Once Upon a Time in Punjab

As assembly elections loom and politicians sharpen the weapons of fear and romance to replay lethal games of identity, a journey back to the 1980s when the state gazed into an abyss.

The Golden Temple at Amritsar, site of Operation Blue Star. Credit: Flickr/ The National Archives UK

The Golden Temple at Amritsar, site of Operation Blue Star in June, 1984. Credit: Flickr/ The National Archives UK

The white cauliflower crop along the road, waiting to be harvested. My friend and I stop to look at the footprints of yesterday. The blood on the flowers has turned brown. When it fell yesterday, it must have looked like hell’s dew.

Terrorists came from the direction of the village gurdwara and stood on the state highway. They carried automatic rifles. People coming from both sides were stopped. Then Sikhs were allowed to go. Hindus were told to queue up between the road and the field of cauliflower. When the numbers were respectable, they were shot. The blood rained over the innocent crops.

The killers then walked away, down a dust road in the opposite direction.

More than a man

He was returning home from his farm on the outskirts when they shot him. It was morning. Except for one or two people in the distance returning home after a walk, the road was deserted.

When he was picked up from a pool of fresh blood, he was dead. Next to him lay, like a fallen horse, his dark red Luna, the light motor bike, which for years, in small towns, was the favourite vehicle of working women and old men.

He always wore a red pugree – the loose end falling, long, over a broad muscular back. This and the Luna would complete his image in a frame. Earlier, he used a pedal cycle. He was never seen in a car even when he was a member of the parliament.

A socialist whose hero was Ram Manohar Lohia, Chaudhary Balbir Singh was a friend and hero to the people. They looked up to him as a man of courage and simplicity. Day or night, he was always ready to accompany any helpless, wronged man to a police thana or babu’s bungalow. From my window that overlooked the thana, I had often seen him banging at its doors to wake up the law’s sleeping guardians.

A few days before Republic Day he would go door to door with a handful of companions, collecting chanda, a small voluntary donation. This funded his annual Republic Day procession, which he led in the afternoon through the main bazaars of the town. The procession – we called it a juloos – included folk dancers, local music bands, school children in uniforms, trainee teachers and pageants depicting inebriated politicians, drinks in hand, drooling over tawaifs or shaking hands with goggled smugglers and wigged ‘white’ men. He led this carnival on a white horse – his wrestler’s thick nape buried in marigold garlands – and was accompanied on both sides by his lieutenants Bagga and Jassi, also on horses. Bagga was a head master who later became a member of the state legislature and was shot dead, soon after Chaudhary, on the doorstep of his house. Jassi was a leader of the rickshaw pullers’ union; he had a poster villain’s half-smile, which he threw at everybody, especially those who ignored his presence, as he joined his palms in a greeting oddly distinguished by a fractured and now misjoined left elbow. The garlanded triumvirate would be preceded in a rickshaw by Mangal Dhobi shouting slogans into a microphone. This short, very dark and skinny man had a powerful voice, so powerful that he lent it every year to the actor playing Meghnath in the town’s Ram Lila.

Chaudhary’s murderers probably didn’t anticipate – or perhaps they did rather too well – that they were killing more than a man.

Clever and cowardly

His father had died when he was a child – killed, the rumour went, by a policeman’s bullet during a chase on the international border.

He dropped out of school very early to work as a shop attendant. In his twenties he was still helping a shopkeeper who sold cloth, when the local sena leadership fell on his shoulders like the auspicious lizard in folklore. A few years later, when he fell to undiagnosed diabetes in his late thirties, he owned a goods transport carrier with a small fleet of trucks. In between he had acted as a ‘settler’ of labour-management disputes and a tout for police and bureaucracy. An unabashed communalist, an advocate of direct action, commanding the loyalty of a sizable segment of the urban precariat, he had earned the distinction of being a leader – made visible by the security guards protecting his person at some cost to the depleted public treasury.

Long after peace returned to Punjab, he told me: “I don’t know how I became a leader and why the administration took me seriously.” He explained that it had started when he impulsively announced one day that his boys would enforce a shutdown in the town to protest another massacre of innocent Hindus by the terrorists. “Well before nine o’clock, when the shops opened, there was a huge police deployment. But we were… barely two dozen. I felt foolish, embarrassed. And then I don’t know what came over me – I went in, came out with my sarkari weapon, raised it high over my head, shouted a slogan, which the boys then echoed and re-echoed, and fired one-two-three shots into the air. Those who were pulling up the shop shutters pulled them down at once and fled. That was my first victory. God gave it.”

