Kids Corner

Devinder Kaur


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





Continued from last week …


On July 31, 1985, this same Jinda traveled to Delhi with fellow KCF members Sukhdev Singh Sukha and Ranjit Singh Gill and killed Congress Leader and 1984 mass-murderer Lalit Maken. A month later, Sukha and Jinda assassinated Congress Leader Arjan Dass, another politician and 1984 criminal.

The human rights group, ‘People's Union for Civil Liberties‘, published a report following the Delhi massacres of Sikhs in which they described the roles of the perpetrators. Both Arjan Dass and Lalit Maken were personally responsible for leading mobs to the homes of Delhi Sikhs in the days following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Lalit Maken was third on the list of accused, and he reportedly paid mobs 100 rupees and a bottle of liquor to each thug to kill Sikhs. The report continues, “A white ambassador car reportedly belonging to him (Lalit Maken) came four times to the G.T. Road area near Azadpur. Instructions to mobs indulging in arson were given from inside the car.”

On August 10, 1986, Sukha and Jinda went to the central Indian city of Pune and killed General Arun Vaidya, the architect and supervisor of the attack on Darbar Sahib.

Jinda was also a free spirit who reminded Devinder much of Surinder Singh Sodhi. He loved chaa, and upon entering the stairs, he would shout loudly, “Bhabiji, one cup of chaa!”

Devinder remembers Jinda as quite the amateur photographer. He would assemble the children, making them strike poses while taking various pictures of their antics before gathering them on his motorcycle and taking them around the neighborhood. He dotted them with food and gifts. Most of all, he loved flying kites with the children, which concerned Kamaljit who pleaded with him, “Don’t fly kites on the roof. My family lives nearby. What if someone sees the kids?”

Kamaljit was extremely brave and in many ways different from most involved with the movement. Occasionally, she would wear saris, put on lipstick, and go on motorcycles with Jinda or her husband, Satnam Singh Bawa.

“We need to go shopping …Vicky wants this and this.”

Devinder was perplexed as to how Kamaljit got involved with all this. She was a city girl from Ludhiana. Her parents lived nearby, but she didn’t interact with them. They were clearly not pleased that she had gone off and joined the movement. Devinder distinctly remembers her as very clever. The neighborhood folk would come to her and complain about their electricity bill: “Our bill is so large. Your husband works there. Can he do something?”

Similar to the girls proposing to Jinda, she would quickly talk the neighbors out of their requests.

Jinda and Manju woke early each morning. After showering, they would immediately go inside the room with the treasure chests of guns and money and begin their prayers. In Jinda’s case, Devinder laughs: “He would quickly grab one of his two chunniaan (head coverings typically worn by Sikh women)” before venturing inside.

After praying, Jinda had a habit of looking to see what food was made the previous night and would tell Devinder and Kamaljit: “Let’s make paronthay out of whatever is left.”

Devinder describes his early morning routine: “He would then make paronthay with us, while eating and hopping around and gathering everyone else around to quickly eat.”

After 21 days at the Ludhiana house, Manjit Singh Manju took Devinder and Pardeep to a bus station where they boarded a bus back to Tanda.

On February 12, 1987, a neighbor rushed into her father’s house.

“Charan Singh, congratulations! Today, all of Punjab has been shaken. The government, the earth, the sky - everything is changed.”

A puzzled Charan Singh Lahoria, asked, “What happened?”

“Sukhdev just took 670,000 from the bank.”

Charan Singh Lahoria started laughing as he sensed the turmoil to come.

“The police will be coming for me now.”

*   *   *   *   * 

Earlier that same day, General Labh Singh, the phurteela Jinda, long armed Manjit Singh Manju, fake electricity board member Satnam Singh Bawa, and the rest of their friends raided the Punjab National Bank’s Millarganj branch in Ludhiana. Dressed as police officers, they walked into the bank and in 30 minutes loaded the equivalent of 4.5 million dollars into getaway vehicles. The heist, Asia’s largest bank job to that date, had been planned during Devinder’s time at the Ludhiana House. No one was hurt in the process, and Labh Singh would later tell her:

“Before we left the bank, an old bapu like ours came to ask for some money. He told us he needed 200 rupees. Hearing such a low number, I uncovered the money from beneath a blanket.”

For Labh Singh, the money he was taking was for the quom, and he told the old man to take as much as he needed. Instead of taking the money, the old man embraced Labh Singh with love and said, “Son, I don’t need this money. Our people need you to live.”

