31st May 1984
Satwant could feel her clothes sticking to her, the heat was unbearable, she had spent the night tossing and turning trying to get a goodnights sleep. She glanced at her watch, it was 4am, she thought, I need to get up, help milking the cows so Bibi (mother) doesn’t change her mind about letting me go to Amritsar. She quickly rose to her feet and looked into her parents bedroom and saw that Bibi was still sound asleep.
She quickly made her way over to the water pump and poured some water onto the top of it, to ignite the waters trajectory from below. She gave the hand-pump some quick bursts of arm-action and splashed the water over her face. This wasn't a nice sensation as she could taste salt from her perspiration of the night and the water was warm. Satwant placed a bucked under the pump she again energised the flow of water, with some hard and fast movements of her hands and arms. The water now collected was cool and refreshing, she again washed her face, the sensation soothed her in the humid and windless surrounds of her
Satwant picked up some rope and took a bucket of water over to the feisty kicking cow. Satwant quickly grabbed the cows back legs to tie them with the rope, but in her haste she forgot about the cow’s tail and she received a whipping blow of the cow’s tail in the eye. She shuddered and immediately felt perspiration on her neck, she swooned backwards. She resolutely gathered herself and squinting through one eye, still managed to tie the cow’s legs with the rope. After tying the cow’s legs she got up grabbed a stick and gave the cow some vicious blows to let her know who the boss was. The cow resigned to her fate and allowed Satwant to milk her, she first washed the udders which were covered in dung and mud.
Bibi walked over, “You are blessed my daughter, you took on the battle-axe cow,” Bibi could work at double the pace of Satwant, so in the time that Satwant had milked the battle-axe cow, Bibi had finished milking the other two cows. Upon completion they emptied their buckets of milk into the milk-man’s container and kept one-eigth of the milk for themselves.
5am Bibi said to Satwant “Don’t worry daughter you will go to
7am Mama Jagjit and Mami Jasbir (maternal uncle & aunt) turn up with their 2 year old boy Suraj and 4 year old daughter Parveen. They had planned the trip to
9am Satwant, Balwant, Mama and Mami board the ‘Shane Punjab’ train at Phagwara Junction train station to
10.30am After alighting from the train, we all gasped for air and thankfully drank at the public water points at the
Satwant: We make our way out of the station on foot, I and Balwant have to carry the bags as Mama and Mami carry the children. It’s about half a mile walk to Durgiana Mandir and we start the walk with a slow pace, in order to stay as cool as we can. It takes us about 30 minutes to get there. We enter the Mandir after depositing our shoes in the shoes-stand. I walk into the shrine and see the Mandir shining in the middle of the water tank, with it’s gold plated dome. Immediately, I realise the marble floor is burning hot and I run to whatever matting I can find on the walkway. We’re not a particularly religious family, we are Sikhs but we also pay our respects at shrines of Devta’s (Demi-Gods) and those of the Hindu Faith. My Mami had wanted to come to
We pay our respects at the Mandir, offer parshad (holy offering, purchased at the entrance of the temple), and joyfully bathe in the water tank to cool ourselves, in the afternoon sun. I’m not too sure of the historical significance of the shrine and hear it could possibly be the original home of Mata Sita and her sons Luv and Kush, some aeons ago (the family of Lord Rama of the Hindu Faith). I wasn’t particularly bothered any reason to get out of Maheroo was a God-send and
After leaving the shrine we find some shade under a banyan tree and eat our lunch which was handed to us by Bibi in the morning. She carefully packed misse parshade (lightly flavoured chapattis), we drank water from the public tap and Mama purchased milk from the street-traders tea stall for Suraj.
2pm The afternoon heat was at it’s worst now, but Mama and Mami decided we should travel on to the Golden Temple and then rest when we get there. We made our journey through the alley ways of Amritsar, the rich aroma’s, rickshaws and glaring shopkeepers calling out for business, all defined the Amritsar experience for me, as we dodged people and street traffic in the alley ways to the Golden Temple.
