She has raised more than 400 orphans, of whom around 25 per cent are postgraduates now. No wonder Kulbir Kaur Dhami is an inspiration to many. She runs a girls’ home, while her husband K.S. Dhami runs a separate shelter for boys, both in Mohali. These are no ordinary orphanages, though, as they house children who lost their parents in police encounters, most of which, Kulbir Kaur alleges, are fake. The couple’s personal history is marked by the violence of the times they lived through—they spent years in jail before they were acquitted.
On June 1, 1984, Kulbir Kaur claims she was in Amritsar on a pilgrimage with her kin when the Indian Army stormed the Golden Temple. To the 21-year-old’s eyes, it was an act of unprecedented sacrilege, worsening the distress she had felt since the 1978 Nirankari massacre.
She hid for 17 days in Amritsar. Her family told her not to return to her native village in Hoshiarpur because the police had detained her sister. They tried taking shelter in the border villages near Amritsar, but combing operations made them switch shelters many times until they eventually crossed over to Pakistan.
“Many had crossed the border hoping tanks from Pakistan would invade Punjab. Khalistani militants were also being trained for the armed struggle that followed,” says a senior lawyer who defended many accused in terror cases.
Kulbir Kaur claims she and her companions were held in a detention camp for illegal immigrants near Lahore. It could well have been a training camp. She recalls being the only woman there. She married her brother-in-law (K.S. Dhami) and gave birth to a son. It is unusual to get married and have a child without the help of the authorities. Those in detention camps were able to return to Punjab only after diplomatic negotiations. It was six years before the Dhamis could return. Kulbir Kaur started teaching at Baru Sahib, while her husband moved to Gujarat. “I was picked up in 1992, spent 11 months in illegal detention and spent a total of three-and-a-half years in jail,” she says. The whole family was charged, including the then six-year-old son, under TADA for subversive activities, and later exonerated of all charges. She narrated her experiences—including the tortures and fake encounters she claims to have witnessed—in a book.
A former intelligence officer says many had been trained in Pakistan to indoctrinate other Sikhs in extremism. “Their mission,” he says, “was to parrot the ‘historical wrongs’ done to the Sikhs and preach how a new nation would bring them religious freedom, while sentiment burned in Operation Blue Star’s aftermath.”
In 1996, she registered the trust for the orphanage and has been running it since, with a mission to care for orphaned children of encounter victims. She says they have had to look for funds locally despite offers of funds from across the globe. An application for an FCRA licence was rejected with a remark that the foreign funds would be used to fund a separatist agenda—even though the funds were meant for orphans’ welfare and the FCRA has a very critical audit process.
“The children, when they grow up, marry into whichever community they want to. There is no religious or communal message in the orphanages,” says Kulbir Kaur, who also feels strongly about the “self-determination of Sikhs”. “It is a matter of our rights,” she says.
“There is unresolved anger that has been brewing for decades. I have seen many of the children in my care suffer depression for years,” is all she says when asked whether she supports the use of arms in seeking “self-determination of Sikhs”.