One Sikh family’s story is the tale of thousands of others from this day 32 years ago.
It would be hard to find a building more burdened with suffering and memory in all of Delhi. And yet, if you walked past it, you would hardly turn your head to look at it again. There was nothing that distinguished it from the tens of thousands of other urban cages anywhere in the country. Floor after floor was crowded with one-room tenements, of the kind that governments occasionally build as homes for people of very meagre means. The customary signs of neglect were visible everywhere: peeling paint; crumbling plaster; exposed electric wires; stale, unlit rooms.
Also the forced intimacy and vibrancy of community living – clothes and underwear hung out to dry on small verandahs; boys playing cricket in narrow corridors; girls in uniforms rushing from school to housework; women gathered in knots chatting, snatching some brief moments of leisure from the chores of cooking and cleaning.
It would be difficult to know from the outside that it was in this unsightly apartment building in Tilak Vihar that the government had settled 450 widows and their children who survived the terrible massacre of Sikh men and boys in 1984 on the streets of Delhi. It was official fiat which conjured within its walls a community of suffering, one in which several hundred boys and girls grew up with no fathers.
These children initially assumed that this is how life is for all children. But each was destined to gradually and separately learn – and struggle agonisingly to come to terms with – the dreadful truths of how they lost their fathers and brothers: to tyres flung around their necks and set on fire, to daggers and guns, to sticks and iron rods, to the betrayal of neighbours, to the sudden eruption of a volcano of mindless, deadly hate.
My engagement with Tilak Vihar began with a small research project in which I and a couple of young colleagues, Navjot Singh and Manisha Sobhrajani, tried to assess the conditions of the widows and their children. But the pervasiveness, depth and hopelessness of the suffering that we encountered in the tenements of Tilak Vihar was so stunning that I felt I had to reach out to friends with an appeal to start a small initiative of solidarity and healing with the widows and their families. Some wonderful caring friends came forward and a modest enterprise took shape, and is on-going.
It was on one of my visits to Tilak Vihar that I met Lachmi Kaur in a dank, airless third-floor apartment. An unlettered matriarch, she had lived there half her life. It was within the cramped confines of this home that she raised her children and grandchildren with fierce love and resolve. She stood resolutely between them, the survivors of the slaughter in 1984, and all that had disfigured her own life: want, illiteracy and hate.
Lachmi Kaur looked much older than her age. She often sobbed, alternating between rage, heartache and defeat as she summoned her memories and shared them with me. I observed in her a woman who had been severely battered, but who remained proud and unbroken. One of her sons, in his thirties, unendingly paced the small apartment like a caged animal, muttering under his breath. Her younger son, in his late twenties, slept all day, refusing to work. She toiled to feed them both, as well as their wives and children.
Nine years before Lachmi was born, her parents were uprooted from their village in the Sukkur-Rohri area of Sindh in what is now Pakistan. The violence of Partition drove them first to the twin cities of Sukkur-Rohri. But they were eventually forced to flee from there too.
They migrated from city to city in what was then the Bombay Province, unsuccessfully searching for work and a homestead. They were finally allotted a plot of agricultural land in a village, Tes Ki Buli, near Alwar in Rajasthan, almost a decade after they had left Pakistan as refugees. Lachmi was born in 1956, soon after their arrival in the village. She joined her parents in the fields as a young child, planting saplings, harvesting paddy, picking weeds and cutting sugarcane. She never went to school.
Her family belonged to a subaltern sect of the Sikhs, the Labanas, who are more comfortable speaking Sindhi (and now Hindi) than Punjabi. They worship in separate gurudwaras, and follow many unusual religious practices, such as the worship of the graves of prominent individuals of their community, similar to Sufi dargahs, which other orthodox Sikhs would find sacrilegious. When she was thirteen, her parents found her a Labana Sikh groom, Sundar Singh, from a neighbouring village.
Soon after they were wed, Sundar Singh moved alone to Delhi to seek better prospects and managed to build a hut in the slum resettlement colony of Mangolpuri.
He initially sold vegetables on a handcart and gradually saved enough to bring over his young teenaged bride, Lachmi. Together, they set up a successful meat shop. One by one, all her seven brothers followed them to the metropolis and settled in the same neighbourhood. Some pulled rickshaws, others wove charpoys.
Her husband, whom she called Sardarji, would buy goats from the wholesale market in Paharganj and skin them himself, after ritually killing them in the jhatka manner – slaughtering the animal with a single strike of the knife to sever the head from the body – in conformity with Sikh religious tenets. He would hang the carcasses in his kiosk in the small market adjacent to the Hanuman statue near the cinema hall in Mangolpuri, and would dress, weigh and sell the meat through the day.
