India’s Anti-Sikh Riots of 1984: Still Waiting for Justice

Indias Anti-Sikh Riots of 1984: Still Waiting for Justice

On the surface, the line of two-room dwellings on a dusty street in west Delhi appears little different from thousands of other roads in
India’s crowded capital. The paint flakes off buildings’ walls and the grass grows in parks
that haven’t been mowed in months. Kids play cricket in the street, fruit and
vegetable sellers push their wooden carts through narrow lanes and
women busy themselves with housework and cooking. What sets this
impoverished community apart is one remarkable absence: men.

C-block, or the ‘widows’ colony’ as it is more commonly known, is where Surinder Kaur, 65, lives today after she sold her house in Sagarpur and moved next door to her sister Harjinder Kaur, 57, a few years ago. Every
morning, the women have tea together in a two-room house, where the
only picture is of a newlywed Harjinder and her husband, killed
25 years ago in one of the darkest chapters in Indian history.

The widow’s colony in Tilak Vihar is a cheaply built and neglected
cluster of homes, given by the government to hundreds of women and
their children who survived what have now come to be known as the anti-
Sikh riots of 1984. But as the grim event’s 25th anniversary nears at
the end of this month, crime, addiction and prostitution have taken
root in what was supposed to be a survivors’ safe haven. Residents say this is
because of the damage to the mental health of children who were
witness to their parents’ and siblings’ murders, who grew up in
impoverished homes, and weren’t given any medical help — physical
or mental — for their problems. “They’ll slice a blade right
through you if they know you’re new to the area,” warns Harjinder. “Even the autorickshaw drivers refuse to come here.”

Devender Singh, 26, an unemployed drug addict whose father was killed
before his eyes in 1984, says his brother was murdered in this colony a couple of years ago, and that it’s
likely he’ll meet the same fate. “We’re all thieves and addicts here,”
he says. “When you get no work, what else will you do” The children’s
lawless attitude is an echo, residents say, of India’s own broken
justice system. They saw no punishment for crimes against their
families in the past, so they see no justice for the crimes they’ll
commit in the future.

The anti-Sikh riots were four days of mayhem in 1984 in the northern
parts of India, particularly Delhi, in which armed mobs set fire to
Sikh homes and businesses, killed unarmed men, women and children, and
attacked gurdwaras, Sikh places of worship. The violence, which left
almost 3,000 people dead, was a reaction to the assassination of the
country’s then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on October 31 by her two
Sikh bodyguards, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh. That June, Indira Gandhi had approved Operation Bluestar, a mission to flush
out Sikh separatists who had amassed weapons in the Golden Temple in
Amritsar in northern India. While the operation was considered a
success, almost 500 Sikh civilians visiting the temple that day were
killed by the Indian army, though unofficial reports suggest numbers
much higher.

Surinder Kaur was inside her home in Delhi when the rioters broke in
on October 31. Diwali, the biggest festival of the season
had just been celebrated, but she and her husband had left the lights around the house
up. In just 15 days, their eldest son was getting married, and
the celebrations were already getting underway. Two weeks before the wedding,
however, a mob of over 2,000 people descended on their middle-
class neighborhood in west Delhi, killing dozens of Sikh
families, and burning alive Surinder Kaur’s soon-to-be-married son and her husband with petrol from the family’s motorbike. “It’s like a
cyclone came through our lives and ripped it apart,” she says. “We’ve
never celebrated another festival since.”

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