This chapter begins by watching the author watch a wizened man tell his story, in pieces, under the shadow of patriarchy, over a prevailing unease about a past that too quickly livens trauma. This introduction briefly describes the familiar two sides to the Punjab conflict story, and the space that exists between these sides, as well as more broadly raises questions beyond Punjab and South Asia. The reader is introduced to the three central protagonists, famed human rights defenders, and civic leaders of Punjab: Inderjit Singh Jaijee, Baljit Kaur Gill, and Justice Ajit Singh Bains. The reader will observe multiple short stories and characters in Proem and note a deliberate approach: this telling is pushing back against a singular narrative in this complicated region and contested history.
This chapter introduces the reader to how protagonists Bains, Kaur, and Jaijee developed and strengthened different creative strategies—individual and collective—to respond to conflict violence. They worked cautiously with non-Punjabi allies; supported local leadership even when respectfully disagree- ing with immediate tactics; and promoted the necessity to resist injustice as a cultural value.
The chapter begins in 1995 (popularly held to mark the end of the armed conflict), and the enforced disappearance of Jaswant Singh Khalra, the champion of Punjab’s “disappeared.” It traces the legal battle pursued by his wife and human rights defender, Paramjit Kaur Khalra. While highlighting the anatomy of impunity, this case also, Paramjit explains, exemplifies old-school Punjabi yaari, friendship, which Jaswant’s allies and supporters have faithfully upheld for the many decades they have marched by her side.
As promised in Chap. 1, this chapter also journeys back to where the protagonists often begin recounting the saga of modern Punjab: the period of Sikh self- rule under Maharaja Ranjit Singh. From the close of Ranjit Singh’s life in 1839, through the game of thrones that followed his death, British annexation of Punjab (making it the last in the Indian subcontinent to fall to colonials), World War I, to rising Sikh disaffection against the colonials, this chapter travels till 1917.
This chapter highlights how Bains, Kaur, and Jaijee did not out- right reject violence in the violent Gandhian India, but did call out wrongs by all combatants. They also avoided speaking for experiences that were not their own.
The chapter builds up to one of the most famed nonviolent acts of defiance by a Sikh militant, Mr. Dhami, at a 1994 police press conference in Chandigarh. Mrs. Kulbir Kaur Dhami, who was kept in a secret torture camp with Mr. Dhami and their five-year-old son, exposes the project of impunity. Her story challenges prevalent narratives simplifying Sikh women as hapless bystanders of the militancy as well as of Sikh men as simple-minded aggressors. The chapter follows the interlocutors’ lead in respecting victim-survivors and not doubting their alternating needs for silence and breaking the silence.
The chapter then segues to the earlier history of Punjab, particularly the various indigenous Sikh movements of the 1920s that sparked an anticolonial frenzy, and closes in 1935, when Punjab was becoming a beacon of inspiration for the subcontinent, as well as a growing threat to majoritarian forces.
This chapter shows the protagonists’ steadfastness in the face of the emerging reality of the post–Cold War world. They must themselves be the lighthouses their people seek; their lifetimes have witnessed Western powers’ realpolitik, heralding destruction for locals; as well as divisive tactics by local powerfuls, cementing expedient enmity that outlasts generations.
The chapter opens with a reprieve from the tortured Punjab of the 1990s, traveling to the boisterous Punjab of 1938. It closes with a million murders and the largest forced migration in human history: the Partition of British India in August 1947.
The chapter traces the fight launched in 1993 by a Hindu of Tarn Taran, Punjab: Chaman Lal. While the world’s experts, including India’s large delegation, met at the United Nation’s World Human Rights Conference in June 1993, Lal’s 20-year-old son, a vegetable vendor, was abducted. The banality of police impunity and the dire consequences to people’s leaders and rights defenders are highlighted.
This chapter examines how the protagonists accepted personal risk as a part of their chosen mission, but without a desire for martyrdom; how, having witnessed Punjab rebuild itself painfully after its 1947 Partition, they honored self-preservation and survival.
The chapter details how in 1992 retired High Court Justice Ajit Singh Bains was kidnapped from outside the elite Chandigarh Golf Club and joined the multitudes of Punjab’s “disappeared.” The abduction came immediately on the heels of the swearing-in of a new state government, which also oversaw a spike in killings. The reader will thus witness the throes of a critical pivot in Punjab conflict history: the mysterious boycott of the 1992 election, which followed the 1991 election that was postponed by the Indian government. We see how events that were even then shrouded in mystery are today peddled as history.
The earlier timeline returns to the newly partitioned Punjab of 1948, dizzied with resettlements and reunifications amidst titanic loss. Pre-Partition assurances to Sikh politicians immediately met new resistance by the postcolonial government, thus seeding the next decade-long civil disobedience movement in Punjab.
This chapter presents the physical and sexualized violence the protagonists witnessed and processed without retreating; why they developed unwavering compassion for a range of trauma responses by their people.
The chapter recounts vignettes captured through Baljit Kaur’s video cam- era, once bought to capture family functions and kids’ birthdays. These display the dehumanization of Sikh captives and captors in 1990 and 1991. Then the chapter meets Mr. Darshan Singh Multani, whose struggle is notorious in many Sikh homes for a confluence of reasons: his senior bureaucrat position; his alacrity in responding to his son Balwant’s abduction; the others abducted with Balwant; the larger “Chandigarh bomb blast case” that preceded these abductions; and the fate of the abductees that became morbid mythos, more so after a perpetrator confession video surfaced in 2015.
The chapter also travels back to the 1960s, when Punjab was the chosen site of the agrarian “Green Revolution.” Meanwhile, Sikhs began widespread civil disobedience to demand their rights, including the recognition of Punjabi as their state language.