We passed Lohgarh Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship), which was a commanding fort on our way and went past Gurdwara Guru Ke Mehal, arriving at the Golden Temple near the clock tower entrance, whilst seeing the roof-top of Akaal Tahkat to our right. We deposited our shoes, washed our feet in the soothing water wash basin and when I saw the
We promptly entered the shaded areas of the walkway (parkarma), took water at the Punjabi Sevak Jatha Shabeel (water point) and decided to get some sleep in the shade there. We all peacefully slept here, on the hard marble surface, using our bags as pillows for the next 2 hours.
5pm We awoke and then offered parshad at the
The Akaal Takhat intrigued me, with it’s weapons and arms of Sikhs and Gurus. We saw the end part of the daily display of the weapons as we paid our respects. As night fell we had Langar (blessed free food) at Guru Ramdas Langar Hall and went to sleep again in the shaded area of the parkarma.
1st June 1984
We were woken by an elderly woman, frantic but cautious. She whispered to all of us to wake up and leave the Gurdwara. She said the Gurdwara has been surrounded by the army and a curfew is in place. She chillingly said, “leave and save your children in any way that you can to my Mama and Mami.” My Mama cursed my Mami, “Stupid woman, I told you to wait a little longer before making this trip, the power-mad Bhindranvale and Indira Gandhi are both going to get us killed,” she lightly slapped him on his upper arm and said quietly “Keep your voice down, somebody could hear you.”
The reality of what was going on around me, suddenly dawned on me. I looked around and now realised that, what I thought was normal for the
We spent the rest of the day in the sweltering heat, flittering from pillar to post and thinking of what to do next. We didn’t leave, as there was indiscriminate fire from the army outside, into the complex. Luckily at this point the armed Sikhs in the complex were not firing back. This bamboozled me, as I had an image of gung-ho fire squads of Bhindranvale. To the contrary armed Sikhs across the complex were sheltering, guarding and guiding innocent pilgrims into safe havens across the complex. We ended up taking shelter in Guru Nanak Niwas and in rooms built to usually house about 3 people, about 20 of us were crammed in. There were literally thousands of pilgrims locked into the complex, a few brave pilgrims did leave through the exits near Baba Atal, the Sikh reference library and the Akaal Takhat as there were pockets of entry points through which they could risk leaving and not being detected or shot by the security forces.
I fell into a torrent of thoughts as night approached and we sweated profusely in the night hue and heat. I thought, I am only 14 years old, I have not got married, finished schooling, had children, I do not deserve to die! Even though I had never prayed before in my life, I mentally started reciting “Satnaam Vaaheguroo,” (True is the Name, He is the wondrous enlightener).
9.30pm We heard a loud knock at the door and someone shouting, “Open.” Everyone in the room was scared and someone near the door opened it. To our shock an armed Sikh was standing at the door, he looked like one of Bhindranvale’s henchmen. He mechanically looked around the room and ordered me and another girl, who was about 14years old also, to get up and leave with him. My Mama shouted “No way” he quietly replied “brother, we need her to do some seva with us,” my Mama’s voice got louder and he still said “NO” but then quickly said “Take me instead!” The Singh firmly said “No, we need her, we can do this the easy way or hard,” he pointed at his assault rifle. My Mama backed down, I and the other girl - Surjit, were ushered out of the room with the Singhs pointing their guns showing us the way.
The Singhs proceeded towards Manji Sahib Diwan Hall, one in front of us and one behind us. As we approached we could see a fire, as we got closer we realised it was a funeral pyre, I shuddered in fear. Horrified I thought, am I going to be burnt alive? There were about 20-25 Sikhs gathered around the fire, we were stopped about 20 feet way. The Singhs then said to us “He was a great Sikh, he was shot today on Baba Atal Gurdwara. He died a warriors death, his name is Bhai Mehnga Singh. We have brought you here, as we thought we can’t help everyone, but if we can help some younger sisters then we should try to do that.” They then sternly spoke, “More than likely you will die in the violence that is to follow. The government is hell-bent on killing innocent pilgrims and Sikhs, they have purposely decide to attack the complex now, as thousands are gathered here in preparation for the memorial programmes for the martyrdom of Sri Guru Arjan Dev Jee which is on the 5th June.”
