Memories can play havoc and haunt one even in sane times. I am going to talk about the past when I saw human brutality, madness and compassion. I was 16 and a student at St Bede’s College, Shimla. Life was going on as usual but things changed during that summer vacation of 1984.
(Operation) Bluestar happened early that June. I lived in a parochial town, Kapurthala. We lived for days under constant curfew and fear of militants and the military. Death, pain and upheaval stalked Punjab. To remain sane was the toughest challenge. Most often we failed. It seemed the real Gods had deserted us as we were governed by lesser gods, who divided us on the lines of religion.
Newspaper headlines only talked of “killed, massacred, burnt”. We were dying in Punjab and nobody cared. It was the peasantry that paid the heaviest price of poverty and blood, while the children of most Sikh leaders studied abroad.
Punjab was set back for decades to come. Wounds heal but we carry the scars to the grave.
College opened in July and I travelled back with the black-painted trunk with my Sikh surname on it. The driver was a turbaned sardarji. We were stopped at every post and my meagre belongings were checked. We tried to take this in our stride.
College brought a normal rhythm and friends soothed the trauma. But it was all shortlived. October 31 came and boom the fragile life fabric of sanity disappeared. It tore the very fabric of life. Two Sikh gunmen killed then prime minister Indira Gandhi that day. The tragedy did not finish its script. Thousands of innocent Sikhs were butchered. They had no role to play in Punjab politics. India burnt.
There were 25 Sikh girls in our college hostel at that time. Fear and the shouts of goons at the college gate scared us. TV and radio were blind and deaf. It was an era of censorship.
Sister Rose was the principal and, marshalling us to her office, she had one line to say. “Girls, I will lay my life before any harm comes to you.”
We believed her.
Every Gurpurb, Sikh girls from the hostel went to pay obeisance at the gurdwara in Shimla’s Sanjauli area. 1984 was no different at St. Bede’s. A night before the festival, all Sikh girls were summoned by the principal and asked to dress in their Sunday best to go to the gurdwara. The next day as we assembled, what did we see! The entire entourage of nuns at St Bede’s walked with us to the gurdwara.
That walk is the most important walk of my life. It was a walk of secular India. We walked fearlessly, 25 of us in the age group of 16-19 years, with these petite nuns without any firearms, police protection or even the lone, male English professor. Was Sister Rose mad to take us to the gurdwara or did she have immense faith in humanity? Maybe both. In this bazaar of life, three of our friends lost their families in Delhi and Kanpur.
I am middle-aged now, with wrinkles and grey, but after 32 years, no justice has been dispensed for the loss of lives, while the gunmen of the then prime minister were hanged in due course. Killings are sad but sadder is the system failing to dispense equal justice.
Jasmine Sandhu, that was the name on my trunk in 1984.
(The writer is a Kapurthala-based freelance contributor)