Kids Corner


June 1984:
Reclaiming History






31 years ago, almost to the day, Harinderjit Singh remembers newspapers with entire blocks of blank space where there should have been text.

Then, the press didn’t have the freedom to tell this story. Today, the people who lived it are telling it themselves.

In June 1984, Punjab became a virtual concentration camp. Journalists had been removed from Punjab by June 1, 1984 and Punjabis were cut off from the rest of the world as state-orchestrated horrors unfolded around them.

After three decades, these eyewitnesses are finally sharing their stories.


With a media blackout and strict gun-enforced curfew in place, the government launched its military assault on the physical epicentre of the Sikh religion, The Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, which was and is visited by tens of thousands every day, and feeds as many as 100,000 every day for free – religion, caste, and gender no bar.

In 1984, thousands of worshippers gathered in heightened numbers for Guru Arjan’s martyrdom anniversary -- a high holiday -- were killed during the attack, their lives anonymized by mass cremations. Dozens of other gurdwaras were attacked on the same day, yet we still don’t know how many of their visitors and worshippers were killed.

Those gathered under the golden domes in June 1984 were ordinary people, like the elderly man from the countryside who came to Amritsar for an eye operation, or the woman from the narrow alleyway around Darbar Sahib whose morning routine included visiting the gurdwara, or the sweet vendor who set up shop nearby for the holiday.

Each of them are remembered today by survivors of the 1984 violence.

These worshippers did not realize that in a matter of hours, the military would open fire on their bodies and sacred grounds. They did not know that many among them would lie under the blistering sun with their hands tied behind their backs, dying of dehydration, or that adolescent boys, marked as terrorists for merely wearing a turban, would be beaten to death with sticks.

They could not know that in the nights to come, citizens like Rajinder Kaur, sealed away during the curfew, would watch from their windows as trucks filled with the bodies of the dead drove through the blackened streets of Amritsar, out towards rural crematoria. An untold number of bodies were dumped in garbage trucks and hurriedly, secretly cremated to cover up the extent of the mass-murders by the state.

And it wasn’t limited to Amritsar.

The colour of blood rose up from cities across Punjab, from Muktsar to Ludhiana to Patiala. Witnesses from villages all over Punjab remember the reddened sky and the smell of cremations.

“The babies’ stuff [strewn in the gurdwara] is what I remember most,” remembers Manjit Kaur, speaking of a gurdwara a good 150 kilometers from Amritsar. She challenges, through her poignant memories, the often-heard justification and minimization of June 1984: that it only happened because of the militants ‘holed up’ in Darbar Sahib; that it was a quick army operation.

All of these stories are eyewitness testimonies from Sikhs across the world who have shared their stories with the 1984 Living History Project, which is collecting the stories of Sikhs who lived through the brutality, one video testimony at a time. The blank spaces are still being filled.


A five-minute walk east from Darbar Sahib leads you to Jallianwala Bagh, where in 1919, a British general ordered his troops to fire on a crowd of unarmed men, women and children, killing hundreds. In the decades following the attack, the British provided reparations and relief to the families of the victims.

Today, the public square doubles as a national memorial garden for those who were killed in the massacre. World dignitaries routinely recognize the martyrs honoured there. On May 20, U.S Ambassador to India Richard Verma paid his respects at Jallianwala Bagh for the dead of 1919.

There is still no national garden, no physical space to honour the dead of June 1984. There is still no stone by which we can grieve those who gathered to bow their heads on the marble concourse, the massacre of June 1984 still has no institutionally supported space for memorialization.

In a cruel twist of fate, Arjit Singh recalls how his father’s younger brother, Hazura Singh, narrowly escaped Jallianwala Bagh as a young boy, only to die at Darbar Sahib 65 years later. What does it say about our society that Hazura Singh’s death might have received more recognition had he died at the hands of the British instead of Indians?

Today, instead of waiting for their democracy to memorialize the massacre, Sikh youth are carving global virtual spaces for memory by building an online archive of video testimonies from people across the world – from people who remember the media silence to those who remember the sound of thundering tanks and gunfire.


Sikhs are realizing that it was not only their sacred grounds that were hijacked – so was their narrative as a community and moreover, their ability to stand stronger, with others at risk of similar violence.

Sikh youth whose parents and grandparents lived through that year inherit a silence that has set in, born of the deep betrayal experienced at the hands of their own government.

Holocaust scholar and psychoanalyst Dori Laub says that giving testimony is inherent to the process of healing from trauma. The process of being listened to in interviews re-members the dis-membered “self” that was severed from an experience during the moment of trauma.

By speaking their histories, Sikhs are speaking themselves back into wholeness.

This is a story of Sikhs who are reclaiming their history. More importantly, this is a story of disenfranchised human beings who are brokering their own process of healing in a new, digital age.

[Courtesy: Youth Ki Awaaz. Edited for]
June 8, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Tejinder Singh (London, United Kingdom), June 09, 2015, 11:18 AM.

Genocide denialism is the last stage of Genocide. The Indian State will never allow the 'truth' about 1984 to come out, but the unfolding of the truth will help us in our healing process. We should build memorials in our hearts and minds to remember the victims of 1984 for generations to come.

2: Jasvir Kaur (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), June 09, 2015, 11:41 PM.

There are active protests and education going on in North America by our brothers and sisters (Vancouver International Bhangra, India Day in San Francisco, both held on June 6 2015). We can learn from the African-American community when watching the evening news. RECORD VIDEO. There should be people in your group recording from their cell phones when Indian women are approaching you with venom and telling you what happened in 1984 is because we deserved it. Don't be afraid. If anyone even puts a finger on your body first, you have legal rights in Canada and US. Put the video on online and for sure there will be consequences by their employer and society. Being polite is over.

3: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), June 10, 2015, 5:45 PM.

@2: Jasvir Kaur ji - I am assuming you also watched the video of the Hindu woman who approached the protestors in San Francisco and told them that the Sikhs of Jammu deserved to be killed? Thank God someone turned on their camera, although from the description they only filmed the end portion of her tirade. It puts things into perspective when Hindus who come abroad justify genocide as a response to protests that slightly put a damper on their inability to park their rears and watch people dance.

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Reclaiming History"

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