We have mentioned earlier that the official figure of number of persons killed in the Pogrom was 2733. Considering the fact that there was no known killing of Sikhs on 31 October 1984, the day Indira Gandhi was shot and that by the 3rd November the presence of Army had been able to restore a semblance of order, most of these deaths took place during the day light hours on two days – 1st and 2nd November. This would average more than a killing a minute – a rate certainly not likely to have been achieved even by Mir Mannu in his quest to eliminate the Sikhs in mid eighteenth century.

Jaskaran Kaur has estimated that the killings left 1300 widows and 4000 orphans. It is this group that has over time come to be recognized as the face of the victim families. Presence of most of these widows in and around Delhi has also been the main trigger for memories of the event to stay alive and relevant. These are also the families who have had to stay engaged with the court cases, commissions of enquiry, compensation issues while still trying to eke out a living as they reconstructed their lives. A large number of the widows were rehabilitated in colonies including Tilak Vihar in West Delhi and Garhi in South Delhi.

In my endeavor to grasp the memories and views of the widows I sought the help of Nishkam who facilitated an extended conversation in a town hall kind of setting at their offices with a group of the widows living in Tilak Vihar area. This open exchange helped explore the inner feelings and motivations of these women as they worked their way through years of suffering and onerous responsibility, mostly by themselves. Wing Commander R S Chhatwal was most helpful in arranging an interview with Surjit Kaur, a surviving widow now tending her family living in Garhi. Hers is a story typical of several others who suffered multiple killings of their family members and represents an example of the experience that the widows of this pogrom went through. Hopefully its recounting may help us as we delve further into our analysis.


Garhi is a small basti just off of the East of Kailash development in the affluent South Delhi. This small basti, unbeknown to most people living in this neighborhood has a piece of history associated with it. It has been home to about thirty widows of the pogrom against Sikhs in 1984. These women were resettled in small tenements in early 1985 and it was in this neighborhood that they reconstructed their lives. Surjit Kaur and survivors from her extended family moved to Garhi from Gurdwara Nanaksar when they were allotted a tenement there in 1985/6.

Her parents had escaped from Rawalpindi during the riots following partition of India in 1947 and ended up in Gorakhpur, where she grew up and was married in late 60’s when she moved to Nand Nagri to live with her husband Joginder Singh. Her husband had four brothers and they were all together in garment export business. Four of the brothers lived close to the shed where they had installed the machinery required for their business and the fifth brother lived in Ashok Vihar with his family. They employed about 15 persons in their factory and were pretty busy with their growing enterprise.

Surjit Kaur and Joginder Singh had two sons. The four brothers lived together with their families and their old mother in a traditional joint family setting. Between the brothers they had eleven kids, five boys and six girls. Two of the girls were married and lived away from Nand Nagri. The marauders killed all the four brothers and two boys, both in their mid teens. Four widowed mothers were left with four girl children and three male kids – age from 3 to 15 years.

Their experience, as they faced the hostile gangs is hair-raising. Surjit Kaur remembers calls ‘sardar nikalau’ being made as the hooligans approached. The rumors were already rife that they are coming after Sikhs. Her husband and one son had gone to the Gurdwara to find out what was happening and if they could collect there, if needed. The Gurdwara was set on fire at about nine in the morning and possibly her husband and son were killed then. She only saw the fire and smoke rising from the Gurdwara from atop her house.

As she heard the loud voices getting closer, she also saw flames arising from a Sikh house nearby. As she looked on she saw a little boy, two or three year old, son of one of their Sikh neighbor running in panic. She ran out and picked him up and ran back home. She saw her eldest brother in law and her other son and asked them to hide in a steel almirah and shut the doors. But she had to keep opening the doors to get them fresh air to breathe in the air tight container in which they were hidden. Soon the menacing group was at their doors. The calls for ‘sardar nikalau’ were loud and shrill now. She stood clutching the little boy to her bosom. As she stood transfixed, she heard muffled thumps from within the almirah and some smoke and flames rising from around her. She ran and opened the door of the almirah and shouted to her brother in law ‘veer ji, tussi apni jaan bachaao – respected brother, you now run and save your life.’ The gang grabbed hold of the elder, dragged him to the street as she followed him with the little boy. She saw her nephew also in the mix and ran and grabbed hold of him. Then one steel rod hit her brother in law on the head. He fell and more blows started following as if to break each of his limbs. As she looked on frozen in helplessness, she saw her younger brother in law receiving blows the same way. Then one of the gang poured kerosene oil on the shrieking man with broken limbs writhing in pain on the ground and another one sprinkled some white powder and set him ablaze. The last that their eyes met, her brother in law and she seemed to have intuitively realized the inevitability of their total helplessness – there was nothing to say, no signs to make, just endure what came to be done while the two little lives clung on to her – scared, bewildered, traumatized.