*   *   *   *   *

Act 6 - Shaheedi

"You can kill his son, but he still won’t come.”

There is a road that passes through Tanda Urmar separating an empty field from a set of petrol pumps. The setting is generic enough that it could be mistaken for any other Punjabi town.

On July 12, 1988, two and a half years after the heist, the Police knocked on Devinder’s Tanda Urmar residence and brought her to that field.

Devinder was often visited by two kinds of people. The first set was her husband’s soldiers. Typically they were complete strangers to her and had navigated the roads and passageways leading into Tanda unseen. Like their general, their organization and discipline was masterful.

The second was the Punjab Police. Unlike the general’s soldiers, the Punjab Police abided by a different set of rules. They would surround the town of Tanda, barge into Devinder’s residence, and ruthlessly take her away.

On the morning of July 12, the police came in a different manner. There was no large battalion. There was no commotion. They quietly loaded a confused Devinder into their jeep and drove off to that empty field across from the petrol pumps. Devinder peered outside and upon seeing a large crowd, feared the worst.

The police separated the crowd and brought Devinder to a bloodied lifeless body.

*   *   *   *   *

February 1987

A few days after the bank robbery, General Labh Singh's cousin, Paramjit Singh, and his friend Bachittar Singh, came to visit Devinder in Tanda. Upon learning of their arrival, security forces surrounded Tanda. They rushed into Devinder's residence and ordered the entire family onto two beds.

Remembering the thorough search, she tells us, "They even shattered the canisters of milk."

The police believed that Paramjit and Bachittar were the Ludhiana bank robbers and arrested them. Paramjit pleaded with them that he feared for Devinder's safety and had accompanied her from Panjwar. The police were surprised at the idea of General Labh Singh’s wife needing protection and laughed, “Who would harm the wife of such a big general?”

Nevertheless, Paramjit worked in a government bank and had an alibi for the date of the robbery. They were both released.

A week later, the police were back. Devinder tells us the names of the police inspectors, Sant Kumar and Sardul Singh. Sardul Singh barged into the house and yelled at Devinder’s father, “Old man, get dressed.”

Devinder, her father, and younger son, Pardeep, were taken to an unfamiliar police station.

“The three of us were placed in a cell that night. It was extremely cold and rainy. We had taken a single blanket, and all three of us sat inside it, trembling.”

As a result, her father and Pardeep quickly fell sick.

Following the robbery, the police raided the Ludhiana house and found a set of pictures hidden behind the TV. These were the photographs Jinda had taken with the children. Initially, police officer Sardul Singh asked Devinder, “How was this picture taken?”

Devinder quickly crafted a story: “I was ordered to go to Ludhiana, and considering I had no other options, I decided it best to go. When I got there, I met Labh Singh, and he took us to an unknown house.”

“How long were you there for?”

“I was there for 20 days. They kept me against my will and forced me to make rotiaan. I told them I wouldn’t do any of their work because they had ruined my family’s life,” she lied. “Pardeep and I were kept in a room. One of them took a picture with my son. I had no idea who he is.”

Sardul Singh continued to look at the photos while asking Devinder, “Who is it? This is Jinda, right?!”

Devinder would feign ignorance and reply with a list of pseudonyms, “This is Surjit Singh ... this is Vicky.”

Even today, Devinder shakes as she remembers the details of Sardul Singh’s interrogations.

“He would start by saying things that I cannot repeat to you. He then tied my hands above my head and hit me. He did all this in front of my father. It was all too much. It was bad enough that I had to go through it. Having my father see this was unbearable, and I couldn’t take it anymore.”

The interrogations occurred everyday. Sant Kumar did all he could. Once, he placed a pistol to the side of Pardeep’s head and threatened Devinder, “Tell us where your husband is or we will kill your son.”

Devinder pleaded to them over and over again, “I don’t know where he is. You can kill his son, but he still won’t come.”

Devinder pauses. It seems as if the ordeal is playing out in her head, and she looks away. After a minute, she continues again by describing how the questioning broke her.

“Sardul said things to me that made me want to sink into the earth and disappear.”

When he wasn’t harassing Devinder, he was harassing her father. He would yell at Charan Singh saying, “Old man, you made the worst mistake of your life marrying your daughter to that criminal.

”When Sardul was finally exhausted from the pain he was inflicting, Sant Kumar would replace him to continue the torture.