I was now confused thinking what are they talking about, will they still kill us? The Singh continued, “You are young women and you may be abused by the army, we have two cyanide capsules,” the Singh reached into his pocket and handed me a capsule, as he did Surjit, “You should take this capsule if the situation gets too bad and death is a better option.” They then marched us back to the room, before re-entering our room at Guru Nanank Niwas, I requested that I be allowed to talk to Surjit, the Singhs gave us some space. I whishpered to Surjit “We can’t tell our families about these capsules, we must conceal them and not tell anyone,” Surjit nodded agreeing with the suggestion, she said “but what shall we say has just happened?” I said “Don’t worry, leave the talking to me, just follow my lead,” she again nodded in agreement. We signalled to the Singhs that we were happy to re-enter the room, they opened the door and we entered.
Both our families rushed to greet us, the Singhs just left without saying anything. I quickly said “The Singhs asked us to make chapattis in the Langar Hall and to tend to the wounds of their fighters, me and Surjit said we have never made chapattis and have no medical knowledge, so they brought us straight back.” Surjit half-winked at me, showing approval of my cover-up story. My Mami started blabbering, “How dare they, they knew this room has been designated for families with young children, they should have gone elsewhere.” I calmly put my hand on my Mami’s shoulder and said, “we are back safely,” and she hugged me and I could feel Suraj and Parveen clenching at my legs.
My brother Balwant, was very subdued and quiet. Once all my family had fallen asleep, I whispered to Balwant, “Are you okay?” he said “No! did those militants do anything to you?” I replied, “No – they were very polite to us.” He then gently stroked my head and said, “I love you, I know I haven’t been a good brother …” I could see the tears welling up in his eyes. I put my finger on his lips and said, “You don’t need to say anything, I know. Don’t worry we will get out alive.” Balwant – “I sure hope so.”
2nd June, 1984
We spent the whole of the next day in the room, only venturing out to the corridor to use the toilets. The men in the room went out of the room at 12pm to get food from the Langar Hall. They brought back enough food for one meal, for everyone in the room. A lot of us were now suffering from dehydration due to the heat.
3rd June, 1984
10am - We get a visitor to the room, he says he is an employee of SGPC (Shromani Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee – the management committee of the Gurdwara complex). He says that there will be an announcement to allow innocent pilgrims to leave the complex, he says we can all leave then. We all rush after him, thinking we have a slim hope of survival. In all about 200 people join this sort of walk to freedom. We are all assembled collectively at Manji Sahib Gurdwara and eagerly await the announcement from the army.
At 11am the announcement is made by the army that innocent pilgrims can leave and no harm will come to them. The army announced that pilgrims leaving, must leave through the Brahm Buta Market exit gate. When signalled by the SGPC workers the whole procession started walking towards the gate, I had realised that the SGPC workers conspicuously ensured they were at the back of the procession. I halted Surjit’s family and mine and said “Lets go to the end of the lines, like the SGPC workers,” my Mami looked at me, as if to say, are you crazy? Fortunately, at this point I saw the same Singh who had taken me and Surjit standing on an upper floor of the Langar Hall with his gun in toe. I pointed him out to my Mami signalling he has told us to go to the back, my Mami quickly obliged, for fear of getting shot by the Singh, even though, he wasn’t even looking at us.
All of a sudden, gun fire stared and about 40 of the people at the front of the procession were immediately gunned down. Everyone ran helter skelter, for cover. I grabbed Parveen and ran towards the Langar Hall, I dived to the floor, smashing Parveen’s chin on the floor and cracking her front teeth. She whimpered, but bravely didn’t cry. We then crawled our way to the Langar Hall. I lost my brother, mama, mami and Suraj in the chaos. I never saw them again. Surjit had followed my lead and made it to the Langar Hall with me. I later learnt from family members that Balwant had told them the following;
Balwant: “Mama, Mami, Suraj and I made it back to Manji Sahib. Some of the leaders of the SGPC and Akali Dal (Sikh political party) were trying to reassure the congregation that they would assure a safe escape, but there was much incessant bickering due to the earlier calamity of the 40 innocent pilgrims being gunned down by the army. Then a few hours later, these leaders left the complex with their arms in the air and about 70 others they had not taken to arms and were not involved any firing against security forces. But this time the leaders were forced to the front of the procession. We were shocked by the earlier incident and decided not to try leaving again.
