Kids Corner


A Tale Of Resistance To India’s State Terror -
Part II





Continued from last week …


ACT 2 - All The Sant’s Men

"Surinder Sodhi & Labh Singh have left the complex!"

"Freedom from slavery is achieved only when a person starts to feel and understand that they would prefer death to life as a slave." [Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale]

Six months went by with no news from Sukhdev. It was June 1983, and through the Punjabi countryside, it was becoming increasingly common to hear of Sikh men who had gone missing. Their villages would have no idea where they had gone until one day, their corpses would be found lying in a local canal or river.

With no idea of Sukhdev’s whereabouts, a desperate and frantic Devinder headed to Amritsar in hopes of locating him. Along with her father and children, she arrived at Nanak Niwas, a hostel in the Darbar Sahib complex.

The family was immediately stopped by two heavily armed guards. Darbar Sahib was an open complex, and in all of her previous visits, she had walked wherever she pleased. Being stopped in this way felt, at the very least, different.

Nevertheless, Devinder composed herself and pleaded with the guards that she was searching for her husband - he was a policeman who might have been living here in the company of a sant.

A man, who the guards referred to as Baba Ram Singh, overheard Devinder and took the family inside. He asked her what she wanted to drink. Still dazed by these guards and their weapons, she responded softly, “chaa.”

"This isn't an environment for chaa," replied Baba Ram Singh and sent for warm milk instead. He then left, asking Devinder and her family to wait in the room.

By now, Devinder was growing wary. There were so many weapons in this complex. Then came the terrifying realization that her husband was still a fugitive from the police and potentially in the midst of a group of men who conducted themselves without a care for any outside authority. What could he possibly be doing at a place like this?

Eventually, Sukhdev arrived.

For an instant, the speculative what-if scenarios that had occupied her mind for the past six months faded and Devinder remembers an immediate sense of relief washing through her.

In that moment, nothing mattered but that Sukhdev was alive.

He stood before her, no longer dressed in the formulaic musty beige uniform of the Punjab Police that had been the standard attire for the first few years of their marriage. Rather, he was wearing a long flowing chola. The chola, commonly worn by rural Sikhs, was the typical attire for most of the men at Nanak Niwas. Eventually, the Army would target Amritdharis (Sikhs who had taken Amrit) wearing a chola as enemy combatants.

Typically brandishing a swaying AK-47 by their sides, it seemed to those arriving at the complex that even the clothes these men wore was a blatant sign of rebellion.

Sukhdev had not seen his family for six months, and both Rajeshwar and Pardeep had grown so much. After greeting his family, he told Devinder he wanted to take them to meet someone and quickly led them to another room. This room was more heavily guarded than anything else in the complex, and all attention here was captured by a tall figure who sat crosslegged in the middle.

Realizing this was the Sant, Devinder was initially startled by how young he was.

Devinder spent an hour in his company as large numbers of visitors flowed in and out. The Sant held Pardeep in his lap and reminded Devinder of the sacrifices previous Sikh women had made. He told Devinder to stay strong and not worry about Sukhdev.

The Sant’s name was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and he was the head of the Damdami Taksal (seminary). Viewing themselves as protectors of Darbar Sahib, Jarnail Singh and his men had taken up residence inside the complex. They felt that throughout India, the ways and means by which Sikhs practiced their religion, formulated their political infrastructure, cultivated their agriculture, and even their identity and attire, was under open assault.

When faced with a hostile political climate, the idea of subservience to a nation-state became irrelevant and was easily trumped by the assumed sovereignty of the Khalsa. The Khalsa was meant to be an autonomous entity, not bound to any outside social or political rules, but rather, spurred by its mandate for pursuing righteousness.

The ancestors of these Sikhs had died in attempts to preserve the sanctity of this complex, and for this group, their stay at Darbar Sahib was a continuation of that historical obligation to defend both the physical and figurative center of Sikhi.

In the company of the Sant, Sukhdev became a notorious figure throughout Punjab. Upon seeing Sukhdev, Jarnail Singh felt as if he had rediscovered his brother and gave Sukhdev the name Labh.