This chapter illustrates how Kaur, Jaijee, and Bains were prepared to use their bodies as resistance; believed in showing up during times of dire need; and remained in touch with people they had met in the worst of circumstances, without pretending to share those situations or experiences.
In July 1989 the three protagonists were joined by others in surrounding a police station to demand the release of young “Kid.” The chapter thus enters a time not so long ago where Members of Parliament running on the platform of Sikh self-determination, indeed separatism—Khalistan—won landslide electoral victories, due to a groundswell of support for candidates running against the status quo.
The chapter’s parallel timeline explores the turn into the 1970s, and how the demands for greater Punjab autonomy were neither secessionist nor new. The growing disparities in the country—promised by its Constitution to be a “socialist” republic—also drew many to a more strident leftism, the Naxal movement. The State response to Naxals first introduced “police encounters” to the countryside. At the same time, a document collating the demands to decrease centralization and increase autonomy for all states was prepared by Sikh leaders in 1973.
This chapter highlights how, despite their necessary focus on the immediate visible actors and perpetrators (largely Punjabi and Sikh), the protagonists kept an eye on the bigger context: the politics of communalization, command responsibility, and invisible puppeteers.
The chapter recounts the unique roles played by Sikhs and Punjab during the 1975–1977 Emergency—the suspension of democracy by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. After her furious return to power, Punjab was at a boil. In the notorious Nirankari-Sikh clash in 1978, the police were ordered to side with a sect leader who had provoked the sentiments of religious Sikhs; the killings of unarmed Sikhs then provoked even areligious Sikhs. As the decade turned, Center-state relationships soured further, Sikh diaspora activism grew, and civil and noncivil disobedience intensified. Thus began the reporting of rising orthodoxy in a media hullaballoo that was peaking when the chapter closes in 1981.
The chapter then travels outside Punjab. The reader listens to Kuldip Kaur relay why she encouraged her only son to move from their South Delhi home to South India. But the Sikh engineering school that became his home for three years was soon swept by violence in 1988. Meanwhile, back in Punjab, counterinsurgency special laws and extrajudicial killings had become ubiquitous. But “What is wrong with these Sikhs?” became a louder refrain in many circles, as the media selectively reported blasts and bullets that killed innocents.
This chapter captures how the shock of the events around the protagonists led to their politicization and activism rather than resignation.
The chapter provides glimpses into the events immediately before and after 1984. Sikh demands cohered in 1985; the central government was at the negotiating table facing the nontrivial threat of Punjab’s secession; many Dalits, Sikhs, and communists in Punjab were working together; there was a promise of change in the aftermath of the carnage. There was worldwide sympathy and outrage following the events of 1984, before a devastating event eviscerated much of this compassion. Then, in April 1986, at a large spirited gathering of Sikhs in Amritsar, a collective community declaration for a separate homeland, Khalistan, was announced.
The year 1982 was marked by protests launched by the farmers who felt they were getting an only worsening deal even while providing food security to the nation. Their desperation was commingled with fear and alienation, especially after the targeting of Sikhs preceding the 1983 Asian Games. Punjab came under the impervious Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), giving the armed forces widespread powers and immunity from prosecution. Punjab would soon be declared a “disturbed area” and brought under President’s Rule. The popular leader Bhindranwale became a larger legend, living now in the golden Darbar Sahib complex.
This chapter traverses the watershed events of 1984 that presented Kaur, Jaijee, and Bains the choice to recognize their privilege and no longer accept that which they couldn’t immediately change.
While most accounts of Punjab’s conflict begin with 1984, this book closes with that year. To relay the events that jolted the Sikh sense of self, the three main protagonists are joined by various voices as the two timelines running through the earlier chapters converge in the cauldron of this terrible year.
Though June 1984’s fierce firefight between the militants and the Indian Army was in Amritsar, 1984 was indelibly experienced across Punjab. Sikhs, particularly in traumatized rural Punjab, were overcome with sentiments of betrayal and alienation.
The chapter then travels outside Punjab, from where Punjab’s history is most often written: in November 1984, Indira Gandhi was shot dead, reportedly by her Sikh bodyguards. Anti-Sikh pogroms, radiating out from the capital city of New Delhi, claimed thousands of lives. The political currency of the November 1984 carnage then won Gandhi’s son and the Congress Party a landslide election victory, unmatched since.
The immediate effect on the Sikh psyche was unmistakable: the year 1984 was an end and a beginning.
Mallika Kaur is a lawyer and writer who focuses on human rights, with a specialization in gender and minority issues. She received her BA from University of Chicago; Master in Public Policy from Harvard University, and her Juris Doctorate from the UC Berkeley School of Law, where she currently teaches skills-based and experiential social justice classes.
I read Mallika Kaur's beautifully written book at a gallop. Police raids, villagers' resistance, women's defiance, torturers, survivors, electoral violence, strategic silences. It's all here. But what is remarkable is how Mallika Kaur allows us to listen in on these lively, risky conversations as Sikh women and men unravel the Indian official story and together weave a more reliable, complex political narrative.
Deftly braiding oral history with recorded history, Mallika Kaur brings to the reader memories and tales of the long Punjab struggle with a painful, bracing immediacy. We listen as three ordinary – and not so ordinary – people describe how they chose engagement, not indifference; dignity and humanity over collusion with state violence and corruption. A vivid reminder that beyond the statistics in human rights reports and the details of unending legal cases, lie courage, humor, caring, and simple commitment to truth.
There are many people who talk, but not many who listen. And fewer still who listen with patience, respect, and faith that each person is the best authority on their own experiences. So it's no wonder that many people who never told their stories or shared their records, opened their hearts and souls to Mallika.