Suraj died on died on the 4th June from dehydration and Mami died from banging her head so hard in the wall, in anguish of his death. She was already weak from dehydration and trying incessantly to breast-feed Suraj. She was like a crazed woman when he died and banged her head with much fervour, into a wall 2 or 3 times and the bleeding killed her. Mama tried unsuccessfully to get her treated and took off his own turban in an attempt to bandage the wound.
Me and Mama survived to 6th June, as we both took the drastic step of drinking bloodied water from the Sarovar (sacred water tank of the
On 7th June, the army took control of the whole complex. I and Mama had survived by playing dead. We used to lie down between dead bodies and went undetected like this. At times we were even trampled upon by army personnel and I and Mama both developed bleeding in our mouths due to biting in agony, whilst trying not to make a sound in the excruciating pain. At about 12pm we watched the army killing Sikh men by tying their turbans around their backs, these were non-combatant pilgrims. They were all shot at point blank range. After witnessing this, Mama grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “We are only going to survive this, if we pretend we are militants. We are going to have to find some guns and surrender to the army, they will not kill us then as they will try to extract information from us.” I thought he was insane and looked musingly up at him. He then lashed a back-handed slap across my face. “Trust me, it is our only chance of survival!” he shouted and his voice broke as he said it. I could see he was desperate. He was at the end of his tether, I agreed with him as I thought we’re dead anyway.
Mama’s plan worked, we conducted a fake surrender throwing empty guns (we had recovered) on the floor in front of the army personnel and throwing our arms in the air. At this point of surrender, I stared straight at the guns of the soldiers, waiting for a gun to launch a bullet that would pierce my body. But Mama was right, the soldiers cautiously approached us and sent us to Ladha Kothi Jail. This was full of people from the
Mama died on 17th July 1984. He died from the relentless torture he endured at Ladha Kothi. He would get hung upside down, then, they would start interrogating him, trying to force him to make confessions or give information that he simply did not have. To force him to speak they would beat him with metal rods, electrocute him, run wooden logs over his legs and sexually abuse him. The sleepless nights between 7th June - 17th July were unbearable for him. He persistently cursed his luck saying, “What possessed me to surrender as a militant, this place is worse then hell itself. God please bring my death!” He also used to caressingly beg for my forgiveness, “Son, I am sorry, I shouldn’t have slapped you, my stubbornness has led us here, please forgive me, please forgive me...” This was our daily ritual and he used to fall asleep everyday begging my forgiveness.
I was labelled a hardcore militant due to my age. Eventually I was released from prison when I was 13years old. I returned to my village - a disturbed 13year old, due to all that I had witnessed and experienced. Due to continuous police harassment after returning to Maheroo, I took the step of trying to protect myself rather than be a victim of physical violence from the state machinery. I joined the Khalistan Commando Force as Bhai Manbir Singh was its leader and he was from the village Chaheroo, which is neighbours my village.
I was involved in militant actions until the age of 18 and eventually came to the
Balwant became mentally unstable and could not settle in to life when he arrived in the
3rd June, 1984
Satwant: When we entered the Langar Hall, the door was slammed shut by an armed Sikh. I looked around frantically and quickly realised that the Langar Hall was a mini fortress. There were sandbags piled next to openings and armed Sikhs were guarding the rations. I also saw wiring which had been erected and realised a mini wired network for communications had been set up.
The Singh who had given us the cyanide capsules came over and greeted us saying, “Sisters are you okay?” I pointed at Parveen and she started crying and blood started to pour out of her mouth. The Singh quickly picked her up and ran with her behind some sandbags. Behind the sandbags there was a Sikh woman with a turban on. I was shocked at the sight of her turban as I had never seen a woman wear a turban before, she calmed Parveen down, cleaned her wounds and applied some cream to stop the bleeding from her mouth. The Singh came back after about 10 minutes and said “I am Seva Singh, if you want to survive, I suggest you stay here and I promise to ensure your safety.” Me and Surjit were re-assured by Seva Singh and asked how we could be of help. He said we could assist the injured pilgrims and we started helping the woman who had treated Parveen.
