Kids Corner


The Widow Colony

by I.J. Singh and Laurie Bolger

Sach Productions - aptly named, for in the Indic languages, "Sach" means Truth -- turns a disturbing but sharp focus on "a city within a city" of the world's largest democracy.

Tilak Vihar is now a "Widow Colony" in the capital city of India, New Delhi, and has been so for the past 22 years. It was an enclave of reasonably well to do middle-class Sikhs until three days of killings (October 31 to November 2, 1984) transformed it into a colony of widows and orphans, drawn from this and other affected localities. This documentary focuses on Tilak Vihar, and draws upon similar events in Trilokpuri, Kalyanpuri, Himatpuri, Sultanpuri and Mongolpuri, five other Sikh enclaves in greater Delhi.

The backdrop to this film needs to be understood. The story really starts in June 1984. Indira Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister then, decided to launch a full-scale army attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar and 40 other gurdwaras (Sikh houses of worship) across the state of Punjab. The reason ostensibly was to flush out terrorists hidden within the Golden Temple. The results should have been predictable to anyone with an ounce of common sense. The attack brought India to the verge of fragmentation, and on October 31, just four months later, Indira Gandhi was assassinated.

What followed was even more horrendous. In New Delhi, within hours of the assassination, hordes of people arrived in trucks. Armed with lethal weapons, they carried incendiary materials and devices, along with lists of Sikh-owned houses and businesses. The killing spree lasted about three days and subsided just as suddenly as it had exploded. Thousands of Sikhs were dead, some burnt alive with tires around their necks, women raped, maimed or killed.

The police were nowhere to be found, or stood around encouraging the killers. The army was not deployed to enforce order. How could mobs of people get guns and kerosene in India, where both are severely regulated? Trucks are not freely available in India; where did they get so many of them? Who provided them lists of Sikh-owned buildings?

Immediately following Indira Gandhi's death, her son, Rajiv Gandhi, was installed as the new prime minister of the country. On his mind was revenge for his mother's assassination by two Sikhs, not that a government exists primarily to protect its citizens. In his television address, he quickly pointed the finger of guilt at all twenty million Sikhs. Leaders of his political party were seen actively encouraging and leading mobs on their killing rampage.

Five months later, under national and international pressure, Rajiv signed an accord with Sikh leaders promising an honest enquiry, compensation to victims, and justice according to the law of the land. During the past 20 years, there have been over 11 inquiry commissions; the reports have been buried with no action. (Justices Mishra, Thakur, Jain, Bannerjee and Nanavati headed some of the notable commissions.)

Harpreet Kaur and Manmeet Singh, a wife-husband team of two young Sikhs who make their home in Texas, are the makers of this film. They tell the story in a deliberately understated manner. The film consists only of interviews with many people. Kuldip Nayar, a distinguished non-Sikh journalist-writer and a former member of parliament, recalls how Indira Gandhi consulted him prior to the attack and he advised her against such action. He also notes the government-inspired propaganda, aired on the entirely government-owned and controlled television, that fueled the killings. Even the Vatican took critical note of this misstep by the Indian government. Context to the massacre is further provided by several experts: Rajinder Sachar, former Chief Justice of Delhi; Harvinder Singh Phoolka, human rights attorney; Madhu Kishwar, Editor of the Indian monthly Manushi; and Jaskaran Kaur, a US-based, Harvard-trained human rights lawyer and director of ENSAAF. A longish interview with Patwant Singh, another noted writer and journalist, who was a star witness in the latest inquiry commission (headed by Justice Nanavati) that completed its work only in 2005, placed matters in perspective. Most witnesses enumerated the government's failings and the collusion of its political operatives in the killings of Sikhs.

The bulk of this historical documentary consists of interviews with survivors of the three days of outrage. Women speak of being gang raped and humiliated by being left naked in public places, in spite of the fact that in the Indian cultural milieu, public reference to sexual matters is unheard of, and public nudity is most embarrassing. They openly and directly accuse political leaders, such as H.K.L. Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, who should rightly be facing a hangman's noose and not be enjoying high-level ministerial positions in the government.

Some scenes were indeed hauntingly memorable, made even more horrifying by their low-key portrayal. For instance, in a family of 12, seven were killed; the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth, was repeatedly desecrated. The camera catches a large hank of partially burnt hair, evidently hacked off the head of a Sikh, lying coiled on the ground amidst the devastation. (To a Sikh, long unshorn hair is a marker of faith; chopping it off would be sacrilege.) Incidents such as these argue that the large-scale killing of Sikhs was not random violence, but an attempt at ethnic cleansing.