To Surjit Kaur and her three sisters in law as also the other women who went through similar ordeals of being witness to such cruelties to their husbands and sons these orgies of inhuman violence seemed to be tearing their insides but that did not matter anymore – nothing did. There was pain. There were deafening shrieks and loud noises of ‘marau, marau’ – kill, kill – by the killer gang. As the flames started to leap, numbness overcame every other feeling. Drained of emotions, she only stood as if watching a scene play out to its grim end – relived millions of times since in its nightmarish fidelity of the ghastly images.

She felt a man with a cut on his face tugging at her sleeve and he took her with the two boys to his home. She does not remember much except cut on his face and his kindness – what she did there or how long she was there. She instinctively headed back to her home and spotted her younger son forlorn standing on the roof. She got hold of him and just held on to the three boys as the day wore on. Later when it had turned quiet a Brahmin living nearby came over and took her and the boys to his home.

They never got the dead bodies of their six scorched dear ones; nor did anyone else. Remains of those killed were dumped in trucks and taken away. No tending, no words spoken, no feel or touch of their remains or even placing a little rag to cover their half burnt bodies, no rituals or prayers or last rites – all feelings suppressed within, never really vented, no closure of any kind – only dimly dawning sense of struggles ahead and the ponderousness of vulnerabilities of the little lives that so tightly clutched to her – a frightening specter of the vividly daunting human bondage!


Let us try to explore where the experience of women like Surjit Kaur could best be located in Gurbani and Sikh historical experience. As is known, Sikh scriptures are replete with verses that speak of women, address women and use feminine metaphors. Sikh history and tradition also memorialize some experiences relating to women. Let us look at some of these visions in our search.

Pandered, Loved, Enslaved, Violated, Collateral Victims

Guru Nanak in two compositions in Asa has poured his heart out on the tragic suffering of women who were the object of loving pandering by their husbands but whose charmed lives were rudely changed following the invasion of Babur. Witness:

They lived in palatial mansions, but now, they cannot even sit near the palaces — When they were married, their husbands looked so handsome beside them. They were brought riding in palanquins, decorated with ivory; water was sprinkled over their heads, and glittering fans were waved above them. They were given hundreds of thousands of coins when they sat, and hundreds of thousands of coins when they stood. They ate coconuts and dates, and rested comfortably upon their beds[1]loved, pandered but all gone.

Those pretty heads adorned with braided hair, with their parts painted with vermilion were shaved with scissors, and their throats were choked with dust. Ropes were put around their necks, and their strings of pearls were broken. Their wealth and youthful beauty, which gave them so much pleasure, became their enemies. Orders were given to soldiers, who dishonored them, and carried them away[2]enslaved, violated

Men whose letters were torn in the Lord’s Court were destined to die, O brother. The women – Hindus, Muslims, Bhattis and Rajputs – some had their robes torn away, from head to foot, while others came to dwell in the cremation ground. Their husbands did not return home – how did they pass their night[3]collateral victims.

Resistance, Torture, Martyrdom

Another vision of suffering women from Sikh history recalls that the keepers of captive Sikh women held in prison during the tumultuous eighteenth century were each given about 50 KG of grain to grind in a day under the direction of Mughal Satraps. While women plied the stone-mills as they sang the Guru’s hymns, their children were sometimes hacked to pieces in their presence and garlands made of bits of flesh hung on strings were thrown around their necks. Gurdwara Shahid Ganj Singhania [Singh women] in Lahore memorializes these women martyrs.

The episode is also remembered in some Ardas texts – jinaan sighnian nai mir mannu di jail vich chakian chalaayaan, bachiaan de haar galai wich pawaai, khooaan vich chhaalaan mariaan, sikhi sidak naheen haaryaa – [recall] Sikh women who as captives in Mir Mannu’s jail, labored grinding mill stones, suffered the agony of bearing the strung remains of their children around their necks, chose to jump into the well but did not let their Sikhi beliefs get compromised. It harks back to the heyday of Sikh resistance when men and women were guided alike by gurbani texts like – purzaa purzaa kut marai kabh-hoon neh chhodai khet.[4] The clear response of these women was of choosing the path of shahidi over any other that may have been indicative of capitulation to evil. We can also speculate with a fair degree of certainty that the progeny of Sikhs in those times stayed the course of armed resistance till their success in dismembering the oppressive structures was assured.