4th June, 1984
We stayed in the Langar Hall until 4th June. At about 12pm Seva Singh came over to us, he said “I have arranged for your escape you must come with me immediately and do exactly as I say.” Me and Surjit nodded in agreement. Seva Singh told us that there was an opening at the back wall of Baba Atal Gurdwara, he and another Singh would ferry us to the safe house. We followed his orders, our path from the Langar Hall to Baba Atal was treacherous as we had to dodge sniper fire and come under attack from commandos, who were parachuted down from aircraft. We witnessed about 20 commandos were making their descent down, the Sikh militants opened fire, firing at their parachutes so when they landed they were seriously injured. We had witnessed the army continuously kill Sikhs indiscriminately between the 1st June to 4th June and were coping the best we could, with the war-like situation and killing all around us. We couldn’t believe that the Indian Army had turned the
As for the journey to Baba Atal we also had to walk over dead bodies of Sikhs and Indian army soldiers. The stench of death was sickening and unforgettable. We successfully dodged sniper fire until Baba Atal Gurdwara, where Surjit was grazed on the arm by a bullet, thankfully she only sustained a minor injury. As for our escape, Surjit and I had to make separate ways out from the complex, both ferried by a Singh each. Surjit had made it safely in to a Sikh household and I never saw her again. Me, Parveen and Seva Singh waited for the other Singh (who had taken Surjit to the safe house) to return safely, before leaving ourselves. One Singh had to remain near to the wall opening, to guard it from the army entering the complex from it.
Now it was our turn, me and Parveen made it safely to a flat of a Hindu family who were sympathetic to innocent pilgrims. Seva Singh bid us farewell and I bowed and touched the dust of his feet raising it to Parveens brow and my own. I thanked Seva Singh, “May you live on, and have a good life, my brother,” he was a little embarrassed and smirked, saying “Whatever God will’s will happen,” he turned and left, I peered out of a window of the flat to see Seva Singh leaving, about 40 yards from the house, he fell to sniper fire, a bullet had pierced his chest. I ran to him, the Hindu family tried to stop me for their own safety and mine, but I wasn’t thinking of the consequences and my safety and ran to his aide. I raised his head in my lap and stroked his forehead, he looked up and said “Vaheguroo.” He then passed away in my arms. I cried and screamed in agony.
I was crying for somebody I didn’t know, had known for only a few days, but he was the only adult who provided safety and a sense of family for me. At that point in time he was all I had. I sat there crying for about a minute, I glared back at the flat and saw Parveen staring at me. I signalled for her to stay there and made my way back to the flat. She innocently asked “Where are mummy and daddy now?” I replied, “I am your mummy and daddy now” and she said, “But you are my deedi (sister).” I said, “I am now your sister, mummy and daddy. We have to live with these people until we save enough money to go and see mommy and daddy.” She was pacified temporarily.
For the next 6 years, me and Parveen lived with this Hindu family in
When I was 20 years old, I left
I am now 40 years old and live in
I am now divorced and can never forget June 1984. The famous verse of “I have seen all other places, none compare to you,” in reference to the
I attend the annual remembrance march in
I pray for the safety and well-being of all humanity, “Nanak Naam Chardi Kala, Tere Bhane
I hope that Sikhs realise that what happened to us should lead them to take positive action to try and get some redress, or at the very least to not forget. They should open their minds and hearts to the human side of what happened to us as a people. Thousands suffered and live on with horrifying memories. As a community and a people, we don’t like being victims and this is portrayed with the rightful glorification of martyrs. The point I’d like to make is, the martyrs make up a minority and the majority who survived have also suffered immensely but little has been done or is being done to unearth their stories and support them.
I still have the cyanide capsule that my brother Seva Singh gave to me. The small time I had with him, inspired me so much that he became my reference point or alter ego and I would think of how he would handle a situation and in this way I always found a solution to my problems. After years of searching I recently found photos of him. I take out the cyanide tablet every year at Rakhria (an Indian festival which marks the vow of protection that a brother gives to his sister and their love), the capsule is then placed in front of his photo and I place my fingers lovingly over his photo and wave my hand over my brow – in the hope that his dust still magically inspires me to live on and be an ounce of the Sikh that he was.
This is a fictional account which is based upon the real events of June 1984. All of the characters are fictitious, but all the places referred to in the narrative are real, including Ladha Kothi detention centre. www.akaalpublishers.com
This is a fictional account which is based upon the real events of June 1984. All of the characters are fictitious, but all the places referred to in the narrative are real, including Ladha Kothi detention centre.