From this point, Sukhdev Singh became popularly known as Labh Singh and quickly rose to become an important member of Jarnail Singh’s group. Soon, the exploits of Labh Singh and his friends became popular in Punjab.

The Dhaadhi bards sang and glamorized their daring missions in the ways the tales of a Robin Hood or a Pancho Villa are told. In these ballads, they ride off into the middle of the night delivering justice on behalf of a Punjabi village being terrorized by a corrupt police officer or a conniving politician.

With Labh Singh's reputation spreading throughout the state, the Punjab Police began detaining and torturing his uncles in Panjwar. His uncles crafted a story -- Sukhdev had fought with the family, left home, and gotten married; they simply had no idea where he was or who he was married to.

This tale provided some cover for the village. In Tanda Urmar, people knew only that Devinder’s husband was in the police. They believed he was being moved around police stations in Punjab, and once his transfer was finalized, he would come to Tanda Urmar and take Devinder.

The family continued to make trips to Darbar Sahib. Arriving at Nanak Niwas, they would be greeted by two of Labh Singh's contemporaries, Anokh Singh Babbar and Surinder Singh Sodhi. Sodhi would take the kids while Anokh Singh sat with Devinder and her father.

In an attempt to alleviate Devinder’s fears, Anokh Singh transported father and daughter to 18th century Punjab: “Our ancestors used to live in jungles and launch attacks on the Mughals.” He navigated each conversation to the memory of older Sikhs who had died fighting foreign forces and comforted Devinder: “When you miss Labh Singh, bring Bapuji (her father) and meet him here. Even if he isn’t here, you can always come to us.”

For Devinder, Anokh became the modern manifestation of the 18th century jungle-faring Sikh guerrilla warrior. In the early 1700s, these Sikhs lived in the jungles of Central Punjab and organized themselves into bands of warriors. With bounties on their heads, they were hunted until close to extinction by the Mughals and the Afghans. Nevertheless, these Sikhs subsisted on guerrilla attacks and a belief in the need to preserve their way of life-style and values, if not necessarily their own lives.

Eventually, Anokh Singh would join the historical lineage of martyrs he had invoked with Devinder and her father.

Whenever Devinder remembers Anokh, she smiles. There is a clear sense of admiration for his aspirations, subdued by a hurting sadness for what he could have been. She takes a minute and pauses, seemingly lost in her own memories of Anokh. She gathers herself and continues by comparing Anokh Singh’s death to that of Bhai Mani Singh’s, one of the most famed shaheeds (martyrs) in the Sikh tradition.

In 1737, Mani Singh resisted the Mughals and refused a conversion into Islam. As punishment, he was killed by having his body dismembered.

The popular record in Punjab claims that Anokh Singh Babbar underwent some of the Punjab Police’s most brutal torture techniques. He was electrocuted as heated rods were hammered up through his legs and into his chest while his eyes were gouged out.

In his memory, a cry in Punjab goes, “Bhulni ni qurbani Anokh Singh di! (Never forget the sacrifice of Anokh Singh!)”

While Anokh Singh sat with Devinder and her father, Surinder Singh took the children to play. Devinder describes Surinder as happy, ‘phurteela‘ (high energy) and handsome in his round dumalla (a style of turban). He was 22 years old and called Devinder ‘Mata ji’ due to his respect for her. Devinder Kaur remembers her husband and Surinder as, “so inseparable that they couldn’t live without each other.”

To Devinder, Surinder was a representation of all the Sant’s men.

When Surinder Singh and Labh Singh left Darbar Sahib on a mission, Punjab’s police stations remained on high alert: “Surinder Singh & Labh Singh have left the complex!”

Once, Labh Singh told Devinder about a certain high-ranking police officer, Gurbachan Singh, Deputy Superintendent of Police (“DSP”). Gurbachan Singh had crafted a meticulous routine that he implemented after apprehending a Sikh. He would first take off the Sikh’s turban and then torture him through a consistent method of removing his nails and pulling off his skin.

