- Jyoti Grewal
A Day Like Today-October 31st, 1984
October 31st - a day where kids roam the streets of the Western world happily asking for candy from their neighbors. In 1984, on this very day, a 5 and a 2-year-old child lay terrified for their lives hidden under their neighbor’s bed. These children were my sister and I.
Perhaps this day of Halloween was more fitting then we realized as it was a day filled with horror and bloodshed. This is my family’s story inside the Sikh genocide of 1984.
The story starts with Operation Blue Star or Saka Neela Tara-the military code name for an attack on the Golden Temple by India’s then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. She wanted to remove Sikh militants from the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple). Her solution? Declare military attack on praying innocent men, women and children. This attack lasted from the first day of June to the tenth, killing thousands of people. During this time, there was a media blackout so the true numbers will never really be known.
This was not the end of the horror. This unjust deplorable act had the Sikh community seething. These embers eventually turned into flames. On October 31st, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, who fired 33 rounds of bullets into her body. Immediately following her assassination, the ugly face of hate turned towards Sikhs and the Anti-Sikh riots spread like a malignant cancer across India.
That day runs through my mind like a worn-out photograph-crinkled and weathered. I remember my dad coming home for lunch and talking vehemently about something. Now, I know that his fervor was because Indira Gandhi had just been killed at 9:29 a.m. that morning. That lunch was our family’s last meal together.
My next memories are being shoved under our neighbor’s bed. This is because the riots had broken out. The Hindu mobs were out for Sikh blood. Mobs of people shouting, throwing rocks or whatever they could find at Sikh houses. We were quickly hurried to our neighbors who were Hindu. They put their lives on the line to save ours. When the mob came to their door asking if there were any Sikhs around, they lied so we could live. I remember the confusion in my 5-year-old brain. Why were we hiding? Why was my mother crying? Where was my father? To seek answers, I stuck my head out. Straight ahead of me was a window. I looked out and saw my dad in his undershirt. As I watched, I saw someone throw a huge rock at his head and it drew blood. I saw my father take off his shirt to block the blood. It was then that my mother slapped my head and told me to get under the bed. That is the last image I have of my father.
Somehow, me, my sister, and our mother (who was 3 months pregnant with our youngest sister) survived that day’s hatred. My father did not. At least, we think he didn’t. My mother says the body sent to our family was so charred that it was unidentifiable. There was jewelry on that body and my father was not one to wear jewelry.
The shroud of childhood has protected me from remembering the rest of that day’s events. However, I do know this. We were never the same. It has taken me 37 years to write this story on paper. All this time, my family has been unraveling from the traumatic events of that day. We are still trying to understand why our father paid such a high price for being a Sikh. He hadn’t shot Gandhi. He was having lunch with his young family. What was his crime?
There are thousands of stories like ours. Families who never got to cremate their loved ones. Families who were never the same. Families unable to escape the generational trauma. Families who are still waiting for justice. The ‘whys’ in our brains are endless.
This is the painful thread that connects us to many around the world. Others whose worlds have been engulfed in the flames of genocide -the Jews, the Palestinians or the Rwandans to name but a few. We seek closure that will never come. So, I write. I write to lessen the pain, to show the wounds, to remember those gone, to heal the living, to share the trauma, and to connect. I write so my words can be a warning, an ode or a testament.