One powerfully emotional moment occurs when a sobbing widow tells the interviewer she did not want to describe her suffering once again unless the interviewer could do something to help her. An equally dramatic but ironic moment takes place when one woman tells the interviewer how she was so saddened by the killing of Indira Gandhi that she refused to cook for her family that day, only to see her whole family wiped out the next day by the raging mobs.

One witness (Darshan Kaur) relates how she was offered a substantial sum of money to withdraw her accusation against officials of the ruling political party and change her testimony. When she refused, she was physically assaulted. To the thousands of victims, the government initially offered a compensation of Rupees 10,000 (about $200), then it was upped first to Rupees 20,000, and later to Rupees 350,000 (about $7,000), but nothing was ever paid. It is astonishing that about 4000 Sikhs were killed within 48 hours in Delhi alone and 20 years later, only five people have been found guilty. This one colony was left with 1300 widows and over 4000 orphans. Widespread unemployment, along with drug and alcohol abuse, is rampant in these colonies of the dispossessed. It was never a riot, but more a pogrom and attempted genocide.

The survivors' yearnings for the need for closure, moving forward and the redemptive power of forgiveness come through clearly in the interviews. But forgiveness requires accepting guilt and atonement as prerequisites, and they seem to be missing.

It is a bitter tale that needs telling. Harpreet Kaur is the writer and narrator. She has captured the surreal existence of those whose lives are trapped in the memories of 1984, at times in dramatic black and white. There was no better way than to let the victims' voices be heard. Harpreet develops the account in a very quiet, low-key and matter-of-fact manner such that the viewer cannot escape the poignant reality.

By its silence, as well as its dilatory and delaying tactics, the political leadership of India only encourages the repetition of such atrocities; an example is the Godhra massacre of Muslims by Hindu mobs that occurred over a decade later, in 2002. Considering the huge population of India, the number of Sikh victims in 1984 was relatively small. (Incomplete statistics suggest that about 250,000 Sikhs may have been killed in the decade from the early 1980's to the 1990's; that would be about 10 percent of the Sikh population.) In contrast, the numbers in Rwanda were astronomical, the killings in Darfur and the Holocaust lasted several years, and the American struggle for civil rights went on even longer. But all of them share a deeply disturbing similarity in that governmental institutions colluded in the targeting of a specific community. History tells us pogroms against perceived enemies of the state will continue to recur until the state acknowledges them in a transparent manner, and addresses the victims' rights to justice and reparation.

Governmental abuse of authority with persistent and methodical attacks against its own citizenry is a not a new theme for moviemakers; some films such as "Z" (1969) and "Schindler's List" (1993) rigorously examined such issues with lasting impact. To this genre of films we now add "The Widow Colony," which preserves a small segment of modern Indian history extremely well and with great sensitivity.

The film's argument that the Indian government not only collaborated with the perpetrators of the massacre, but has continuously refused to acknowledge it, is now widely accepted. We would have liked to have seen an attempt made to include some questioning of government spokesmen, and also some background information on the political considerations that led up to those events.

This film is oral history without any dramatization or fictionalization. It is an excellent case study of the way "democratic institutions" break down following a perceived internal "national" emergency. What we found lacking was some footage of the actual events - of the burnings and killings. Some of this material is available in the records of the BBC; Madhu Kishwar has even published some, primarily in the Indian journal Manushi. But the expense and the difficulty of procuring such archival material might have been prohibitive, or legally constrained because of limits on usage.

Parenthetically, we add that India, particularly Hindu society, has never treated its widows well, regardless of their age, as vividly portrayed in the 2005 film "Water," in which widows as young as eight are banished from their families and communities, becoming voiceless and stigmatized. In these killings in 1984, Sikh women were marked for life and herded into India's "Unsettled Settlements," with only each other to rely on.

"The Widow Colony" has been screened in several cities across the United States and Canada. A tribute to its powerful message is that at the Q and A following its screening in New York, several viewers asked how they could help.

"The Widow Colony" received a well-deserved award in the category for "Best Documentary and Favorite Film" at the 2006 South Asian International Film Festival in New York City, as well as for "Best Documentary" at the 2006 Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto.

The authors can be reached by e-mail:

I.J. Singh
Laurie Bolger

Conversation about this article

1: Jas (Coventry, U.K.), December 20, 2009, 6:17 AM.

Is there a scheme which allows volunteers to help these women?

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