“Give us Labh Singh” he’d say, “There’s a 50 million reward for you and your daughter if you hand him over to us. You can get away from all this. All your troubles will go away, and we will keep both of you safe.”

Charan Singh replied: “What can I possibly tell you if I, myself, don’t know where Labh Singh is. I’m as clueless as you are.”

Next, Devinder describes to us the torture that would occur in the police station. There was a tree where the officers took prisoners and hung them by their arms while breaking their bones. She continues:

“At night, the officers would get drunk and come together to verbally harass me. When it wasn’t the officers, the CBI (India’s Central Bureau of Investigation) would visit the station to question me. Unlike the officers, they were more interested in the money that was stolen from the bank.”

Over and over again, they would ask the same questions.

“Where is the money?”

“How poor is your family?”

“How much of it have you kept?”

Not all the officers were as cruel as Sardul and Sant Kumar. There were two Army soldiers who would leave extra food for Pardeep to eat. However, Pardeep still refused to eat or drink, which led a frustrated Sant Kumar to place a pistol to Pardeep’s head while yelling, “If he doesn’t drink his milk, I’m going to kill him!”

Devinder calmly replied, “The foremothers of my panth had their massacred children placed in their laps. Like them, my faith will not falter -- you go ahead, do what you want to. You will not break me.”

Once, a friendly officer saw the state in which the family was kept and told them, “Go take a warm shower, put on some fresh clothes, and sit out in the sun. You’ll get sick otherwise. Here, use my oil and soap.”

Another asked, “Why hasn’t anyone come for you?”

Devinder told him that no one was coming because no one knew where they were. Shocked, he left a pen and paper at the foot of her cell and told her to write down her address. Later that night, the officer's wife delivered the letter to Tanda. When the residents of Tanda learned of Devinder’s condition, they blocked the streets outside the Tanda Police Station.

They were angry and demanded to know the whereabouts of the family. A Tanda police officer told Devinder’s brother that a lanky police officer named Sardul Singh took Devinder and the family to Ludhiana. The townspeople then began a march to Ludhiana. However, a police blockade stopped their advance.

On the 20th day of her imprisonment, Jinda published an open letter to newspapers in Punjab.

“If General Labh Singh’s family isn’t released within the day, every police officer’s wife will be picked up.”

Jinda was feared throughout the country. The thought of him keeping his word sent panic through the police officers. The family was immediately released and sent home.

*   *   *   *   *

Soon after the family arrived back in Tanda, Charanjit Singh Channi sent word: “I need to take you to meet Labh Singh.”

Anger grew inside her at the sound of his name. She had no idea what she would say to her husband after all she had endured for him. But the words came quickly when she saw him.

“You don’t understand what we have been through. You have no idea what’s been happening to my father, our son, and me.”

Labh Singh tried to console her. He urged her to share her pain with him. After some time, Devinder began to open up to him about what had happened inside the jail. She told him the details of what had been said and done to her.

This was the first time she had shared her experience with anyone. After she was done, Labh Singh was furious: “What is his name? The officer! What is his name?”

“Sant Kumar Lopoka” she replied.

Realizing that talking about what she had been through wasn't helping, Labh Singh changed the topic and tried to joke around with her. Eventually, the conversation became more pleasant. Labh Singh gave her a grand account of the bank job. He said, "There was so much money. We didn't know what to do with all of it."

He also told her the story of the old man which amused Devinder and made her proud. The awe and love given by the old man to Labh Singh was reflective of the way many Sikhs felt about her husband, and it always made her happy to see the impact of his actions.

Labh continued by describing how they loaded all the money into their vehicles. Devinder laughed. “The police came and demanded to know how many carloads of money you had dropped off!”

Labh asked Devinder, “Do you need money?”

Devinder echoed the sentiments of the old man. “I don’t care about the money, Singh Sahib. I care about your life. Money is temporary. What I care about is you.”

She was torn between being with her husband and understanding the role he played for his own men and the movement itself, “There is nothing more I want than your well-being and to be with you again. Please, just come home.”

Labh Singh joked in response, “We’ll build palaces for you and the kids.”

Devinder missed her husband dearly. She only met him at the most random of times. He barely saw Pardeep and very rarely saw Rajeshwar.

