The Lost Children of Punjab: 1984-2011

Guest blogged by santokh

A couple days ago I was reading some news articles on Hondh Chillar and Pataudi. Some of these articles include photographs from the two big events that took place at Hondh Chillar–clean up of the destroyed gurdwara building and Akhand Paath that took place thereafter in that building. I was talking to a couple friends about what all of this means for us as Sikhs, as youth with a vested interested in all things Punjab but separated from it by distance, and as a generation that, despite a fascination and infatuation with Punjab and Sikhi, seems disconnected to the memory of 1984 in many ways.

I was born a year after Operation Bluestar, no one from my family or relatives were directly affected by the genocide, my grandparents didn’t live close to New Delhi, Amritsar, or any of the other affected areas–Hondh Chillar and Pataudi, for example. As I was talking with my friends, I realized our awareness of Bluestar comes from websites, media, press releases by advocacy groups, a few books and essays, and the occasional speech at gurdwara or elsewhere almost as an annual ritual in June and November. It’s almost a kind of dynamic I can chart out–come the first week of June and November, emotions run high and my inbox is filled with invites to a number of vigils and memorials.

If I view the memory of Bluestar from the perspective of a generation before mine, everything changes. Many of my friends’ parents and grandparents were directly affected in 1984 as victims and/or witnesses. They have a direct connection to and memory of Bluestar. They know what media channels did and did not report, each of them is a walking memorial in a sense.

Then there is the generation after mine, for example, the child whose picture I saw in photographs of the Akhand Paath at Hondh Chillar. Through a peculiar turn of events, all the memories of 1984 have reappeared by the discovery of Hondh Chillar and Pataudi as sites of genocide. This third generation, because of this discovery, is going to build relationship to Bluestar that is much different than mine. It’s actually going to parallel the kind of memory-relationship the generation before mine has. This third generation is living at a time the history of Bluestar is being remade and rewritten. Two generations removed, these children will remember Bluestar with an entirely different dynamic: through sites, like Hondh Chillar and Pataudi. For what it’s worth, the memory of 1984 has just regained consciousness now.

Decades after ’84, with a thinning number of witnesses and victims, I wonder how this third generation is going to remember Bluestar on its 50th anniversary in 2034. What will be remembered? What will be forgotten? Who will speak? Will they look back at what became of Hondh Chillar and Pataudi as two sites that elicited a wave of responses and reactions from Sikhs the world over? Will they reflect on how the individual who discovered Hondh Chillar in 2011 was attempted at being silenced for his activism, and about how his house was raided and he was fired from his job?

What about us though, the generation in between? How will I connect with Bluestar in 2034? What is my role now that the issue, one that is rapidly transforming into a controversy, of victimized sites has surfaced? For all these years, I wasn’t quite sure where I fit in in the discourse of 1984. I felt that my peers and I were the ‘Lost Children of Punjab;’ lost because Bluestar seemed like this somewhat distant past to which I couldn’t really connect and didn’t know what to do about, until a few weeks ago, that is.

For several weeks now, I’ve been struggling to understand sovereignty, and though I’m far from understanding the concept, I now know what to do to see sovereignty in action, and here’s how I see it–the attack on Akal Takht has been viewed as an attack on Sikh sovereignty, for it is through Akal Takht that decisions affecting the entire Sikh qaum are dispersed. If the argument is that only central and dominant built expressions of Sikh sovereignty were under attack in 1984 (Akal Takht, Darbar Sahib, and many other famous gurdwaras in Delhi and Punjab), then the discovery of Hondh Chillar tells us that smaller, non-monumental symbols of sovereignty, i.e. historically insignificant gurdwara buildings and sites like Hondh Chillar, were also under attack.

Ideally, each gurdwara is representative of Sikh sovereignty through the Guru Granth+Guru Panth combination: Guru Granth Sahib as representative of Guru Granth, and a nishan sahib, sangat, and pangat-ready gurdwara building as Guru Panth. Viewed as such, the significance of the attack on Akal Takht, then, is no different than the attack on the gurdwara at Hondh Chillar. So what do we do now that we have at our hands a site that has been relatively undisturbed since it was destroyed in 1984? Do we rebuild it, much like Akal Takht was (twice) after 1984, to a point where its reconstruction[s] denies any memory of Bluestar? How should sovereignty of the Hondh Chillar gurdwara be restored? Who should do it? Given the status and role of the Akal Takht, and then of the SGPC, I see no other choice than to appeal and re-appeal and continue appealing to these two forms of government for preserving Hondh Chillar and Pataudi.

