India's 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots: Waiting for Justice

  • Share
  • Read Later
David Turnley / Corbis

Sikh refugees seek shelter in a New Delhi schoolyard in the violent days of anti-Sikh riots following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984

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 widows' colony in Tilak Vihar is a cheaply built and neglected cluster of homes, which were given by the government to hundreds of women and their children who survived what have become 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 and 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 the colony a couple 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 lawless attitude of the young people is an echo, residents say, of India's broken justice system. The young people saw no punishment for the crimes committed against their families, so they see no justice for the crimes they'll commit in the future.

The anti-Sikh riots were four days of mayhem 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 Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, on Oct. 31, 1984, by her two Sikh bodyguards, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh. Earlier, in June, 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 at her home in Delhi when the rioters broke in. Diwali, the biggest festival of the season, had just ended, 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 under way. Then a mob of more than 2,000 people descended on their middle-class neighborhood, killing dozens of Sikh families and burning alive Kaur's soon-to-be-married son and 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."

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2