One day, Labh Singh came to Devinder and simply said, “We've punished him.”

*   *   *   *   *

April 14 1984

Devinder stayed with Labh Singh from time to time at Darbar Sahib. When the family was there, Surinder Singh would take Pardeep for ice cream in the shops outside the complex. On this particular day, he returned Pardeep to Devinder, who was seated in the parkarma (the marbled perimeter surrounding the Harmandar Sahib). He left Devinder saying, “I’ve got word from my sister. She's in the hostel next to Darbar Sahib. I’m going to go meet her.”

Within moments, the sound of gunfire echoed through the complex, and a panicked rush overtook those in the par karma area. Labh Singh quickly arrived and took Devinder and the children to the rooms above the langar hall as cries of “Surinder Singh Sodhi shaheed ho gaya! Surinder Singh Sodhi has been maryred!” rang out below.

As Devinder reflects on this day, there is a solemn, almost blank look on her face. Surinderi was like a younger brother to her, and the shocking abruptness of his death still seems to stun her. She gathers herself before telling us what happened.

“A woman rushed into the Darbar Sahib claiming Surinder was after her. The men brought her to a room and interrogated her. The woman, Baljit Kaur, confessed to devising a plan to kill Surinder. They recorded a tape of the interrogation and played it for us. In the tape, Baljit Kaur goes in detail about her actions and describes the exact process of how she shot Surinder. Surinder was the first of Jarnail Singh’s men targeted, and Baljit’s instructions were to claim that Surinder was after her. She then named her co-conspirator, her boyfriend Shinda who then went to hide at the offices of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC, the elected body which controls gurdwaras) President, Gurcharan Singh Tohra.”

The impact of Surinder Singh’s death on the Sikhs inside the complex was hallowing. He was considered one of the most skilled of Jarnail Singh’s men and was loved at Nanak Niwas. His killing devastated the group. In a famous speech after the incident, an emotional Jarnail Singh spoke out, “My right hand has been taken out. Who will seek justice?”

Labh Singh stood up, “I will avenge my brother’s death myself.” He vowed not to eat until those responsible for Surinder’s death were killed.

In the subsequent days, through actions taken by Labh Singh, everyone connected to Surinder Singh’s death, including Baljit Kaur and Shinda, would be found dead.

*   *   *   *   *

Act 3 - The Battle of Amritsar

"Don’t worry, these fireworks are always going on."

I stuck around St. Petersburg when I saw it was time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers, Anastasia screamed in vain
I rode a tank, held a general's rank, when the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank
…”  [The Rolling Stones]

There’s something different about an insurgency.

During times of insurgency, the social contracts existing between the state and its people, dictating right and wrong, become uncertain.

From the state’s side, each action is now guided by simpler mandates - Can this insurgency be quelled? How can the sanctity of the nation be preserved?

In a world guided by an impulse for stability, the nation is aware that actions occurring on its behalf are easier to rationalize. The army knows their soldiers are not simply soldiers with marching orders. For the sake of combating this insurgency, it has created a group of temporarily conscripted mercenaries, including the journalists searching for convenience and the legislative bodies gunning for votes. These are the handmaidens of the state who, from hereon, will assist in sanitizing the action of its security forces for the outside world. The handmaidens will now spar amongst themselves in efforts to see who becomes the nation’s greatest cheerleader.

The state is now master of a collaborative war machine with a tool-kit that can both wage military might and manipulate soft power to conquer hearts and minds.

Yet, what about the insurgency? What impulses spur its decision making? Who organizes?

It is different for those on the other side.

June 1984

The next time Devinder and her family came to Darbar Sahib was five weeks after Surinder Singh’s assassination. By then, the atmosphere was different. Military encampments dominated the rooftops of the nearby buildings, and the steady arrival of visitors was interrupted by the steadier sound of gunfire ringing in the distance.

Labh Singh responded to the questions of his inquisitive wife: “Don’t worry, these fireworks are always going on.”

