With Her Head Held High
A Sikh woman seeks justice after surviving the 1984 violence.
Illustration by Chloe Cushman
By Kalpana Jain
Close to 3,000 Sikhs, most of them young men, were brutally murdered in 1984 in India’s capital city of New Delhi. The carnage followed the assassination of the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. Mobs armed with lethal weapons soon spread all over the country, killing innocent Sikh men and raping Sikh women. Politicians from the Indian National Congress, the ruling party, were witnessed leading the mobs, and the police supported them.
In remarks that were seen to be condoning the violence, Gandhi’s successor and son, Rajiv Gandhi, spoke at a public gathering and said, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.”
After three days of unchecked mayhem, the army came out onto the streets, and the city became calmer, but the blood, trauma, and destruction that the violence had left behind became more visible to the public. The surviving victims were women, mostly young, who had witnessed the brutal deaths of their male relations—whether a spouse, father, son, or uncle. Some women were raped in front of their own sons, or kidnapped and tortured for days on end.
A bleak future stretched ahead for these women. Their possessions, including their homes, had been snatched from them or destroyed. With no earning member left in their families, they had no way to support themselves; many had never been to school and had no skills to join the workforce. Their grief was paralyzing.
And now they had additional responsibilities—not just those of raising their young children but of caring for the elderly in their extended families who too had lost everything. Some women could not recover mentally from the trauma, while others struggled to raise their children. Initially, aid came from Sikhs all over the world and from citizen’s groups, human rights organizations, and the local government. But gradually the “story” receded from public memory.
She remembers the minutest details of the day when her father was dragged out and burned to death.
Nirpreet Kaur was 16 when the mobs attacked her home. Over the course of five days, Kaur, now 52, narrated to me the sequence of that day’s events and the trauma that has pursued her life, pausing only occasionally to wipe her tears or to indicate her emotional exhaustion. She remembers the minutest details of the day when her father was dragged out and burned to death. She describes how the tap was broken when she rushed to get water to douse the flames as her home was being burned down, and how the haystack, fodder for their domestic cows, fed the spreading fire and hastened the devastation. “I stood there and watched as though it was some kind of a show,” she says, her eyes vacant, her face pale, distant, and drawn. She recalls stepping over her father’s burning body as she fled with her remaining family.
I listened to Kaur’s overwhelming pain as she listed traumatic events that kept occurring to her after this initial one—more than 36 years of them—including accusations that she was a terrorist, the years spent in jail, police torture, death threats, and early widowhood. With these accounts, I saw a woman who could not be broken despite it all, who continued to fight for justice when others could not.
There are 22 million Sikhs in India. a religious minority in most of India, they form a majority in the northwestern state of Punjab.
The Sikh religion dates back to the fifteenth century and was founded by Guru Nanak, who was born in Punjab. He preached that all people were part of the same divine force and should be treated equally. Nanak composed teachings and institutionalized a system of gurus, or leaders, to guide the community. Sikhs today follow the teachings of Nanak and nine other gurus who came after him.
Sikhs pursue the five articles of faith, known as the Khalsa, or the brotherhood of Sikhs. These five articles of faith, or the five Ks, are: kes, hair, which is uncut; kara, a steel bracelet worn on the wrist; the kangha, a small wooden comb; kacchera, soldier-style undershorts; and the kirpan. The kirpan is considered to be a religious sword and is a reminder to stand up for justice, an important part of the faith.
Sikhs have played a long and important role in Indian history.
Sikhs have played a long and important role in Indian history. The ninth Sikh guru, Tegh Bahadur, was assassinated by Aurangzeb, a Mogul ruler whose reign in India extended from 1658 to 1707. Sikh tradition believes that the guru had spoken for the rights of Kashmiri pundits who were being charged a religious tax, jiziya, often imposed on non-Muslim subjects.