In time, as their business grew, Lachmi also learned to assist her husband. She would herself slaughter the goats, and that too with a single jhatka strike. She recalled that it was perhaps this practice which helped her keep a level head during the manslaughter of 1984, as she hid and tried to rescue seven men even after her husband and brothers had been killed. She was accustomed to the sight of flowing blood, she said.
She bore three children, two boys and a girl, and insisted on sending them all to school. She was content with her life.
This life changed irrevocably one afternoon when people came to their colony, lamenting, “Indira Gandhi has been killed.” The day was 31 October 1984. Lachmi’s immediate response was that of grief. Many in their settlement credited Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with settling poor people like them – many of whom had been uprooted from slums – in Mangolpuri, with house-sites in their own name. There were very few Sikhs in the colony, perhaps twenty families, all of whom were Labanas.
Most of the residents of the locality belonged to the scheduled and the backward castes. These included members of the denotified tribe, Sansi, in large numbers, who now mainly make a living from selling alcohol. Lachmi’s neighbours on all sides were Sansi, except the house right opposite, in which lived a eunuch.
Lachmi did not light the fire in her kitchen that evening, in mourning for the departed leader. Sardarji, her husband, was confused about how he should respond to her assassination. After all, he knew that it was on Indira Gandhi’s orders that troops had stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar and ravaged the sacred structure. In revenge, two of her Sikh bodyguards gunned her down in the garden of her official residence.
But Lachmi recalled asking him, in tears, to shut his shop down for a day, in tribute and gratitude to the woman who had given them their home. Hearing Lachmi say this, she recalled, even Sardarji broke down and exclaimed affectionately: “Look how this illiterate woman is trying to make sense of all of this for me!”
It was because they were in mourning that the entire family was home when the mobs arrived.
The rioters were armed strangers from outside Mangolpuri, but were joined by many residents from within the colony. They began to pull out Sikh men and youth from every home. They soon lit fires on all the exit routes to prevent the Sikhs from escaping.
Lachmi desperately pleaded with their only neighbour who had not joined the mobs, the eunuch, to hide her husband in her home, but she refused. “This is beyond me. They are killing all Sikhs. Do you want me to get killed?” she asked agitatedly.
Sardarji did not want to endanger his entire family and as the waves of rioters moved closer to their house, resolved to make a run for the Mangolpuri Police Station. What happened next was related to Lachmi by other Sikh men who survived because they had shaved their beards and chopped off their long hair.
He was waylaid by the mob and felled with two or three blows to the head with heavy sticks. He still tried to escape by pelting bricks at the horde, when policemen from that very same police station surrounded him, flung a tyre around his neck and set it afire. The survivors told Lachmi that even with a flaming tyre around his neck, Sardarji kept fending off the throng with bricks and kept running until he was finally shot dead by a uniformed policeman. He collapsed close to his meat shop, and right opposite the police station.
Five of Lachmi’s seven brothers were also slaughtered in the massacre, which was to continue unabated for three days and three nights.
Some rioters then reached their home and fell upon Lachmi’s older son, at that time around twelve years old, with sticks. When they struck blows upon his head, Lachmi tried to shield him with her own body and begged the attackers to let him go. The boy fell unconscious and the attackers left him for dead. Lachmi quickly hid him in the toilet. When she later went to feed him, he started crying and complained that his head ached.
By the time they reached the relief camp in Punjabi Bagh four days later, he was seized with a high fever and one of his arms was paralysed. She got him treated, even by doctors in private practice, but his arm remains crippled and he walks with a pronounced limp. His mind is restless and in torment, unceasingly battling the demons of that day.
Even though she had lost her husband and brothers, Lachmi held herself together, looking desperately for ways to save the seven Sikh men in her neighbourhood who still survived. She pleaded with all the people she knew but no one came forward. Their eunuch neighbour was the only one who agreed, finally, to help hide them in a loft in her home.
Meanwhile, a neighbour tried to take advantage of the situation and grabbed Lachmi.
She slapped him fiercely and asked how he could molest someone who was like his sister. Enraged, the man went out and led a mob to the eunuch’s house, from where they mercilessly chased out and lynched the hiding Sikh men. Of those seven, only one survived. He was Lachmi’s teenaged brother, whom she managed to save by disguising as a girl. The killings continued.
There were six Labana Sikh households on their street. Out of the menfolk, only four ultimately survived.
Apart from the eunuch, none of their neighbours helped, except for one Dalit jamadar, a stranger who came to their ravaged home at night with cooked rice for the children. She was initially frightened that he may try to rape her like their neighbour had attempted that afternoon. But he reassured her, saying, “Don’t worry, Lachmiji, you are like my sister.” Lachmi recalled: “He appeared like an angel out of nowhere and disappeared after giving us food and succour that night. He neither told us his name nor gave us his address…nothing.”