On June 1, Devinder noticed direct fire coming from the surrounding rooftops. She concluded these were manned by soldiers from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). The CRPF is India’s paramilitary force for internal security, deployed in times of counter insurgency and civil unrest. The CRPF continued firing, and the first casualty of the battle was a Sikh shot on one of the Darbar Sahib rooftops.

On June 2, Labh Singh, Devinder, and their children attended a speech by Jarnail Singh. With the CRPF bolstering its positions, Bhindranwale warned of the arrival of the present day ‘Ahmed Shah Abdali‘. Abdali was an Afghan invader whose forces attacked Darbar Sahib in the 1700s.

As firing increased, Labh Singh told his family to leave. Devinder’s father replied, “We can go, Sukhdev, but Devinder won’t leave without you.”

Labh Singh was adamant, “I can’t leave Sant ji. If I die, don’t worry, this is already sachkhand (paradise).”

Devinder remembers glimpses of the battle. Her family was bunkered in the langar hall, while Labh Singh was fighting inside the Akal Takht. There was a particularity to this attack. Conveniently for the attackers, and planned purposely enough, the assault took place on the shaheedi (martyrdom) anniversary of the Fifth Sikh Guru when it was clear from the government’s perspective that the Darbar Sahib would be overflowing with visitors.

It was also typical for visitors to bring food donations for the Darbar Sahib’s langar hall (community kitchen). Often the visitors brought flour, and oddly enough, it is this flour that Devinder remembers most from the attack. There was so much of it that the bullets flying back and forth through the complex would pierce and burst open the assembled bags of flour. Later, the spilled blood of the dead and injured would combine with the loose flour to create a most disturbing mix of powdered white and crimson throughout the floor of the langar hall.

On June 3, trucks began rolling in to take civilians out of the complex. Devinder’s family boarded a truck destined for a nearby village and eventually arrived back in Panjwar.

On June 7, Labh's uncles in Panjwar received word from Rura Singh, a local police officer, “Get Sukhdev’s wife and kids out of Panjwar. They are going to be killed.”

Devinder heard the following account:

After the Battle of Amritsar, Labh Singh was captured. While detained, police officers from Panjwar, including Rura Singh, saw him. A high-ranking policeman by the name of Izhar Alam lined up the detainees, intending to kill them. Rura and his fellow officers believed that if they made enough noise about Labh's capture, word would eventually reach the newspapers and Alam would not be able to secretly execute Labh.

In a desperate attempt, they yelled, “Sukha from Panjwar has been caught! Sukha from Panjwar has been caught!” This prevented Alam from shooting the detainees. Labh Singh knew that there would be consequences to his family, so in a moment of secrecy, he told Rura, “Get my wife and children out. They’re going to kill them.”

Izhar Alam is a name that comes up constantly through human rights reports and witness testimonies over allegations of mass killings and staged encounters. A Wikileak from the US State Department summarized the dirty war being coordinated by Alam:

"During the Punjab militancy of the 1980s-1990s, Additional Director General of Police (Administration) Mohammad Izhar Alam assembled a large, personal paramilitary force of approximately 150 men known as the "Black Cats" or "Alam Sena" ("Alam's Army") that included cashiered police officers and ‘rehabilitated’ Sikh miliatants. The group had reach throughout the Punjab and is alleged to have had carte blanche in carrying out possibly thousands of staged encounters, according to Indian NGO and press reports.

[Punjab Police Chief KPS] Gill publicly praised the group and said the Punjab police could not have functioned without them."

Devinder did not believe the rumors and demanded answers from Rura. Rura pleaded with Devinder, "Why would I lie? I don't know where they took him or if they’ll let him live. I do know that Izhar Alam isn't going to just let him be."

Another rumor spread back to Panjwar that Labh Singh was among the detainees sent to prisons in the neighboring state of Rajasthan.

The family had no idea if he was alive, dead, or in prison. Five months passed with no news about Labh Singh. Finally, one day in late October, a letter from Jodhpur, Rajasthan, arrived. Addressed simply to the village of Panjwar, it said: "I am in the Jodhpur Jail. Please come."