Sikhs played a leading role in the Indian army during British colonial rule. About half of the more than one million Indians who served during World War I were Sikhs recruited from Punjab. Many Sikhs laid down their lives during India’s struggle for independence—93 of the 121 freedom fighters hanged by the British were Sikhs. And it was a majority of Sikhs who lost their lives when the British general Reginald Dyer ordered troops to fire on a peaceful gathering of people in 1919 in the city of Amritsar in Punjab—known as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
As the movement toward independence took hold in colonial India, the Sikhs demanded they be recognized as a political entity, separate from Hindus.
Sikh historian Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon has written that, in July 1946, a year before India achieved independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, head of the Congress Party, had said: “The brave Sikhs of the Punjab are entitled to special consideration. I see nothing wrong in an area and a set-up in the North where the Sikhs can also freely experience the glow of freedom.” This declaration was “thought to be implying an autonomous state to the Sikhs within India.”1
But within an independent India, the demand for a separate state for Sikhs on the basis of linguistic identity was initially not accepted, leading to protests and counter-protests. On November 1, 1966, a separate Punjab state was carved out, but some Sikh factions contended that all of their demands had not been met. They wanted more areas included in the state, as well as an autonomous constitutional status for it.
The idea of a separate Sikh homeland, Khalistan, had been briefly discussed before independence.2 In 1982, this campaign was taken up by the Sikh political party, the Akali Dal, which demanded that Punjab be made an autonomous nation-state for Sikhs. This separatist movement quickly militarized and became violent.
In June 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a military operation, known as Operation Bluestar, against the holiest of Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple, in the city of Amritsar in Punjab. Separatist militants had taken shelter at the temple and made it their headquarters. The storming of the building resulted in substantial damages, and there were casualties and injuries among the militants, the army, and civilians. Sikh leaders Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and Shabeg Singh were killed in the operation.
The Akal Takht, in translation, the “throne of the timeless one,” or God, was severely damaged: the entire front facade was destroyed and fires broke out in several rooms, which blackened the marble walls and destroyed precious decorations and wall paintings.3 The Sikh community was enraged by what they considered the desecration of their holiest shrine. Some Sikh soldiers in the Indian Army mutinied.
Later that year, on October 31, Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her own Sikh bodyguards. This assassination triggered the carnage in 1984, in which Kaur was one of the victims. In Punjab, the events reinvigorated the All India Sikh Students Federation, which had been formed during the independence movement. Because it was active in demanding a separate homeland, it was listed as a terrorist organization.
Soon after the riots in 1984, Kaur’s life was under threat because she was a key witness against powerful politicians who were associated with the events of Sikh killings. She described to me how her family moved her from place to place, trying to keep her safe. Eventually, she was sent away from Delhi to the state of Punjab, where the majority population is Sikh and there was more social support.
Angry over how her own neighbors had supported the carnage and about the lack of justice that followed it, Kaur joined the All India Sikh Students Federation. At 18, she married one of the federation’s leaders. Tragically, a few days after her marriage, her husband was arrested by the police and shot. The police claimed that he was trying to run away, though Kaur believes he was murdered in what are called “encounter killings,” when the police kill suspects in cold blood while making it appear that they were trying to run away. “Within 12 days of marriage I became a widow,” she said to me.
Her husband’s death made Kaur assume more of a leadership role in the federation. Because of her position, Kaur was arrested in 1988 and charged with terrorist activities, accusations that the courts would dismiss several years later. But at the time, as a terrorist suspect, she was treated as a dangerous criminal and tortured. “I don’t remember how much I was beaten up,” she says. “My body turned blue.”
She described to me being put in a room where she was tortured with an electric device used for beatings, which ripped the skin off her back. She pointed to a scar under her right eye saying, “This was a result of electric shocks.”
Her mother was also imprisoned, under invalid charges that did not stand up in court later. But it took many years before they were dismissed. In the meantime, Kaur lost contact with her mother. When they finally met, it was in a jail, and Kaur had given birth to a child. “When my mother touched my body, I screamed because of the injuries from torture,” she says.