Burden of being a mother

The Mother Metaphor in Gurbani expectedly is reflective of the mother’s nurturing role, unbounded love and forgiving fondness for the child and the child’s leaning on the mother in all states of doubt, tension and joy.

A child’s dependency in seeking solace and comfort from the mother in moments of fear is poignantly captured in Gurbani in the verse: Mom, I hear of death, and think of it, and I am filled with fear.[5] Likewise the abundant nurturing love of the mother is beautifully expressed when the Guru says ‘numerous may be the mistakes that the son commits, yet the mother does not hold them against him in her mind.’[6]

The widows we are talking of were poor. They had little education, huge responsibilities and mostly had to go by their own counsel. They kept their gaze fixed on responsibility ahead. At home they shared the memories of their ghastly experience but told the kids to be courageous, brave and strong and not to be consumed by hate or a feeling of revenge. They kept seeking justice and rehabilitation, but not revenge – eye for an eye or khoon ka badla khoon. They fit the mother metaphor.

The immolating satee & the other satee

Let us look at another metaphor talked of in SGGS about widows who might choose the path of immolation akin to the old satee practice. Gurus discouraged the satee practice and Sikhs in fact are told: ‘call them not satee who burn themselves along with their husbands’ corpses; O Nanak, they alone are known as satees who die from the shock of separation.’[7] What does this imply – not to immolate but die due to being separated? In terms of worldly relations, it seems to suggest that the Guru commends a widow to pick up the threads and live her life out trying to fulfill the shared dreams of the couple, choosing to face the vicissitudes that her life in separation unfolds and continue to cope with the challenges of life as best as she can. Such women attain to a higher spiritual state where the shock of separation kills something deep in them even as it awakens them to the responsibilities that their loss has thrown onto them. The challenge that this choice implies is above the symbolism of satee.

The women that we are talking about are the widows of this pogrom. Given circumstances of their being rendered widows and how they seem to have borne their losses as well as tried to discharge the responsibilities thrust upon them, it would seem that the above satee metaphor  is where most of these women would possibly best fit into in the composite of Sikh theology and Sikh experience.

We cannot but admire their tenacity, their grit, their belief in themselves and their Guru that helped them raise their families or what was left of them. In this saga their individual human spirit stands out with healing support provided by Gurdwaras, some committed Sikhs and the mixed communities they lived in – with the legal battles being fought by HS Phoolka helped by Sikh Forum and some. Thus contemplated the role and place of these women as players in this tragic episode acquires a sort of embellishment that we may have never ascribed to them. Should it make a difference? Let us look further at the various factors playing out.

[1]jin mehalaa a(n)dhar hodheeaa hun behan n milanih hadhoor — jadhahu seeaa veeaaheeaa laarrae sohan paas heeddolee charr aaeeaa dha(n)dh kha(n)dd keethae raas ouparahu paanee vaareeai jhalae jhimakan paas eik lakh lehanih behit(h)eeaa lakh lehanih kharreeaa garee shhuhaarae khaa(n)dheeaa maananih saejarreeaa – Asa M I, p. 417-11

[2] sir sohan patteeaa maa(n)gee paae sa(n)dhhoor sae sir kaathee mu(n)neeanih gal vich aavai dhhoorr —thinh gal silakaa paaeeaa thuttanih mothasareeaa dhhan joban dhue vairee hoeae jinhee rakhae ra(n)g laae dhoothaa no furamaaeiaa lai chalae path gavaae – Asa M I, p. 417-11

[3]jinh kee cheeree dharageh paattee thinhaa maranaa bhaaee eik hi(n)dhavaanee avar thurakaanee bhattiaanee t(h)akuraanee eikanhaa paeran sir khur paattae eikanhaa vaas masaanee  jinh kae ba(n)kae gharee n aaeiaa thinh kio rain vihaanee – Asa M I, p. 417-12

[4] – Maru Kabir, p. 1105

[5]Maaee Sunath Soch Bhai Ddarath – Devgandhari M V, p. 529

[6]Suth Aparaadhh Karath Hai Jaethae  Jananee Cheeth N Raakhas Thaethae – Asa Kabir, p. 478

[7]Satheeaa Eaehi N Aakheean Jo Marriaa Lag Jalannih  Naanak Satheeaa Jaaneeanih J Birehae Chott Marannih – Suhi M III, p. 787


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