Panjwar was jubilant. This was the first indication that Labh Singh was alive. A wave of relief swept through the village. Neighbors began going door to door to spread the message, “Sukha is alive, Sukha is alive.”

The same night the villagers assembled together and began making clothes for Labh Singh. The plan was for Devinder, her children, and her father to travel to Jodhpur immediately.

*   *   *   *   *

October 31, 1984

As the family boarded a bus to Rajasthan, word arrived that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh.

Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in to take his mother's position as India’s Prime Minister and in a press conference, when asked about the massacre of the Sikh populace taking place in India’s capital and across the country even as they spoke, shrugged it off with “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.”

In the days that followed, thousands of Sikhs were killed in attacks that were organized and coordinated by the state. The death toll was highest in Delhi as Sikh men and boys were taken from their homes and paraded by mobs before being set on fire while women were forced to watch, and were then raped and killed.

Coordinated by the political infrastructure of the country and aided by a complicit police force, the assassination of Indira Gandhi by two of her guards, was thus followed by state-sponsored retribution on an entire population.

For Devinder and family, it was far too dangerous to travel, so they returned home and impatiently waited for a safer time.

Two more letters arrived, one each in Tanda Urmar and Panjwar. Labh Singh repeated his earlier message, “Please understand the condition I am in and come soon.”

Devinder pleaded with her family, “I can’t wait any longer. I have to go now.”

Her family eventually relented, and Devinder, her father and her sons boarded a bus from Jalandhar headed for Rajasthan.

*   *   *   *   *

It was mid November, when the family finally saw Labh. Devinder and her children were allowed into Jodhpur Jail while Devinder’s father, Charan Singh Lahoria, was told to wait outside.

Labh Singh had no indication of his family's arrival and refused to go with the guards. When taken forcibly, he created a huge uproar, "Where are you taking me? Are you going to leave me somewhere to die?!”

There is a long hallway in Jodhpur Jail where prisoners are led from their cells to a set of meeting rooms. Upon hearing Labh's outcries, Rajeshwar ran into the hallway screaming, “We found my dad!”

Labh Singh immediately hugged his children and wife. He then took off his tattered prison uniform and quickly put on the new clothes his family had brought, tied his keski (a small under-turban), placed sandals on his worn out feet, and took a seat. Pardeep nervously surveyed the jailers and kept asking for water. Rajeshwar kept repeating, “We found my dad!” while inquisitively pointing to his father’s shackles, “What are these?"

Initially, Devinder said little due to the surrounding police presence. The police sat around the family and noted all details of their conversation. Devinder was still shocked, “We weren’t sure if you made it out alive. We had no idea. Everyone told us so many different things.”

Labh Singh took a moment and smiled, relieved to finally see his family. The past five months had been a nightmare, and he began by describing his living conditions to his wife:

“I am kept in Kali Kotli (solitary confinement). I cannot lay down or stretch. I stopped eating completely for two weeks. Then one night, I had a dream. A baaj (hawk) came to me and said, ‘You still have a responsibility.’ Sant ji followed the baaj and told me, ‘Get strong, Singha!’

“Realizing there is still work to be done, I couldn't remain as I had been and began eating again. My strength returned right away.”

Labh had asked for a few things, including oil, which Devinder brought in two plastic bottles. He took a bottle and rubbed the oil into his hair. This is when Devinder noticed that his head was dotted with burnt signs of electrocution.

Devinder saw the desperate condition of her husband and attempted to motivate Labh Singh by telling him of the strength it required to live as he was. “Don’t worry. It is because they fear lions that they try to keep us in cages. We are a community of lions.”

Devinder is visibly proud as she tells us about this moment. Her face reddens and a clear, childlike joy washes over it as she repeats the line to herself, “Lions are the ones kept in cages.” She then analyzes how her words encouraged her husband, “It made him really happy to hear me say this, and he said, ‘You have a strong heart. It seems to me that if anything were to happen to me, you’ll be fine.'”

