Photo Essay: Thirty-Three Years on, Wounds of the Anti-Sikh Massacre Are Still Fresh

"Almost my entire family was wiped out in front of my eyes and even after so many years, we haven’t been delivered any justice."

Note: This photo essay, originally published on November 1, 2017, is being republished on October 31, 2019, on the anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, which set off the anti-Sikh riots.

“Almost my entire family was wiped out in front of my eyes and even after so many years, we haven’t been delivered any justice.”

The wall at Darshan Kaur’s home in Tilak Vihar in Delhi on which images of all the events after the riots has been framed in the form of an album.

The year 1984 saw the worst pogroms against Sikhs after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on the morning of October 31. Estimated 8,000 Sikhs were killed pan India – more than 2,000 in Delhi alone. Rajiv Gandhi justified the massacre by saying, “When a big tree falls, earth shakes.”

Thirty-three years have passed, judgement(s) have been delayed, and the perpetrators are still roaming freely. Accused politicians like Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler and many unnamed people are leading a free life. Many children who lost their fathers are now in their thirties and forties. Their children still hear stories of the violent massacre.

My images are a slice of the lives of the people who witnessed the arson. The agony and pain of the massacre still looks fresh in their eyes.

A girl and her father pray at the martyrs' museum in Tilak Vihar, New Delhi.

A girl and her father pray at the martyrs museum in Tilak Vihar, New Delhi.

Bhagi Kaur migrated from to Tilak Vihar from Trilokpuri. Her husband and seven relatives, including her brothers-in-law and their sons, were killed on the evening of November 1, 1984. She lives on a pension of around Rs 10,000 which is not enough to run her household and look after five people. “To everyone else, the riots took place 33 years ago, but for me, it feels like it all happened yesterday. Almost my entire family was wiped out in front of my eyes and even after so many years, we haven’t been delivered any justice. The culprits are still roaming free. We are still fighting the consequences of what had happened. My life is almost over, but my kids are facing hardships they don’t deserve. The only hope I have is maybe my grandchildren will one day see happiness,” she says.

Bhagi Kaur with her family in Tilak Vihar.

Shanti Devi too migrated from Trilokpuri. “They killed my husband and brother-in-law with a sword. There was blood all around. Then a mob led by Congress goons struck our mohallah in Trilokpuri. God is witness to my pain. The images of the atrocities committed during 1984 haunt me even today,” she says.

Shanti Devi.

Lakshmi Kaur’s husband and five brothers among other relatives were killed. “They put a tyre filled with kerosene on my husband’s neck and lit it on fire. A middle-aged man from the mob came back at night and tried to touch me inappropriately. When I resisted, he went out and called his entire group. They searched my house and killed all the eight men hiding inside”, she recalls. Her infant son was thrown in the fire. The mob thought her son was dead but he somehow survived. He has been paraplegic since then.

Lakshmi Kaur with her disabled son.

Lakshmi has been struggling to survive since the incident. She says, “I was threatened and harassed so frequently that I decided to withdraw my case. The government should come and see how we are living.” But her fight against the men who killed her people is still on.

Hukumi Kaur lost her husband, brother-in-law, father-in-law and 11 others of her family on November 1, 1984. “Men were burnt at the main door of our house. My husband was killed three days later, his eyes were gouged out and burnt alive,” she says.

Hukumi Kaur with her mother-in-law.

Sundari Kaur too lost her husband and other family members. “My husband was an auto driver; he was killed outside somewhere. We only found his burned auto at the police station. I am still suffering from the pain of 1984, yet justice doesn’t seem close”.

Sundari Kaur.

Darshan Kaur was 21 years old when her husband Ram Singh, a daily wage labourer, was killed. “My husband tried to hide in the kitchen of our house in Trilokpuri. But the mob dragged him out by his hair and placed a quilt and a tyre on him. They poured oil and set him on fire.”

Darshan Kaur.

“The mob mercilessly stripped all the women. We were raped by men multiple times”, she recalls. The memory of those days still haunts Darshan. With little investigation, she says, the perpetrators roam scot free.

Gurmail Singh was driving a truck on the Nepal-Bihar border in the November of 1984. “I was held responsible for something I didn’t do just because of my religious identity. I was targeted by marauders several times, but managed to escape every time. For almost 14 days, I was away and unaware of my family’s condition”. Gurmail speaks fluent Bengali and says that the Bengalis gave shelter to the Sikhs. “That saved a lot of Sikhs who were living in West Bengal,” he says.

Gurmail Singh.

Joginder Kaur migrated from Sagarpur to Raja Garden. Her husband was killed and her mother-in-law went missing in 1984.

Joginder Kaur.

‘’My husband was attacked with swords and sticks. He was lying on a charpoy like a vegetable for three days. A mob again entered our home the third day and killed him”.

‘’We lost everything in 1984 – our future, our right to progress, everything. My younger son was depressed and has been missing from the past five years.”

Amarjit Kaur migrated from Tri Nagar to Raja Garden. She lost her husband and brother-in-law in 1984.

Amarjit Kaur lost her husband and brother in law

“My husband and his brother were killed in Badli. They were burnt alive by a mob.”

“We have been forgotten by our own government,” she says. Since then, Amarjit has been taking hypertension drugs which have made her immobile.

Santok Singh was only three years old when he lost his father and grandfather. “My mother dressed me in my sister’s clothes to save me. They were shouting slogans against Sikhs; they called us snakes. They burned my father”, he recalls.

Santok Sigh was an infant when the riots broke out. His father and grandfather was killed.

Harbans Singh says the mob burned all the trucks which had Sikh religious symbols. “The police was not doing anything. They were mere watchers,” he says.

Harbans Singh, a tailor from Bhigal in Delhi, saw arson on the properties owned by Sikhs in that area but he escaped the carnage.

Shamni Kaur migrated from Trilokpuri to Tilak Vihar. Her husband and all the men from her family were killed. “Nobody consoled us then and no one cares for us now. Does anyone understand how long those three days were? The mobs were raising slogans: don’t trust Sikhs they are traitors,” she recalls.

A panoramic view of the martyrs museum.

Amarjeet Singh at the martyrs museum in Tilak Vihar. He lost his brother and brother in law.

In February 2015, the Ministry of Home Affairs, acting on the recommendations of the G.P. Mathur committee, constituted a three-member special investigation team, comprising of two senior police officers and a retired judge. The SIT’s terms of reference included reinvestigating criminal cases filed in Delhi in relation to the 1984 Sikh massacre, and filing charges against accused persons where there was sufficient available evidence.

The SIT was given six months to complete this exercise. For over two years, the SIT has been seeking extensions. The SIT closed more than 190 cases out of the 293 cases referred to it.

All photos by Shome Basu.