I met him quite a few times after he told me this story. He always came across as clever, cowardly and amoral. He would be the first to run away if he sensed that a street fight was brewing and he was going to lose.

Clock tower

Outside those years, you would see it only in films: the city police station locked from inside, from sunset to morning. But unlike in films, this one was not in some remote, godforsaken village. It was in the heart of the city, right next to the imperial Clock Tower, a ludicrous monument raised, the town lore had it, just months before freedom by an ardent native votary of the British rulers.

Sometimes a desperate, aggrieved bunch – often a family, hurt, scared, screaming for help and cursing – would beat and beat on the enormous green portals reinforced with iron bars.

One winter night, a woman, her back dripping with blood, stood outside the gate for a long, long time. At last, the chor-khirkee overhead opened, a bearded police face looked out, took in the scene – and the gate creaked open, just enough to let the woman and her two male companions in.

Buses and bombs

Foggy winter morning. As I take the 4. 40 Delhi-bound bus for Ludhiana, where I will change for Patiala, I just believe – for no reason though – that I will return home alive by evening.

Police guards check everybody’s luggage – there can be improvised explosive devices or a hijacker’s gun concealed somewhere. As the engine starts, the guards position themselves at the doors. The conductor’s job is eased. The bus will halt at designated points only.

Whenever a figure emerges from the obscurity of the road and gestures to the driver to stop, your heart misses a beat. It could be ‘them’. They are known to wrap themselves in blankets, under which they hide their AK47s, and board buses with studied casualness, to ambush sleepy, sitting, commuting ducks.

We pass the Ludhiana Clock Tower. A bomb went off a week ago here, killing several newspaper hawkers. Already, over faded bloodspots, the routine has resumed, the routine that sorts out and carries away for distribution the bundled news of more deaths.

The living rush in to fill the places vacated by the dead. Sometimes the consolatory myth of luck draws them in, fed by hunger.


Dinner in hostel with friends. Then a walk on moonlit campus roads. It is summer astonished by a cool wind. There is a quite a crowd out, strolling.

A car, a white Maruti 800, cruises by. Another overtakes it, lurches into its way and stops only inches ahead. A third, meanwhile, has leapt into the action, its nose tearing from behind. Three or four commandos in plain clothes, angels or demons of lightning, leap out of the two cars, swoop on their game and fly off, taking along also the emptied car.

Dead weight

Mohinder Singh, my colleague who taught Punjabi in the college and died a painful death brought on by cancer of the stomach, told us this.

His nephew, a school-going stripling of fifteen, was on the bus in which two days ago several persons were shot dead by terrorists near Tanda, Hoshiarpur. The night had just fallen when the terrorists boarded the bus. They were five. After forcing the driver to take the bus to a link road, they got him to pull to a side and park. Then they walked up and down the aisle, shooting point blank at those who did not ‘appear’ to be Sikhs. Most died.

Mohinder Singh’s nephew had fainted. Coming to, he had found himself sticky and warm and buried under a man who felt like dead weight. There was moaning and wailing. The boy had finally managed to push the man aside, who was probably dead but still bleeding like a gutter.

The boy had lost his speech, Mohinder Singh feared, and perhaps also sanity.


The Punjab and Chandigarh College Teachers Union is holding its polls in a college in Jalandhar.

The library hall is an admission that the writ of the state no longer runs in certain places, which include some public institutions funded by the state: a full wall of the library has been turned into a gallery where large portraits of ‘slain’ terrorists, sporting automatic guns, look down on you. Handsome young men – proud, unsmiling. Some are posing theatrically.

One of them is Ranjit Singh. He was a student in the college where I teach. I am told he fell in an encounter on the Pakistan border.

I am told he was always such a well-behaved, soft-spoken young man.

Grey territory

Standing like a vain little fortress on the north-east edge of the town, its mahant the owner of a vast forest estate whose wealth he smuggled out tree by tree until it was all depleted, the dera had a tall and wide gate built for the convenience of its inmates and guests – the sadhu mahouts who rode in and out on elephants. It was a grey territory where, in the many-roomed opulence of an amorphous faith, the law’s prodigal guardians executed, it was said, murky transactions with the outlaws, their counterparts from the other world.