By the time she was released from jail, “everything had changed,” as she puts it, and she experienced extreme disorientation at being back in the outside world. “My mother had moved someplace else, everything felt strange. Perhaps this is what happens when people move from a village to a city or vice versa,” she says. As she puts it, she had forgotten what it was like to live. “I had forgotten how to dress properly, and I would forever be lost in thoughts.” She was 29 at the time.
The police harassment against her didn’t stop. The police would turn up to interrogate her for random cases of crime. So her family decided to get her married, believing it would stop the police from meddling. As luck would have it, the marriage turned out to be abusive, and a few years later her second husband died as well. She was left to support two of her own male children, and later she adopted a girl.
“How did you find the strength to deal with your own trauma and keep up the fight for justice?” I asked. She pointed to the divine and said: “It is my faith that has kept me alive. . . . When I was in prison, I would pray for long hours, and that’s how I survived those years.”
That faith has meant many things to her: a belief that somehow the almighty would grant her protection; and that she was on the right path and, come what may, she would be supported. But, more than anything else, her faith meant that she had to fight for justice. To hear her describe it, this sustained faith gave her enormous strength.
Once she was released from prison and the cases against her were dismissed, she returned to relentlessly pursuing the cases against her father’s killers. Many a time, she tells me, she was offered out-of-court compensation of millions of Indian rupees, along with a house. Once, she secretly recorded a conversation in which a witness was urged to change her statement for compensation, and that recording subsequently became part of legal records.
Given their extreme poverty and desperate conditions, many Sikh widows had to make painful decisions.
As for accepting an offer to change her statement, she says, “I asked them, can you bring my daddy back?” Nothing else was acceptable to her, she says. Given their extreme poverty and desperate conditions, many Sikh widows had to make challenging and painful decisions. There were those who agreed to put it behind them and accepted the money to stay silent. Some withdrew their cases because they were simply unable to sustain the fight.
Corruption is entrenched in India’s legal system, and justice can be hard to get. Witness protection, if provided at all, is not secure, leaving witnesses vulnerable to intimidation and violence. In December 2019, a woman on her way to testify at a rape trial was set ablaze. She later died in the hospital. Also, trials are long and can go on for decades, and petitioners cannot be sure that they will get a fair trial after so many years.
In Kaur’s case, it took 26 years for the trial even to get started. Several commissions were set up to investigate the allegations against the powerful, high-profile ministers in the ruling party’s cabinet, but for one reason or another, nothing came of them. The first such commission, known as the Marwah Commission, was set up in November 1984 under the leadership of a senior police official, Ved Marwah. The ruling Congress government directed it to stop its inquiry.
But Kaur pressed on, collecting statements from witnesses and gathering evidence to strengthen her case. Her lawyer, H. S. Phoolka, a Sikh man who escaped the 1984 violence with the help of his neighbors, explained to me how hard it was for these women to sustain the fight. “Widows were under constant threat and pressure,” he says.
“Widows were told, ‘If you listen to us, we will keep you as queen.’ One woman backed out because police came and said, ‘We will do to your children what we did to your husband.’ ” He continued: “Witness protection is risky. In one case, the policeman protecting them was giving out their whereabouts.”
Phoolka also received threats. He describes how they were up against powerful politicians at the time. “We didn’t need goondas [thugs]. The police were enough,” he says, implying that the biggest threat they faced was from the protectors of the law. Like Kaur, he continued his fight by keeping faith in God. “I’m a strong believer in God. If he saved me then [during the 1984 violence], then he will save me now.”
It wasn’t until May 2000, with the formation of a commission led by a retired judge of the Supreme Court of India, Justice G. T. Nanavati, when there was a non-Congress government in India, that accusations and evidence against the powerful came to be recorded. The commission submitted its report in 2005, paving the way for future investigation.
Following the report of the commission, in January 2010, India’s central investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, was given charge of the case. In 2013 the main accused, Sajjan Kumar, a senior politician from the Congress Party who instigated mobs to kill many Sikhs, was acquitted by a lower court. Kaur was one of the witnesses in the case against Kumar. However, an appeal to a higher court reopened the case. And, on December 17, 2018, the Delhi high court convicted Kumar and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
Today, Kaur is a source of strength and support for other Sikh victims of the violence. Several of them came to meet with her in her private room at the gurdwara guesthouse as we conducted our conversation.
