An Excerpt From 'The Kaurs Of 1984' By Sanam Sutirath Wazir

The Kaurs of 1984 contains the oral testimonies of Sikh women who were scarred by Operation Blue Star of June 1984 in Punjab and the anti-Sikh riots later that year

Cover of 'The Kaurs Of 1984' By Sanam Sutirath Wazir

The Kaurs of 1984 contains the oral testimonies of Sikh women who were scarred by Operation Blue Star of June 1984 in Punjab and the anti-Sikh riots later that year. Many of them are still fighting invisible battles for justice. Based on interviews and extensive historical research, in The Kaurs of 1984, Sanam Sutirath Wazir weaves together stories of grief, betrayal and loss that brings Sikh women out of the shadows of contemporary Indian history.

Despite Harmeet’s deliberate and cautious steps, compelled by her pregnancy, with unwavering determination, she pressed on and reached the revered Akal Takht. However, the continuous gunfire enveloping her made each subsequent move a challenge. Amid this tumult, a compassionate young Sikh man gallantly carried her younger daughter. 

She was now near the main door of the Golden Temple, which was right in front of the Akal Takht Sahib. This was an entirely open space and it was also the centre of the main assault, making Harmeet and all the other women there clear and easy targets. It seemed to be an impossible situation—they could neither go forward nor retreat back. Somehow though, in the middle of a rather heavy exchange of bullets, Harmeet managed to take a few steps back and find refuge behind a pillar. 

As she stood there in sheer fright, Harmeet spotted her husband and some other Sikh men standing at one of the windows near the Akal Takht Sahib and waving his hands at her. However, she was uncertain about what he wanted to convey to her. Was he beckoning her to leave? Or perhaps he was telling her to stay hidden. Ultimately though, after much delay, Harmeet was finally able to make it to the hidden door with the help of Giani Puran Singh. 

In the early hours of 4 June, the firing was intensified yet again and power supply to the Golden Temple complex was cut off. This further complicated matters for those inside the Temple complex as they were already facing an acute shortage of water and food. 

The intense gunfight of 4 June had brought morning prayers to a halt within the Temple complex, and Gurucharan Singh Tohra along with Sahib Singh, the chief priest, had agreed to not begin recitals from the Holy Book from many places in the complex. The gunfight had also caused a lot of damage to tall structures within the Temple complex, like the elevated water tank and the Ramgarhia Bunga. Within five minutes of coming under heavy firing, the sandbag fortifications that had been built around the Bunga had been reduced to dust.

Rachpal Singh, Sant Bhindranwale’s scholarly looking bespectacled secretary, was taking a bath when the morning attack occurred. His wife, Pritam Kaur, was outside her room in the Golden Temple complex with their eighteen-day-old son. She rushed back inside the room when the firing started and asked her husband why he hadn’t told her about the attack. He replied, ‘Now you know it. When we are here to attain martyrdom, why to think?’ He then asked Pritam Kaur to leave their first-floor room and shift to the ground floor.

According to Manjeet Singh, on 5 June at around 8 a.m., the first bullet had hit Harchand Singh Longowal’s room which had remained safe until then. Abinashi Singh, who was the assistant to the president of the SGPC, suggested that Sant Longowal move to Tohra’s room. He said that both the presidents should be together at this crucial time. Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, Dara Singh, Manjeet Singh Taran Tarani and other members of Longowal’s kitchen cabinet including a few sevadars went to Jathedar Tohra’s room on the ground floor of Ramdas Sarai for safety. 

That same day, some time in the afternoon, around 120 people, including some children, came out of the Golden Temple with their hands held up above their heads. They were immediately taken into police custody and moved to the city’s kotwali. 

Meanwhile, at around 9.30 a.m. that morning, Pritam’s husband went to the Akal Takht Sahib to meet Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and asked him what their next step was going to be. The sant replied, ‘Tell everyone to hold their positions till their last breath; this is our last command.’

Two hours later, as the assault intensified and Pritam Kaur’s husband told her that they could be martyred anytime now, she asked him to recite the Kirtan Sohila (nighttime prayers) while she fed their son. 

Rachpal Singh said to his wife, ‘Boleya chaleya maaf karin. If I have ever done or said anything wrong, forgive me.’ Pritam Kaur remained silent, emotionally overwhelmed by the realization that these could be her husband’s last words to her. She touched her husband’s feet and replied, ‘You have been very kind, please forgive me if I have ever said anything unkind.’ Rachpal Singh simply kissed his son’s forehead and the couple exchanged their last fateh (the Sikh salutation, ‘Waheguru Ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji ki Fateh’). 

Reminiscing about that time, Pritam Kaur was able to recount every second of that day. She said, ‘A flash of light would come in from the space below the doors and blind us for a few seconds, followed by the deafening sounds of bombs. I could hear the sound of tank treads moving outside our room, proceeding towards the Akal Takht.’

Hours later, at around 12.15 a.m. on 6 June, a single bullet suddenly tore through the air and pierced her baby’s back before hitting Pritam Kaur in her chest. The child died on the spot, while Pritam fell to the ground. Even as Rachpal Singh bent over to help his wife and son, another bullet struck him in the head and he succumbed to his injuries almost instantaneously. Pritam lay in a growing pool of blood but remained alive, lying in pain, her dead son on her chest and her dead husband next to her. 

*Excerpted from The Kaurs of 1984 by Sanam Sutirath Wazir with permission from HarperCollins India*