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All images are from a photo by Gurumustuk Singh, of a section of the Golden Temple complex seen through a huge hole in one of the overlooking towers blasted during the Indian army's excesses in June 1984. The tower has since been replaced.


June 1984:
An Eye-Witness Account






It's been 25 years, but Inderjit Singh Jagraon talks about his experiences in early June 1984, inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, as if he just walked out of the complex.

His voice quivers as he recounts the horrific scene: dead bodies everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, he repeats. Men with open bullet wounds and limbs missing; floors awash in blood and water.

Inderjit Singh recalls running from gunfire. The man next to him was shot and fell forward on his head. "He died in my hands," he said in an interview this week.

"He did not move. I left him where he was. I ran away." Everyone was trying to find a place to hide, like mice. "We ran from room to room," he said.

Inderjit, who is now married, the father of three daughters and living in Toronto, was a 19-year-old student in 1984, in his second year of studies in civil engineering in his hometown of Jagraon, about two hours away from the holiest shrine in the Sikh religion.

He was active in the Sikh Student Federation, a group involved in educating people about the Sikh religion. But, "Anyone asking for their rights and justice [at that time] was beaten up or killed, and their voice ... quieted," he said.

On June 1, 1984, he heard that government forces had killed a number of people at the temple. He went with a friend to find out what was happening. No one stopped them from going in, but once inside the temple complex, he was unable to leave.

The Golden Temple is actually a massive complex of historical shrines and buildings, a huge sarovar, a collection of religious halls, offices, langar halls, and dormitories. Armed militants were in the central temple building in order to defend it from an impending assault by the Indian military.

Inderjit stayed in a dormitory called Guru Ram Das Sarai. He was not involved in the fighting. "I was a student, a young kid ...," he said.

The shooting and explosions from the army's artillery began around 4:30 a.m. on June 4, his second night at the temple, and continued into the next day. He recalled a voice on a loudspeaker around 5 p.m. on June 5, saying whoever wanted to come out would be allowed to leave. He stayed, but others went. He saw them being beaten with steel rods as they stepped out.

The exchange of fire ended on June 6. Inderjit Singh was taken into custody that night. He had fallen asleep and was awoken by a soldier pointing a gun at his chest. Soldiers lined up hundreds of people. He was left sitting for hours with dead bodies on the floor nearby. He recalled seeing people die from their wounds, after asking soldiers for water.

He was eventually put on a bus and taken to a camp in an isolated location. He remembers the intense heat. People went crazy for water, he said. He saw an army tank point its barrel and shoot some of those people. He estimated around 60 people were killed.

He was held in a high-security prison until March, 1989, convicted of fighting against the Indian army. He came to Canada via Kenya in August, 1991.

"Now everything is okay," said Inderjit, who works as a realtor. He continues to support the goals of the student federation. "I am a well-wisher of all those organizations who seek Sikh rights," he said.

"When you look at Rwanda, the whole world knew what was happening and was shaken right to the core," Kirpa Kaur, a member of a group called B.C. Sikh Youth, said earlier this week. "So few people know about [the attacks of 1984] and they perceive it as a story brought up needlessly."

She believes human-rights violations that occurred 25 years ago continue to sting because those responsible for the actions were never punished. "As Canadians who have deeply emotional and social connections to the injustices that happened in Punjab, we would hope that the Canadian government would support us in fighting injustices, in helping us indict those who clearly have been found guilty... [by non-governmental organizations]," she said.

The assault coincided with a religious pilgrimage that had drawn thousands of Sikhs to the site on June 3 to pay homage on the martyrdom day of the Fifth Guru, Arjan. Most were trapped in the compound after Indian forces launched continuous artillery bombardments and mortar fire, followed by the infantry pouring into the compound.

Non-governmental groups (such as Amnesty International) say as many as 10,000 people, mostly innocent pilgrims, were killed and priceless historic artifacts, including religious books and historical documents in the library, were either looted or destroyed. [Governmental figures are notoriously untrustworthy and therefore of little value.]

Bodies were cremated without notifying relatives and without autopsies. No official records of cremations were kept.

Sikhs the world over perceive the attacks as calculated assaults on their faith, culture and identity.

* * * * *

This year in Canada, as everywhere around the world, the anniversary is being commemorated.

The World Sikh Organization held a dinner in Canada's capital, Ottawa, on Thursday, June 4, 2009, for Canadian parliamentarians, community leaders and members of the Sikh community.

Public forums are being held throughout June in several cities across the country - and in other parts of the globe - on how the events of June, 1984, shaped the Sikh community.

In downtown Vancouver, a group of Canadian-born youth are holding a vigil today. Earlier this week, members of the organizing group spoke to about the changes within their community since 1984. Following Sikh tradition, the women in the group wished to be identified by the family name Kaur and the men by the name Singh.

Some said they believe many of their generation are unaware of what happened in 1984. "The only reason my history Grade-12 class knew anything about it was because my teacher asked me about it," said Paneet Singh, who was born six years after the assault on the temple. His Grade 12 history textbook had only two paragraphs on the events and his teachers did not elaborate.

The youth are indifferent to the charge of promoting Khalistan. They say the accusation is a myth intended to divert attention from the injustices. "Our main concern at these events is strictly human rights," said Jagjit Singh, the main spokesman for the youth group.

Kirpa Kaur, a recent graduate in psychology and social equity, said some of the youth may be supporters of Khalistan. "But these events are about fighting injustice and [the secessionist movement is] absolutely irrelevant to what we are doing."

Prabhroop Kaur, 21, has been going to annual vigils for events in 1984 "ever since I can remember," she said. Her parents instilled in her a strong commitment to justice. "They sat me down and told me what happened. We were supposed to fight injustice everywhere ... We grew up with that. We see clearly injustice and we have to do something about it."

Gurdit Singh, 25, a college student in human-resource management, identified "an education gap" between his parents and himself. His father was a farmer in Punjab and his mother was a high-school teacher. "They talk about it, but they had more raw emotions, more anger built up inside them. They did not know how to proceed, what to do next."

Some parents accepted what the Indian government told them. Paneet Singh said his mother left India in 1986 believing that Sikhs brought the assault upon themselves, as the Government of India propaganda says. His mother told him the extremists had to be flushed out of the temple and the government had to restore order.

But the younger generation has more tools than their parents to find out what really went on in 1984. "The ease with which we can go and find records, find third-party accounts, is exponentially bigger than what our parents would have been able to do, if they had the knowledge base and skills to do it," said Perpinder Singh, a 31-year-old lawyer.

"We have resources that did not exist 15, 20 years ago. We may feel emotions, but we can move beyond raw emotion and look at actual facts and figures, and present it - without reducing it to something that is purely emotional."

Research has shown that stories they were told about their history were often not true, Kirpa Kaur said. "We have to do a lot of work ourselves to figure out the true story."

Shining a global spotlight on what actually happened is a step toward having justice done, she added. "Living in a country as Canada, which claims to support so many human rights-type initiatives, we say it is time to support us in fighting against injustice."


[This article first appeared on in June 2009 as # 28 in its series titled "1984 & I"]

Courtesy: Globe and Mail. Edited for, 

June 1, 2013 

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An Eye-Witness Account "

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