Book Excerpt: ‘The Kaurs of 1984’ by Sanam Sutirath Wazir

Book Title: The Kaurs of 1984: The Untold, Unheard Stories of Sikh Women
Author: Sanam Sutirath Wazir
Publisher: HarperCollins India
Number of Pages: 256
ISBN: 978-9362130297
Date Published: Jun. 27, 2024
Price: INR 320

The Kaurs of 1984 by Sanam Sutirath Wazir Book Cover

Book Excerpt

Chapter 4

In 1984, Nirpreet Kaur was sixteen years old.

Of all the memories of her youth, the clearest one is of running after a raging mob and trying to prevent it from setting her father on fire.
‘I saw my father dying at the hands of the mob during the 1984 Sikh massacre. I couldn’t sleep for so many months afterwards. Whenever I would try to close my eyes, that scene of the mob trying to immolate my father would appear in front of my eyes, again and again.

‘Before 31 October 1984, we were living happily in Raj Nagar, in Delhi’s Palam Colony. My father Nirmal Singh owned a taxi stand and ran a successful transport business in Delhi, while my mother Sampuran Kaur was a homemaker. I had two younger brothers, Nirpal and Nirmolak Singh. The events of the day when Mrs Gandhi was assassinated are still fresh in my mind. My father came home around four in the evening, breathless and in a state of panic.

‘That evening, Balwan Singh Khokhar, nephew of Councillor Sajjan Kumar, visited our home along with his brother Kishan Khokhar. They came to meet my father. Balwan Singh wanted to know if my father could give his brother a taxi to drive. Papa was a worried man that evening. He asked Balwan Singh to give him some time to find out about the availability of a taxi.

‘Meanwhile, Karnail Singh, who lived two lanes behind our house, was passing by when he saw my father and his guests and stopped. My father asked him how things were outside and Karnail Singh replied that everything was tense; there were mobs burning shops and vehicles.

‘At that point, Balwan Singh told Papa not to worry. He said that he would try his best to protect our family and everyone in Raj Nagar. He said that if required, he would personally ask his uncle Sajjan Kumar for help. But I think the real reason he came to see us that evening was to check if the Sikhs in Raj Nagar had heard of the mobs roaming outside and whether or not they were prepared to defend their homes.’

The next day, in the early hours of the morning, Nirpreet saw a mob trying to forcibly enter the neighbourhood gurdwara. Among the men were Mahinder Yadav, Balwan Singh Khokhar and Kishan Singh Khokar. Without wasting any time, Nirpreet ran to the gurdwara and managed to extricate the copy of the Guru Granth Sahib that was kept there. But as she was sneaking out from the back door of the gurdwara, her nine-year-old brother, who had accompanied her, was seized by the mob. She then heard Mahinder Yadav yell, ‘Issebhimaaro! Yeh saap ka bachaahai. Kill him too! He is an offspring of a snake.’ Nirpreet continued running with the Guru Granth Sahib on her head, while her brother managed to escape, although he did catch some brutal blows from the lathi-carrying mob.

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When she reached home, Nirpreet saw that the boundary wall of their home had been broken and the mob had moved on to torching the shops nearby. The family’s scooter was parked right in front of their home, but the mob was not bothered about the scooter. They were interested in Nirpreet who was carrying the holy book on her head. Nirpreet began screaming, and her screams prompted her thirteen-year-old brother to pick up a sword and come running to try and disperse the gathering crowd. It was then that Nirpreet saw them.

Balwan Singh Khokhar, along with Mahinder Yadav, were at the forefront of the aggressive crowd and they were locked in a confrontation with her father, who was demanding to know what had happened to the previous evening’s promise of safety. Balwan Singh responded to Nirmal Singh’s questions with aggression.

‘My father begged the crowd to understand that we hadn’t killed Indira Gandhi. He said, “Why are you coming after us? You have burnt the gurdwara and attacked my daughter and wife, but what have they done? If you want blood, kill me, but leave them alone.” Khokhar then intervened and asked the crowd to move along.’

But Balwan Singh Khokhar was not finished with Nirpreet’s father just yet.

A few hours later, in the lull that followed that first attack, a truck parked outside Nirpreet’s home was burnt. Her father then asked all the Sikh families living in the two lanes of Palam Colony to get ready to fight in order to protect themselves.

‘We fought for four hours with the mob,’ recalled Nirpreet, ‘and in this fight some people from the mob also got injured. When the mob realized that the Sikhs were overpowering them, Balwan Khokhar and Mahinder Yadav came to our home again. They were with the police this time. They asked us why we were fighting. “We are brothers, let’s compromise,” they said to my father.

‘My father said, “What compromise? You have attacked Gurdwara Sahib, my wife is unconscious, and you have burnt a truck in front of my house.” One of the policemen standing there then said to my father, “Sardar ji, it’s better to compromise. Your children have extricated the Guru Granth Sahib from the gurdwara.” It struck me then that they had been watching us. They pressurized my father into agreeing to a compromise and took away all our lathis and kirpans. They basically unarmed us. They pressured my father into compromising and deceived him into leaving his home. One of our neighbours, Mohan Uncle, said that my father will never return, and the moment he said that, I ran after my father.

‘The mob was standing a little distance away from us, and I saw Balwan Singh push my father right into the hands of the mob and say, “Yeh jo sardar tum chorhaayethe, main le aayahoon. This sardar that you had left behind, I have brought him.”

‘What happened next is something that I watched with helpless horror because I was forcibly held back from running to my father. IshwarchandSharabi handed over the kerosene to be sprinkled on my father and when the mob was unable to find any matchsticks, a policeman standing there—his name was Inspector Kaushik—gave a matchbox to Kishan Khokhar. Khokhar set my father on fire. Papa jumped into a drain to try and save himself, but he was pulled out, tied to a pole and set on fire a second time.’

Nirpreet’s memories of that morning are graphic and disturbing. ‘My father fought them off and jumped into the drain again. I saw a priest from the local temple call upon the mob to hit Papa on the head with a rod. So,Balwan Khokhar hit him with a rod and Mahendra Yadav sprinkled some white powder on him.’

Nirpreet alleges it was white phosphorous, a deadly chemical which caused her father’s skin to burn fatally and which gave him an eventual, agonizing death. She wasn’t the first person to mention this white powder. Several of the women that I spoke to during the course of my research for this book told me about a similar white powder, which burns human flesh and which catches fire when exposed to the air, both properties of white phosphorous.

Excerpted with permission from The Kaurs of 1984: The Untold, Unheard Stories of Sikh Women, written by Sanam Sutirath Wazir, and HarperCollins India.

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