Bhaagi Kaur, whose husband was killed during the violence, described how her husband got separated as everyone ran for their lives, and the mob caught up with him. Describing the mayhem on the streets that day, she broke down as she told the story of a Sikh woman who delivered her baby on the streets. “Some women held a sheet around her in a semblance of privacy.”
“People say, forget it. How can we forget?” she cries. “I saw them killed in front of me. Intestines spilled out in front of me. They put naked [electrical] wires on the street. Children’s futures were lost, as many could not go to school, or they were left to be raised in abject poverty.”
Pappi Kaur saw 11 of her male relatives, including her father and brother, dragged out of their homes and burned. After that, the mob set their home on fire. “We didn’t know what was happening. We were running here and there, but didn’t know what to do.” The mob was moving around with chemicals, petrol, and torches with flames. “As we escaped. we stepped on corpses strewn all over, possibly of our own loved ones,” she remembers. “Once it settled down, my mother became mentally unstable, she didn’t know whether to cry for her son or husband.” Overnight Pappi Kaur, who was then 15, was left to take care of a three-month-old brother and several siblings.
Santokh Singh, who was a young man at the time, considers himself fortunate to have escaped. But not all his brothers survived. He described how men came screaming from all directions: “ ‘Kill these Sikhs.’ They killed our mother.” His younger brother, who was in school—grade 12—was surrounded by the mob and killed in a brutal way. Singh and his wife, along with four children, were trapped in a gurdwara when the mob came. His two-and-a-half-year-old son’s clothes caught on fire from the crude bombs the mob was flinging, and his back was badly burned. He recalled how burning tires were put around the necks of Sikh men, and how the mob watched as they died, painfully. Singh’s shop, where he sold sundry everyday items, was looted and then burned down.
Santokh Singh has also spent the last 36 years looking for justice. Two years ago, two men who killed his younger brother were finally sentenced. One received a death sentence and another life imprisonment. He describes what a struggle it has been even to get this verdict. He never recovered the body of his young brother, something that he still laments today. “Since 1984 I’m just fighting this case,” says Singh.
Nirpreet Kaur, who now runs a fashion garment business, tries her best to assist everyone who comes to her. She also provides education for second- and third-generation children in her ongoing attempts to assist them out of poverty.
When I ask if she thinks she got justice, with Kumar’s conviction, she says: “This is not justice. He didn’t suffer what we did. We got ruined, as did my children, who did not get the support in their early years.”
Nonetheless, she adds, “I had one goal all these years—to see the man responsible for my father’s death in jail, even if it was for one day. Now he is in jail, and I’m content.”
The days I spent with Kaur taught me not just about human strength, but about how to sustain hope in the face of extreme adversity.
The days I spent with Kaur taught me not just about human strength, but about how to sustain hope in the face of extreme adversity. She is a model to her neighbors, and to me, of how to keep one’s faith and survive the most difficult of life circumstances as a stoic—but not to give up the good fight. And she shows us how to do all this with dignity and pride.
As Kaur said, quoting her mother, “You have to live once, live with your head held high.”
- Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon, “Evolution of the Demand for a Sikh Homeland,” 35, no. 4 (October-December 1974), 367. According to Dhillon, this declaration was reported in newspaper at the time.
- The struggle for Khalistan peaked during the 1970s, and it was largely supported by Sikhs who had settled in North America and the United Kingdom.
- The Akal Takht was an impressive building within the temple complex. It had been founded by the sixth guru, Hargobind, and holds deep significance for the Sikhs.
Kalpana Jain is a religion journalist and the senior religion and ethics editor at The Conversation. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, PRI’s The World, Sojourners, Vox, and Religion News Service, among others. A 2009 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, she holds master’s degrees from Harvard Divinity School and Harvard Kennedy School. She worked for many years at India’s leading national daily, The Times of India. Her book Positive Lives (Penguin, 2002) is the first detailed account of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India.