If the purpose of the SGPC is to act as ‘custodian of Sikh gurdwaras,’ then why deny it that title? Its past failed record of preserving original character of buildings has little to do with what we can and should expect it to do in the future. Not pressuring the SGPC to fulfill its title as parbandhak of gurdwaras is to give it yet more time and space to continue neglecting its role as preserver of Sikh sovereignty through the built form. Why not work together to address the future through the SGPC, and demand a change in policy? Just like a legal commission was set up for investigation into Hondh Chillar, why not expect a preservation committee to be set up for it as well?

Though the Hondh Chillar gurdwara was historically insignificant (compared to, for example, Fatehgarh Sahib) in 1984, in its current state in 2011, it is by far one of the most significant and original sites in the contemporary Sikh world. It is my direct connection to Bluestar, a hundred times more than Akal Takht or any of the other gurdwaras affected in 1984. It does not mask mass killing underneath marble, it does not cover impunity in mosaics, and it does not conceal injustice under frescoes. Every time I look at photographs of Hondh Chillar, I know I am no longer a lost child of Punjab.

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16 Responses to “The Lost Children of Punjab: 1984-2011”

  1. Bostonvala says:

    Great write up! Appreciate the thoughtful introspection and poignant questions for the status-quo dysfunctional institutions. So poignant that I do not have any opinion or thoughts that I can share immediately. This will be something that I will think about for quite some time.

  2. Harinder says:

    The fact that Punjab is peaceful since 1984
    Suggests that there appeared to be a conspiracy in summer of 84 to destroy the composite culture of Punjab and its value system of inclusive lifestyle and brother hood of all its people and world at large .
    I was in my 20 in midst of turmoil then and could never have even imagined that 1984 could have ever happened to Punjabi people.
    Who ever did it did manage to push back Punjab.
    It as of today stands in

    1) In debt
    2) Boys on drugs
    3) Youth wanting to abort Punjab leaving it as a land of Old People”
    4 ) Post traumatic stress disorder still looms over people of that generation

    However efforts are on to mend the situation these days with sprit of CHADI KALA and the AKALI ( timeless) people.
    though provocations to start a flare up keep on happening in form of “DERA SACHA SAUDA” a (reminder of repeat pseudo Nirankari role in 1979)
    But I guess people have learnt from 1984 and are now more wise.


  3. Amandeep Singh says:

    Events of 1984 have attained the status of Cultural trauma for Sikhs, that’s why the coming into light of the Hondh Massacre (1984) and the Pataudi Carnage (1984), after 26 years, was able to refresh the memories of atrocities to such an extent that people feel that they have revisited 1984.

    Harinder Ji, there is always a difference between PEACE and DEATH SILENCE. Who says Punjab is peaceful since 1984. This New years 1 Chet of 543 Nanakshahi (14 March, 2011) witnessed a reshaped torture and custodial death at the hand of Punjab Police in Amrtisar.

    What lesson do you think that people have learn from 1984? Lesson of terming death silence as peace?

    Amamdeep Singh

  4. brooklynwala says:

    fantastic post. while i was born before 1984, i don't have any family in north india and my parents grew up in pune….so i have always felt much more distant on a personal level from blue star and its aftermath. i didn't even really learn about it until doing my own research in college. this piece really hits home in a lot of ways, thank you!

  5. Harjit Singh says:

    Events of 1984 (attack on Akal Takhat Sahib and Harmander Sahib) shook us all for sure. Months before the attack the environment in Punjab was like "someone woke from sleep" and that was the fantastic job of Great Sant Leader, Great Martyr of 20th Century. Now we know we are/were slaves in India. We do not enjoy same freedom as we do in United States being minority. We are/were treated as thugs/second class citizens in India and we still see that going on back home(still attached to mother land…and call it HOME).

  6. Rajinder Singh says:

    1984 is history,and that's where it belong's.It was not an attack on any institution or otherwise,instead it was an attempt to free the sikh shrines from their demons.The other massacres were directed by a bunch of thugs after the assasination,of a duly elected head of a govt. by her own body gaurds.To give it a color of sectarian violence also negates the sacrifices made by non sikhs,in helping hiding the sikhs at the risk of their own lives.So leave these incident to part of the shame ful history.Lrt the sleeping dogs lie there is no need to reopen old wounds.

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