In a few weeks, Devinder received word to meet her husband again. The plan was for Devinder, her brother, and Pardeep to accompany Labh Singh to Kashmir. They met Labh Singh and an associate at a local train station where he warned her that this trip would be dangerous. With security forces canvassing all of Punjab for him, Labh explained that if he were captured, he faced certain torture and death. Therefore, if anything happened, he would have to shoot his way out of the train. In the event any of this occurred, the family was to stay as far away as possible from him.

They eventually arrived in Kashmir. The next day, Devinder and Labh had their final conversation.

Labh Singh was reflective and initially teased his wife. “Wherever I end up, you always find me. I’ve done so many things in my life, I don’t have any desires left. I’ve done all I’ve wanted. And now, I’ll be going to a place where for once you won’t be able to find me.”

Devinder: “Where are you going? I’ll always find you.”

“No. This time I’ll be going to the type of place you don’t come back from.”

Labh Singh shifted the conversation to Devinder.

“One thing I know is that you have a strong heart, and you'll be fine.”

Labh Singh took a bath and began praying. Devinder and Pardeep sat next to him and listened.

Afterwards, he continued: “If I die, then the quom is always here for you.”

Similar to her talks with Anokh Singh Babbar, her husband navigated the conversation to past Punjabi heroes, “Remember when I showed you that statue in Ludhiana? Whose was it?”

“Udham Singh.”

“The future generations will remember us in the same way.”

Devinder understood what her husband meant to those around him. The Sikh collective memory is dotted with examples of those who died in resistance to tyranny and oppression. In their aftermath, it is not only their lives but also the lives of their families that are cherished.

Again and again, Devinder references the honor she felt in being the wife of a man who was beginning to follow in the footsteps of the past shaheeds. At each of their secret meetings, she provided encouraging examples of past heroes. Although she had suffered uncertainty and torture as a result of being married to Labh Singh, Devinder believed that there existed a plane in which both of their lives mattered to more people than just each other. This belief had acted as a saving grace during the troubles she had faced.

That night at the Kashmiri boathouse, Sukhdev shared with her how he would have felt if she had died at the hands of those police officers.

“If you had become shaheed at the Ludhiana jail, I would have walked proudly being the husband of a shaheed Singhni.”

Devinder is appreciative, and a smile appears on her face as she remembers Sukhdev’s words. It was in these moments that it seems she understands that she wasn't merely existing at the periphery as the wife of the general of the Sikh resistance; rather, she was an active participant in the movement itself.

Sukhdev had a belief that his death was always a doorstep away, and he began statements with, “If I am going to die anyways, then …” or “It is better to die, than …”

Sukhdev again evoked this playfully in some of his final words to her: “Now I will go meditate, and we’ll meet in the next life.”

*   *   *   *   *

To be continued …

Edited for

August 12, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Kaala Singh (Punjab), August 15, 2015, 3:12 PM.

These guys are the reason why India will think twice before attempting another 1984!

2: Kaala Singh (Punjab), August 16, 2015, 3:18 PM.

India recently signed a peace agreement with the Naga people after having failed to crush them militarily even after seven decades of trying to crush them. Many key demands of the Nagas were accepted. Though there were differences between various Naga groups, they never betrayed their cause or joined hands with the enemy and were able to achieve success. But in the case of Punjab, we hear about "rehabilitated militants", "black cats" and the Punjab Police all of whom were Sikhs killing their own people for money. I hate to say it but this movement could not have achieved anything. The Nagas fought an effective guerrilla war and forced an oppressing India to its knees, but in the case of Punjab, Sikhs were killing Sikhs and the enemy was gleefully watching!

3: Kaala Singh (Punjab), August 18, 2015, 2:45 PM.

If this got reduced to just a game of money, why did Sikhs have to kill each other? Did the "fighters" and the "counter-fighters" who were once supposedly together ever hear about "Goebbels", there could have been an arrangement between the two -- splash a picture and news piece and claim their rewards, those "killed" would vanish and the news would say that a "militant has been eliminated", or is it that along with the lust for money there was also a lust to kill induced by intoxicating substances -- we do hear about a guy called Poohla!

4: Kaala Singh (Punjab), August 25, 2015, 3:09 PM.

There has been constant Indian propaganda to portray the Sikh resistance movement as illegitimate and a simple law and order problem. They have succeeded in "criminalizing" the narrative of this movement even in the minds of many Sikhs. This article is a laudable attempt to "de-criminalize" that narrative. If India can honour and celebrate lowly thugs and mass-murderers like Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi, then why should the Sikhs be reluctant to honour real heroes like General Labh Singh?

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

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