1984 anti-Sikh riots: Time doesn’t heal the pain. Ask Attar Kaur
The camera is turned on and a mic clipped. “Attar Kaur hoon main” (I am Attar Kaur),” says the woman. She then narrates her story, exactly the way she has done year after year. The voice of the 65-year-old sounds tired but the tears are fresh.
As she wraps up her interview to a Chandigarh-based Punjabi channel, Kaur says, “Har saal November mein media wale aate hain, aankhein ro-ro ke dukh jaati hain, mudda utha hai, phir saal bhar chutti. (Every November mediapersons come calling; my eyes hurt from all the crying. The issue is raised for a few days and then forgotten for the rest of the year).”
It’s that time of the year again.
October 31 marks 33 years of anti-Sikh carnage that started hours after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards.
Large mobs killed around 3,000 Sikhs, most of them men. Delhi saw the worst of the violence that swept many parts of India.
In 2012, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) told a sessions court in Delhi that the then Congress government, its leaders like Sajjan Kumar and the Delhi Police had backed the massacre of Sikhs. Kumar was later exonerated by a court.
Kaur’s neighbourhood of Trilokpuri in east Delhi saw the worst carnage.
She was chopping cauliflower for pulao when she heard the news about Gandhi’s assassination. “We were sad to hear of it as we were Congress voters,” she recalls.
But, that counted little for the mob that came the next morning.
Her husband, Kirpal Singh, a strapping young businessman who owned several shops, rushed to the local gurdwara on hearing that some relatives had been attacked.
She didn’t even have the time to tell him to keep safe. She was busy rounding up her seven children, some of whom were playing with friends, and her mother-in-law as rioters took over the neighbourhood. Her eldest child, a son, was 12 and the youngest a month-old girl.
In her cramped three-room flat in Tilak Vihar’s Widow Colony in west Delhi, Kaur wipes tears with her white dupatta, “Bhed bakriyon ki tarah maar daala sab aadmiyon ko…zinda jala kar. (The men were slaughtered like animals… they were burnt alive).”
Her Muslim neighbours took away her two older sons, chopped their hair, an article of faith for the Sikhs, and hid them in metal trunks.
But the mob found the eldest one and beat him with sticks, an assault that would scar him for life. When the rioters left, a neighbour told Kaur that her husband had been killed, burnt alive — nothing left for her to mourn over.
Along with her husband, Kaur lost 11 members of her extended family that day.
The same evening she fled with her children and mother-in-law, as charred remains piled up in Trilokpuri’s narrow bylanes.
They sought refuge three kilometres away in Chilla, then an uninhabited area. She doesn’t remember if she or the children ate anything for the next two days.
On November 3, they made their way to the Farsh Bazar relief camp, where there were hundreds like them. After a month and a half of living in tents, the riot-hit families were moved to Tilak Vihar by the government.
It was a huge change.
They were used to a comfortable life, which her husband had worked very hard for, but now they had nothing to start with.
Before the riots, theirs was the only family to have a video-cassette player in the neighbourhood. “I lost everything that day. I left the house with nothing but the clothes on our back,” she says.
In her early 30s and without a formal education, Kaur found a job stitching night dresses at a factory in Naraina. It paid Rs 1,000 a month. The local gurdwara contributed another Rs 250 and her mother-in-law sold vegetables to run the household.
“My neighbours still make fun of how scared I used to be in those early days. I used to count my children every night. One day, one of my sons was missing and I came out crying on the streets, only to realise he had gone off to the neighbours,” she says.
The other big challenge was education – there wasn’t enough money for it. In 1986, she was given a government job along with other riot widows. She started working as a peon at a government school in Janakpuri.
But just as the family was regaining stability, her eldest son, who was attacked by the mob, had to drop out of school. He had panic attacks and would fly into a rage. The doctors also diagnosed a heart condition that needed surgery.
It was a struggle to get him medical aid but Kaur is proud that her other children have done well.
A Sikh charity helped two of her sons complete their education from a residential school in Himachal Pradesh. Both now drive auto-rickshaws.
Kaur managed to send her youngest son to London where he has a job. “I had to borrow money and I had no idea how I would pay it back,” she says. “He studied hard and then got a job. Not only did he return the money, he also helped with the marriage of his sisters.”
Kaur is now retired and her grandchildren are a great source of comfort. But there is one regret – they will never know their grandfather. All she has left of him is memories and three faded photographs.
Unlike others in the colony, who have stopped speaking to the press, too tired to go through the pain again, Kaur never turns down anybody.
“My granddaughter asks me why I give interviews when I know it will make me cry. I tell her that anyone who comes to share our grief should be welcomed.”