For three days as the rioting continued, they hid in Mangolpuri. On the morning of 3 November 1984, the military finally moved in. They pulled in all the survivors – mostly women and children – into their olive-green trucks and transported them out of the colony to a civilian camp in Punjabi Bagh. Lachmi remembered, “The soldiers and officers were kind to us, but the civil authorities to whom they handed us over were callous and did not even care to give us water to drink.”
From Punjabi Bagh, they were moved to another camp in Rani Bagh. After that, Sikh organizations came forward with aid and shifted them to a gurudwara in Greater Kailash. There they were looked after for a month and a half, at the end of which – humiliated and tired of living on charity – most people vacated the camps. Lachmi went back to her village in Alwar with her children, to the home of her birth.
While in Alwar she heard that compensation as well as jobs were being offered to victims of the 1984 riots.
She not did want to burden her indigent parents, so after a month or two of mourning she came back to Delhi. After living for a few more months in various camps, she was allotted the apartment in Tilak Vihar in early 1985, about four months after the riots.
The building had been constructed before the 1984 carnage to rehabilitate people who had been uprooted from slums because of demolitions carried out by the government. But after the massacre, officials decided to allot the building and its apartments to some of the many Sikh widows whose husbands had been slaughtered on Delhi’s streets. Incidentally, Lachmi had to struggle with officials of the Delhi Development Authority even for this accommodation, for it had been assigned to another woman named Lachmi Kaur, whose dead husband was also named Sundar Singh.
To start with, the compensation of ten thousand rupees which she got from the government helped her feed and clothe her family. Then a Sikh organisation, Nishkam, started a centre for the rehabilitation of the widows, where she was paid two hundred and fifty rupees a month to pound and pack red chilli powder, salt and spices. Eventually, in 1986, she was given a government job. Being unlettered, she only qualified as a peon at a local school. Her salary from this school remained the principal income for her entire extended family even two decades later.
Each of the women in Tilak Vihar relate similar stories of toil, struggle and courage in raising their children and siblings. Nothing had prepared these mostly unlettered working-class women to face the world alone. But they fought valiantly, often heroically, to raise their children and grandchildren, battling profound loss, memory and penury.
Nearly thirty years later, Gauri Gill, a photographer, brought together a little book containing numerous testimonies of the widows and their children. In the book, Darshan Kaur recounts, “I have seen nothing of life. I have only cried. But still, you may have noticed, none of us is a beggar. I trekked 35 kilometres to work every day (to save money), but I have not begged.”
Gopi Kaur was given a job as a water woman in Kailash Nagar. But “I never knew how to take a bus, had never stepped out of the house…I would first be dropped by my brother, then my son. In the bus I would go crazy, crying right up until Darya Ganj.”
Pappi Kaur was only fifteen when eleven members of her family were killed, and she hid under a pile of corpses to escape the rampaging mobs. Today she makes a living by making electrical sockets.
Some of the sons also grew up to support their mothers in their struggles. Manjit was just a month old when his father, grandfather and three uncles were all burnt to death. His mother died of cancer, and he dropped out of school to work as a driver.
Autorickshaw-driver Gurdayal says, “My father and two brothers were both killed in the ’84 riots, and here I am, uneducated, trying my best to make ends meet.” But many of their children, especially sons and younger brothers, now middle-aged men, like Lachmi’s, could not cope with gruesome memories of the brutal ways their fathers were killed, and fell prey to mental illness and drug addiction.
Bhaggi Kaur, who lost her husband in 1984, now mourns her son who took an overdose of painkillers eight years ago. The widows lamented, “Our lives lie in ruins, as do those of our children. If we can see any hope in the far distance, it is that maybe our grandchildren will one day be able to see a little happiness.”
There was no question of Lachmi ever returning to their home in Mangolpuri.
It would have meant stepping wilfully into a life of fear in a neighbourhood peopled by non-Sikhs, and of gruesome memories. Lachmi therefore sold her house for merely twenty thousand rupees – a distress sale – to a local resident who had been an acquaintance of her husband. The man coerced her into selling the house, saying that if she refused, she would lose the twenty thousand rupees and might even wash her hands off the property. Lachmi later learnt that soon after, the man sold the same house for a huge profit and moved back to Kanpur. For her, in those early days, every rupee counted. She could not have waited for better times.
Lachmi filed a police complaint after her husband’s death. She was given a death certificate but no action was taken on her complaint. There were some Sikh organisations which helped her pursue her claims for compensation, but no one came forward to help her fight the criminal cases and bring to book the policeman who had killed Sardarji in cold blood, or even her neighbours who had joined the rampaging mobs.
