the attack, the British provided reparations and relief to the families of the victims.

Today, the public square doubles as a national memorial garden for those who were killed in the massacre. World dignitaries routinely recognize the martyrs honoured there. On May 20, U.S Ambassador to India Richard Verma paid his respects at Jallianwala Bagh for the dead of 1919.

There is still no national garden, no physical space to honour the dead of June 1984. There is still no touchstone by which we can grieve those who gathered to bow their heads on the marble concourse, the massacre of June 1984 still has no institutionally supported space for memorialization.

In a cruel twist of fate, Arjit Singh recalls how his father’s younger brother, Hazura Singh, narrowly escaped Jallianwala Bagh as a young boy, only to die at Darbar Sahib 65 years later. What does it say about our society that Hazura Singh’s death might have received more recognition had he died at the hands of the British instead of Indians?

Today, instead of waiting for their democracy to memorialize the massacre, Sikh youth are carving global virtual spaces for memory by building an online archive of video testimonies from people across the world – from people who remember the media silence to those who remember the sound of thundering tank firings.

Breaking The Public-Private Barrier

Sikhs are realizing that it was not only their sacred grounds that were hijacked – so was their narrative as a community and moreover, their ability to stand stronger with others at risk of similar violence.

Sikh youth whose parents and grandparents lived through that year inherit a silence that has set in, born of the deep betrayal experienced at the hands of their own government. Holocaust scholar and psychoanalyst Dori Laub says that giving testimony is inherent to the process of healing from trauma. The process of being listened to in interviews re-members the dis-membered “self” that was severed from an experience during the moment of trauma. By speaking their histories, Sikhs are speaking themselves back into wholeness.

This is a story of Sikhs who are reclaiming their history. More importantly, this is a story of disenfranchised human beings who are brokering their own process of healing in a new, digital age.

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  1. Rahul

    I don’t get the point of this article …Thousands of people were killed..Mtalab kuch bhiiii… It takes courage for a society to accept that yes they were misleaded. And in this case they were misleaded by there hero bhindrawale…. yes the government were cruel to carry out the operation in the Golden temple but They dint had any option.. The operation itself was carried out by a sikh.. and no thousand people were killed..Dont put such great numbers just to grab eyballs.some people believe just anything that is written on the internet for their sake don’t put such numbers…

    1. K.H

      Associated Press report from the time reported 2000 people killed. Other sources, based on commissions and eyewitness interviews, estimate much higher numbers.

    2. sanchit dixt

      This is Rightly Said.
      To Push up Numbers of Views they are Giving Wrong Notions to Society.
      Sikh Massacre was Only an Option that Time. Bhindrawale had Left No Choice.

      Sikhs wants to Hear this that there people were killed, they don’t care what was the Circumstances and Situation. #NeverForget1984 is Judgemental that they were Deprived and Now also they are Deprived.

      There are More Massacres that are Happening Today Also. But do they are Alert or Awaken for them?!

      Don’t be Mean.

    3. simar kalra

      sanchit dixit…according to you it ws justified.okay thn wht abt 1984 riots do u wanna say tht evn tht ws ryt Sikh massacre ws nly option mean every sikh at tht tym ws a terrorist…ws Indian government so forced tht to maintain peace it hd to kill its own citizen….wht do u knw abt jarnail singh bhindrawale??do u evn knw who he actually ws..? plz dont gv ur opininion wen u dnt knw smthng..nd sir jee god forbid if u hd lost sm 1 in tht massacre thn also it ws justified naa cz it ws nly optin left..

    4. sanchit

      Sikhs wasn’t Terrorist.
      Never Will Be.

      Supporters of Bhindrawale and Khalistani Supporters are Terrorists.
      Don’t Think I’m Unaware of this.
      He was sreking for Help from Pakistan, He was Driven by Ideology and Influences from Pakistan.

      That’s Not Bad that India was the Native Land on Indians-Mainly Hindus and Sikhs were in Hinduism… Sikh Religion was developed from Hinduism for the Protection of Hinduism. India was Not Native Land to Muslims, They Migrated to India.

      When Britishers Attacked India, why we Not have given Land to them. Why there wasn’t any good claim to have a Part in India-because India wasn’t the Native Land to them.

      If someone wants to divide in the land of India-someone by Native Indians, then, All Other Indians can’t let that Happen. It was a Goodwill Demand.
      When Bhindrawala said,
      That we are New Type of Sikhs which are Not Native Sikhs, then, He Made us to Boycott him from India.

      We are Not Fools here. That anyone Cheap Minded People like Bhindrawala will Misguide our Sikh Brothers and we’ll Let that Happen.
      We were always a Family, And Always will be. If Someone in the Family Demanded for Property by Making a Boycotting Statement, then -we have the Power to “Destroy” them.

      Sikhs are always of ours.
      But, anyone if Demands to Divide India, India will Never be Divided- Demanders will be Divided in pieces.


      So, don’t ever make the wounds Fresh, any Religion in India was Devastated by Someone in somewhere.
      Grow up, Don’t make People like Kejriwal or Bhindrawale Publicized – they are “Bhaand” of the Society.

    5. Baljinder Singh Sidhu

      What do u mean “kuch bhi”,, koi mazak chal rha h kya yaha.. were u there when killing of hundreds and thousands taking place, or u know better than the victims. My granny was also there when the entire force came.. what the hell u know about sant jarnail singh g khalsa bhindrawale, u know nothing because congress party gramed his image as terrorist so people think he was a terrorist. if was a terrorist how could he live in open place where any body can meet him anytime.. And wait, u nw what 14 soldiers were sent to convince him by offering him money in crores, foreign citizenship, free from all cases, secretly taking him out country, etc etc but sant g refused all offers, and u nw that 14 men was so impressed that they fought against thir own army. U think she is pushing the number of death than u r wrong. and if u think the army did this just take sant g down than also u r wrong. Clear me why they chose to attack on a day when it was Guru ji’s martyrdom anniversary…. because government know that on this more public gathering would take place and that would be the best chance to kill maximum. . secondly if your government really want to arrest or kill Sant g than why did army attacked on more than 40 Gurudwaras in punjab how can at the same time sant g be there at 40 different Gurudwaras. Only moto of army is to break the bone of sikhs so that can never b raise again.. clear that in your mind.. and hell yeah thousands were killed..

  2. Himalay Singh

    That don’t cared for country to be broken. Won’t they have known that media will make it a issue if they occupy the greatest architect of Sikhism, a center of religion. The millitants purposefully maintained themselves in that architect. So that they can make cry for Khalistan. You should also know the Operation Blue Star took place. Why was ther so much hue and cry in such sacred place? Who fired at whom first?What kind of weapons the millitants were holding accross gurudwaras and in Golden Temple? You should also know that one of finest generals of Indian Army have helped them to make an holding and disturbing public, political and adminstrative peace.
    You should also know that Army consider every place a sinful, where terrorist hide, how can that place be sacred who’s chastity has already been alwoed to be cheated or were these sikh terrorist were doing good to Sikhim as a whole. If that action would a had taken this country would have surrounded by disputed boundary all over, we have north and east already disputed.
    In the end it was a part of statecraft to not create more wounds. It is sikh themselves to blame for not taking fight against their pals, had they, government had never intervened.
    It was khalistanis who oppened fire first just when troops entered the temple, army had huge casualties mounting just at the start of an attack thus this made troops angry-normal situation, which they have repulsed, Had the Army been not defensive in its approach so many troops might not have lost their lives.
    The millitants took position on special buildings, as they knew government will take defensive action to while approaching national monument. Army played by the rules and had suffer beacuse of poltics of religion involved in it.

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