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1984 anti-Sikh riots: The three witnesses who played a role in Sajjan Kumar’s conviction

From a passport issued the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated to the last photograph of a family of seven — the three witnesses in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots case grabbed what they could as they fled death and destruction. Over the years, these objects helped fill an emotional void, and even played a role in Sajjan Kumar’s conviction. The Indian Express spoke to the three to understand how.

Written by Somya Lakhani | New Delhi | Published: December 24, 2018 2:23:26 am
1984 anti sikh riots, anti sikh riots 1984, sikh genocide, 1984 sikh riots victims, 1984 riots victims, sajjan kumar, sajjan kumar sentence, sikh riots Jagsher Singh outside his Shiv Mandir Marg house. (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

Jagsher Singh, 50

The HMT watch around Narender Pal Singh’s lifeless wrist stopped ticking at 6.32 am on November 2, 1984. It froze as Jagsher Singh, 17 at the time, saw his eldest brother being beaten with rods and set afire by a mob at Raj Nagar’s Shiv Mandir Marg.

As the mob left, Jagsher removed the watch from his dead brother’s wrist and ran. Thirty-four years later, that watch rests in a locker at his home in Punjab’s Gurdaspur. “Paaji’s watch was in my pocket as I ran for kilometres to find help… It’s my most precious possession, a source of strength, a reminder of the times I spent with him,” said Jagsher, seated inside a guest house at Delhi’s Rakab Ganj Sahib Gurdwara.

His brother Raghuvinder and cousin Kuldeep too were killed, and their house burnt down. Jagsher, who witnessed Congress leader Sajjan Kumar inciting the mob, was among three witnesses whose testimonies were key in the Delhi High Court convicting Kumar on December 17.

In a faded polythene bag, Jagsher carries remnants from his house, RZ-15, Shiv Mandir Marg — a dogeared passport issued on October 31, 1984, the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated, an income tax document, and negatives of photos taken before the riots.

“I returned home after three days from the Palam camp, and gathered all that was left… I needed to hold on to something,” said Jagsher. Little did he know the articles would one day help him in his fight for justice.

1984 anti sikh riots, anti sikh riots 1984, sikh genocide, 1984 sikh riots victims, 1984 riots victims, sajjan kumar, sajjan kumar sentence, sikh riots Jagsher Singh (extreme left) with brothers Raghuvinder and Narender outside their house, four days before the two were killed during the riots on November 2, 1984.

“Kumar’s lawyers tried to prove I wasn’t a citizen of India and wasn’t present there… I showed them the passport, the negative of the photograph taken four days before the riots. It eventually worked in our favour,” he said.

The Nanavati Commission’s decision in 2004 to further investigate riot cases, said Jagsher, had given him “little faith, not a lot”. “It started with me recording a statement at the CJM court in Amritsar… I had seen Kumar inciting mobs; his words still ring in my ears. I lost my brothers and our home, my bhabhi lost her sanity. But I never thought of giving up.”

When Kumar and six other accused faced trial in 2010, Jagsher started taking measures to remain low-key to keep his family safe. “I told my children not to tell people who their father is, we barely went out, we followed a time table. I was given five bodyguards by the Punjab government at the behest of the CBI,” he said.

As he recalled the time he spent with his brothers, eating from the same plate and wearing matching shirts, Jagsher’s 24-year-old son looked at him intently. “I have never seen these photos or the passport before. Every time I ask him about 1984, he cries. So I watch videos on YouTube and movies to understand what happened. When I accompany him to Delhi, he goes to the court and I stay in the guesthouse,” said his son.

Jagsher shuttles between Amritsar, where he works, and Gurdaspur, where his family lives. Over the years, he has made countless trips to Chandigarh and Delhi, at a considerable personal and professional cost. “My mother suffered a heart attack in 2011. I was 10 km away from the hospital when CBI officials asked me to visit Chandigarh immediately. I met her for 10 minutes and left. She died soon after, that was the last time I spoke to her. This case has taken over my life, but it’s my priority.”

He has never written down the sequence of events on paper as it’s etched in his memory. “I can draw the colony, the houses from where the kerosene came, the terrace from where my brother jumped as a mob chased him,” said Jagsher, producing an FIR filed by his father on November 12, 1984.

In the last 34 years, he has visited his Raj Nagar home only thrice — his latest visit on December 19, two days after Kumar’s conviction. “Four days before the riots, a photo of my brothers and I was taken outside this house. I found the negatives when I returned a few days later. Now, I stand outside the same house, but alone,” he said.

Jagdish Kaur, 79

Kaur’s fondest memory is of a day in 1982 at Srinagar’s picturesque Nishat Garden, spent with her husband Kehar Singh and their two boys and three girls.

Two years later, on November 1, 1984, as she ran across the blood-soaked floor of her house where her husband’s body lay next to the charred remains of her 18-year-old son Gurpreet, she saw that photograph. Days later, she returned to pick it up. “It was the only complete photograph of us, the only physical proof of a family of seven. Raakh se uthai thi photo,” she recalled over the phone from Amritsar, where she lives.

Two days after her husband and son were killed, Kaur returned home to conduct their funerals — inside the house. “I broke the windows and doors to get wood so I could build the pyre,” said Kaur.

