June 4th, 1984 was a Monday and it was just a normal school day at a Catholic boarding school called St. George’s College in Mussoorie, Uttar Pradesh. There were quite a few Sikhs students in that school in the beautiful hill station of northern India. I was one of those Sikh students at the ripe and innocent age, so they say, of fourteen. I knew nothing of the events and had no clue about the happenings in Panjab at that time. Even if I did, I know not how I would have reacted.
Move ahead to November 1984. I was walking up to the dormitory after our mandatory sports time. I reached the upper field beside the mess hall, looked up at the town of Mussoorie which was at a higher altitude, a few miles away. My friend, Shilpan Patel, and I saw 4 or 5 smoldering and smoking buildings/houses in the distance. I innocently remarked “Wow! There are quite a few buildings on fire today. The fire trucks must be busy”. Just a day earlier our Social Sciences teacher had started crying in class saying that the “Mother of the Nation” had died. He didn’t elaborate or explain what had happened or why; and I never put two and two together until 2 weeks later when the “outing day” (Sunday) came.
We received our pocket money and headed up to town to do the usual Tibetan food (momos and noodles) and the latest movie at the cinema. I also used to drop in to say my Sat Sri Akal to the Sardar ji at the travel agency and the Uncle ji of the clothing store next to the cinema. On my way to the Tibetan restaurant I noticed that the travel agency was burnt out and the furniture was destroyed and laying about the courtyard. The clothing store uncle ji was nowhere to be found and the store was charred and empty. I can’t recall if I enjoyed the momos and movie that day. Most probably I did; but I knew not then.
Another three weeks later I was back in New Delhi at my grand parent’s place. I was told that I was to go back home to Japan for the winter vacation, but this time I would not be coming back to Mussoorie to finish school. “It is too dangerous for you here now”.
Before I left I wanted to hang out with a school friend, Hargurdev Singh, another Sikh student in my class who lived in Defense Colony, New Delhi. I met him for snacks. When we saw each other he said “They didn’t tell me. My parents didn’t tell me that the mob attacked our shop. They are all alive but our shop is gone. I don’t know what we are going to do.” I vaguely remember the mood of the afternoon we spent together. Why do bad things happen to good people? We knew not then.
The subsequent years went by normally during high school in Japan, then at university in Massachusetts, U.S.A. Along the way, I had occasionally picked up tidbits of Panthic happenings, but I can’t recall which event or incident brought me closer to the realities of our nation and people. It may have been one weekend at the gurduara in the suburbs of Paris in the month of November, 1993. My professional career had started and I had the opportunity to work on a civilian project in Brest, France, which has a nuclear submarine base off the coast of northwest France. One weekend I visited Paris and looked up the local gurduara. The young sevadar of the gurduara took care of me during my weekend stay. I also had the honor of participating in a divan and langar at the gurduara in Paris organized by the “refugees”, approximately 120 of them! I was humbled to be in their midst.
The young sevadar who took care of me told me that there were plans to settle a group of the refugees to Germany and then move some onwards to Canada. He said if the plan works out he might also settle in Canada, if not, then he prefers to go back to Panjab and die in battle. I never kept in touch with him. Wherever he is, I trust he kept the faith with Guru as his guide. The sevadar could not have been more than 18 or 19 years old. That means he was approximately 10 years old in 1984. What did he experience that gave him the conviction to want to fight and possibly die for his nation?
Multiple book readings, discussions with Sikhs and non-Sikhs, documentary viewings, conference attendances, and many candle light vigils have past and I feel I now know. But even after learning so much, I learnt that I know not what transpired.
At a Gurmat Retreat a few years ago, I had the honor and privilege of being a translator for a survivor of the June 1984 battle in Darbar Sahib, Amritsar: Sikh vs. Indian Army. The Sikh who related the eye witness account was, during that time, the tabla player of a ragi jatha of the Damdami Taksal. His account of the beginning of the battle goes something like this:
“It was 4:30 am on June 4th, 1984. It is a tradition to do Asa ki var kirtan right outside the Akal Takhat Sahib in the summer months; in the winter months it is done inside the Akal Takhat. We started the Asa ki var and were on the first chhaka when a missile of about 40 lbs. was fired from the Jallianwala Bagh area and it hit the upper left side of the Akal Takhat. The shrapnel and pieces of the upper left dome fell right in front of us. We immediately got up and ran to our positions to begin preparing for the battle. Some Sikhs went to Baba ji (Baba Jarnail Singh of Bhindran) and complained that the ragis have “run away”. Baba ji, summoned us to him and said “Your duty is to do kirtan and uphold the maryada of the Akal Takhat. Go and complete the kirtan”. We came back and completed the Asa ki var in the midst of the firing. That evening I also had the duty of reciting the Sodar Rehras for the jatha...”
I share these incidents and experiences not to parade my encounters for posterity. Rather, I feel I am relating everyone’s story. In some way, shape or form, no matter how significant or insignificant it may be, the events of 1984 have touched and shaped every current and future generation of Sikhs. The holocaust of 1984 and the decades that followed will remain part of the Sikh psyche and memory. Just like the time capsule of Sikh history has been buried deep down in the hearts of Sikhs through our daily ardas, similarly, the events of 1984 and the decade that followed will be etched in our souls. The only way to ensure this awareness is for every Guru Nanak loving Sikh to take on the responsibility to learn and become aware of those events. With open minds, compassionate hearts and with a strong iron-like resolve let us make sure we are “aware”, always “know” and “never forget”.
Toronto, ON., Canada
May 22nd, 2004