She said to me, “I believe the perpetrators should be punished, and something should be done to alter the sad state of affairs where only innocent victims like us are being punished with hardship and despair. The Sikhs who killed Indira Gandhi have been punished with death, so why should poor innocent Sikhs like us continue to suffer? Our worlds were uprooted and our breadwinners killed and we were left to fend for ourselves. We have somehow struggled to survive…”
But Lachmi harboured no bitterness. “I am just an illiterate woman. But I believe it is the same blood which flows in everyone’s veins. I do not have the energy to hate anyone, although I do wonder how the perpetrators did not feel ashamed about killing innocents. That they still do not.” She had heard about the Gujarat massacre of 2002. “I don’t think targeting any one religious community is right, whether Sikhs or Muslims. Why should anyone be attacked and why should any poor person get killed? In my heart, I feel the pain of anyone who suffers misfortune, including people killed in riots or by bombs; I feel their shock and their fears.”
She broke down. “We have been through such tragedy and have had to endure it all; we know how it feels.”
She recalled the quarter century that she had lived until then in her home in Tilak Vihar, devoted to one single uncompromising mission: of trying to raise her children – and grandchildren – as good human beings. She was convinced that they should not be unlettered like her. Her elder son could never study – saddled as he had become with disability and painful memories – but she sent her younger boy and girl to a government school nearby. She worried obsessively that they would stumble and fall without a father to guide them. And so she became both father and mother to them.
She was vigilant for the slightest misdemeanour, and would punish them even if she suspected that they had strayed from the straight and the narrow. One day her son brought home from school a pencil which did not belong to him. She thrashed him roundly, and it was a furious Lachmi who stormed into school the following morning to berate his bemused teacher for failing to teach her son right from wrong. She tried to insulate all of them from what she felt was bad company and the evil influences of their environment.
Over time, an unfortunate vocation – born of desperation – came to haunt this colony of widows. It was hard for the single women, many of them without education, unaccustomed to negotiating with the world alone, to raise their children single-handedly. Some got government jobs, others looked for work as domestic help, but money was always in short supply.
And so it was that gradually, over the years, the colony evolved as a centre of drug peddling.
No one knows when and how it started. As the young boys grew older, this was the vocation into which many were inexorably drawn. What the women had not understood was that the same drugs which they traded would drag their own children into their lethal illusory comforts. Today many women of the colony despair, most of all, about their sons who have drifted away from them, dealing in and themselves using drugs, sometimes dying of overdoses while even in their teens.
This was Lachmi’s worst nightmare, that she would lose her sons and grandsons to drugs. Her only success in this quarter century of penury and struggle, she said, is that none of her boys have fallen to drugs. They may have stumbled or been defeated in many other ways, but not by drugs.
Her elder son initially recovered from the blows to his head, although he would still fall prey to frequent bouts of extreme rage and depression. But these did not last long, and he would soon return to normal. Lachmi married him off to a young woman, Asha. He even found employment in a factory and would bring home nine hundred rupees a month, and bonuses.
But his younger son met with a road accident in 2002 which crushed one of his legs. The sight of his injured son completely collapsed his already unsteady mental balance. That same day he rampaged through the house, breaking everything in sight. He hasn’t recovered since, said Lachmi. He confined himself in the one-bedroom house, limping without halt from kitchen to living room and back, speaking incoherently. Lachmi took him to doctors in Delhi and even Jaipur, but none could find a cure.
Her younger son was moody and irresponsible. He did stay away from drugs and drug-peddlers but that was his only achievement. He would mostly mope around the house. He would not take work seriously, and hawked vegetables from a cart when it pleased him, which was not very often. On our visit, too, we found him stretched out in bed, which was where he spent much of his days.
It was only Lachmi’s grown daughter Vidya and her daughters-in-law who, working as domestic help, brought in some money to supplement Lachmi’s income. Some of Lachmi’s grandchildren were in a boarding school in Punjab, set up especially for survivors of the killings of 1984; one was mentally challenged and lived with the family; and another boy, Gurdeep, she was training in music so that he could grow to become a granthi and sing from the scriptures.
As she narrated them to us, her troubles seemed unending. Of her brothers who survived the massacres, one died of drug abuse, leaving behind a family of seven sons. The remaining brother, too, had turned to drugs and would beat up their mother and father when intoxicated. Since Lachmi’s father was paralysed, her mother was forced to beg at gurudwaras to somehow support the family.
Most of all, Lachmi desperately missed Sardarji. “Had he been around I would not have been the way I am today…I would not have to struggle at this age with failing eyesight and children whose lives lie ruined. Had Sardarji lived…”