Inside the charred home stood a locked steel almirah, the only untouched item. “They probably couldn’t break into the almirah, which had a photograph of Gurpreet from his college ID. He was studying in Sri Venkateswara College, and had got this photo clicked two days before the riots. The almirah had a silver medal he had won, the pension card of my freedom-fighter father, and our clothes. I still have these things,” said Kaur.

1984 anti sikh riots, anti sikh riots 1984, sikh genocide, 1984 sikh riots victims, 1984 riots victims, sajjan kumar, sajjan kumar sentence, sikh riots Jagdish Kaur with husband Kehar Singh, and their five children, including Gurpreet, at Srinagar’s Nishat Garden in 1982. Kehar and Gurpreet were killed on November 1, 1984.

For 34 years, Kaur fought the system, old age and even her children to see the guilty punished. “My children once came to me and said, ‘Don’t fight this, what if they kill you?’ But I would lie to them and travel to Chandigarh and Delhi,” she said.

In 2013, when a lower court acquitted Kumar, she was gutted, but vowed to fight “till the last drop of blood in my body”.

Since 1984, Kaur has returned to Raj Nagar only twice — once in 1987 to sell the house, and then in 2006. After the riots, she moved to Amritsar with her four children, where she took up odd jobs before getting a permit to run a minibus business.

“I remember what a woman said to me inside the camp when I told her I had lost my son and husband. She said, ‘You are not a Sikh now, you are a beggar, you deserve this.’ I had to fight not just for my husband and son, but also for myself,” said Kaur.

Nirpreet Kaur, 50

“Daddy, bhaago.”

These are the last two words 16-year-old Nirpreet said to her father Nirmal Singh, who lay semi-conscious at Shiv Mandir Marg after a mob set him on fire on November 1, 1984. She believes he heard her. “He jumped into a nallah before the mob caught him again. I saw fear in his eyes, he probably died thinking I would be next. But I lived, and so I will fight,” said Nirpreet, seated inside a guesthouse in Rakab Ganj Sahib Gurdwara.

Metres away, her sprawling house, RZ/WZ-241, was up in flames, with her unconscious mother and two siblings inside. “There was no time to pick up anything, we had to save ourselves. We left for a camp and stayed there for months before moving to Gurdaspur. I didn’t have a single photo of daddy, no physical memory of my beloved father saab,” she said.

1984 anti sikh riots, anti sikh riots 1984, sikh genocide, 1984 sikh riots victims, 1984 riots victims, sajjan kumar, sajjan kumar sentence, sikh riots Nirpreet Kaur at the Raj Nagar gurdwara. (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

A year later, she returned to Shiv Mandir Marg. “A man who ran a photo studio in Raj Nagar went through his archives and found photographs of daddy with all of us,” said Nirpreet. In her phone are photos of her father with his wife Sampuran Kaur, their sons Nirmolak and Nirpal, and Nirpreet, perched in the middle. There’s another of a feast at home, where her father is seated with a friend and his wife. “My father hosted a dinner for his friend, who worked at Oberoi hotel, a few days before he was killed. When we returned to Delhi in 1985, his friend gave us this photograph. It was daddy’s last,” she said.

In 1985, she joined college in Jalandhar, and also became a member of the All India Sikh Students’ Federation “out of frustration”. “I was the key witness, people wanted me dead. Weeks after my father was killed, there was an attempt to wipe out my family inside Palam camp,” she said.

Nirpreet recalled one evening in 1985 when her mother gave her “freedom.” “She told me how she put a dead lizard in boiling milk to kill us and herself. But something in her mind changed, and she threw it away. She said, ‘Baby, you are free, fight for this. What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll kill you?’” said Nirpreet.

1984 anti sikh riots, anti sikh riots 1984, sikh genocide, 1984 sikh riots victims, 1984 riots victims, sajjan kumar, sajjan kumar sentence, sikh riots Nirmal Singh at his Raj Nagar house in 1984 with his wife, two sons and daughter Nirpreet (centre), who witnessed him being burnt by a mob on November 1, 1984.

So she set out to get justice, but not before spending nine years in jail after a now-defunct Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) case was registered against her. “I went into hiding with my 10-month-old son. I was termed a terrorist. I surrendered in 1988 and lived in jail with my son for nine years. It was a false case, done to derail me,” she said.

Since she was a minor when she saw her father being killed, her mother deposed in front of various committees and commissions. After the Nanavati Commission’s directions in 2004, Nirpreet, who lived in Delhi till 2010, began the second leg of the struggle — tracking down other witnesses and families who lost people.

Unlike Jagsher and Jagdish, who have avoided visiting Shiv Mandir Marg, Nirpreet has spent countless days and nights inside the house she grew up in, even though RZ/WZ-241 has exchanged hands nine times since 1984. “While looking for other witnesses, I had to maintain a low profile, so I would stay in this house sometimes. My mother told the owners we would never lay claim to the house on one condition: They would give me shelter when I need it,” she said.

Nirpreet now lives in Mohali with her family, and visits Delhi often. “I have missed weddings, funerals, festivals. I skipped milestones in the lives of my three children for the case. Justice for my father saab is my priority, it will always be,” she said.

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