Labh told Devinder what had occurred inside Darbar Sahib. “Sant ji kept telling me, ‘Labh Singh, leave. You have responsibility beyond this.’ However, none of us would leave. I only left after Sant Jarnail Singh ji was shaheed.”

The prison guards notified the family that their visiting time was over and refused Devinder’s request for a second meeting. Labh assured his family, “I’ll be out in a year or two.” It seemed either an empty boast or a way to assuage Devinder’s fears. Regardless, Devinder didn’t think much of it.

Before leaving, Devinder informed Labh Singh about the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Walking back to his cell, Labh Singh shouted, “Indira’s been killed, Indira’s been killed!” The other inmates thought he had gone mad.

The next time they met Labh, he informed them that the Sikhs outside had preserved their honor by assassinating Indira and to stay strong. This was how the detainees of Jodhpur Jail learned of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Upon Devinder’s return to Panjwar, news of her visit spread through the anxious villagers. Panjwar was in high spirits. There were continual prayers done for Labh's wellbeing, and loud announcements were made through the countryside, “Our warrior is alive!”

Many Sikh soldiers were still missing following the Battle of Amritsar. No one, including their families, knew where they were. After Devinder arrived back from Jodhpur, many of these families began visiting her, desperately wanting to know if Labh Singh had given her any news of their whereabouts. Labh Singh had indeed told her of the deaths of many of the men inside the complex, and Devinder delivered the news of Major Singh Nagoke and Baba Ram Singh’s passing to their families.

These visits helped dispel rumors about the whereabouts of many of those inside Darbar Sahib, and the families repeated the same line to Devinder: “If Bha ji (Labh Singh) says they are gone, then we believe him.”

The families then held memorial services for their deceased in their respective villages.

After the services, local police from these areas would come to Devinder. She would tell the police her husband was at the battle and confirmed each particular death. Previously, police would harass the families of the missing men. This harassment typically stopped after the police themselves learned of these deaths through Devinder.

Six months later, Devinder visited Labh Singh again. Despite his imprisonment, Labh Singh was in high spirits and reassured Devinder, “We’ll be out soon. Don’t worry.”

To Be Continued …

Edited for
July 27, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), July 27, 2015, 4:37 PM.

It was very difficult to read about the torture of Anokh Singh. The biggest failure of the recent films in Punjab relating to the period is their inability to show the disgusting and barbaric actions of the Indian state towards imprisoned Sikhs, both militants and civilians, men and women. I recently watched "Punjab 1984" and still remember laughing when the lead character was being beaten with a stick because it was that moment I realized how the film made it past the Hindutva censor board without a single edit.

2: Kaala Singh (Punjab), July 28, 2015, 12:18 PM.

We have heard a lot about "black cats". Who were these guys? -- they did not come from outside, they were locals who got paid for their "work". Did I read "rehabilitated militants" killing their own people -- how can one explain that? Does it mean that they chose the path of "resistance" only to switch sides for the right offer? Who got recruited in police those days? -- again, local people. And we all know what they did -- killing for land and ransom. Is it still a surprise that nothing was achieved? This tells me that a lot of people with no ideological moorings got into the scene for personal gains.

3: Kaala Singh (Punjab), July 28, 2015, 12:43 PM.

@1: 'Punjab 1984' got cleared by the Indian Censor board as it depicted the Punjab problem as a local "law and order" problem. With the oppressors and the oppressed both being shown incorrectly as Sikhs, it failed to tell the truth ... and therefore suited the official line.

4: Kaala Singh (Punjab), July 28, 2015, 1:21 PM.

I have always wondered if the "bravehearts" of Punjab Police who inflicted inhuman torture on captives could show some of their bravery outside their fiefdoms. These guys were just criminals in uniform on the payroll of the Indian State. We are horrified to see the actions of the Islamic State today. Didn't we have such barbarians right here in Punjab? This leads me to say, that the Hindu State is more barbaric than the Islamic State.

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A Tale Of Resistance To India’s State Terror -
Part II"

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