Columns of smoke

We were jumping over the low railing that divided the inbound traffic from the outbound. We did this often. The arts block where we had our classes was right opposite the hostel.

Today there was an unusual crowd – people stood around in bunches, silent, whispering, grim. The news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination had hit the campus.

That evening, someone coming from my town told me he had seen columns of smoke rising from the direction of my home. The town was under curfew.

Next day, my friend and I took a bus for home. It dropped us on the outskirts – the curfew was still on. My friend’s father, a retired college principal, was waiting with his bicycle. We put our bags on the cycle and walked, through narrow lanes, to his house. Luckily, the house was on the town’s outer edge.

I slept well, having learnt that everyone in the town was safe.

Two nights passed before I could reach home. The curfew was relaxed briefly. My friend carried my bag and me on a cycle, and deposited us safely at my place.

Organic language

On the benches outside the university coffee house, a group of teachers are chirping excitedly. Again some commuters have been pulled out of a bus and shot dead. One of the professors coolly explains that such acts are justified – the government in New Delhi will understand only this language. He introduces himself as a postmodern organic intellectual, a champion of creative, life-affirming difference.

Without a word

In the usually crowded bazaar, a religious procession makes its slow way. The man who for years has been guiding the procession on its route and clearing the way is no longer there. A whistle on his lips, he used to ride his black and silver Rajdoot motor cycle. He was secretary in a gurdwara, an upright and respected journalist, and a beloved teacher who ran a one-man academy to prepare students for the Giani examination. He was shot dead a few months ago: two ‘boys’ had walked up to his academy on the storey above a shop. One of them had taken out a revolver and emptied the full magazine into him.

Today the procession is being led by a few youngsters, some almost kids. I approach from the opposite direction, on my scooter, a raw green Bajaj Chetak. As I slow down and pull aside, to stop and wait for the procession to pass, one of the kids – his head barely reaching the scooter’s headlamp – brings down a stick on the front-wheel guard. “Clear out, oye rode,” his voice sounds like a wind-torn green bamboo. He snarls.

I remember the dead gentleman’s polite greeting to those he would wish to pull aside. He had never needed to speak a word, his quiet gesture suggesting it all without a word.


A bunch of mischief-mongers, apparently enraged over another massacre of innocent people by the terrorists, set on fire several shops. One of these was the wholesale cloth shop of my friend Harinder Singh’s father.

A day after, Harinder was in the group of Sikh protesters who damaged and burnt some vehicles parked along a road.

Our friendship survived these incidents. Perhaps the reason was we knew each other better than any stereotypes could tell.

When a few days later I went to Harinder’s home, his mother received me with her usual, undimmed affection. Only, she was quieter, and not as bright-eyed: she was probably holding back a tear.

Rajesh Sharma is the author of In/disciplines: Notes on Politics, Culture and Education (Three Essays Collective, 2014). He has also published a translation of the selected poetry of Harbhajan Singh Hundal under the title Blood Flowers. He teaches literature, theory, film studies, and writing. He is currently chairman of the Department of English, Punjabi University.

  • Sukirat Anand

    Punjab was a complex, and a very sad story in the eighties. There is a tendency these days to reduce those complex days to neat formulations; or to merely two, very unfortunate and regrettable, dates of June and October 1984. This piece, with its balanced humanistic angle is a timely reminder of avoiding the inherent dangers of simplistic analyses.
    All well meaning people should be careful, rather vigilant, so that no one may succeed in pushing Punjab into similar days again.


    Punjab had seen many bloodbaths in history. Being a gateway to interior India, it bore the brunt of struggles. These struggles enriched with phiosophical knowledge gave rise to the new religion. The ‘guru grandh’ has all the democratic values imbibed in it but the passage of time made it a tool for opportunist politicians to take up skirmishes. The green revolution did not yield much except exploitation of Sikhs. The community has been used , misused and abused by the right – wing Hindu fanatics to gain power. The Sikhs were ditched by the Hindu fundamentalists in 1984riots and before as they did not approve self autonomy. Now, to enlarge the number of Hindus, they are forced to include Sikhs into Hindu fold. But the ordinary Sikhs live in the same conditions of penury as they lived earlier.