Halloween, 1984 – an update

It’s been ten years since I wrote about what it was like to be in India on the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated. What took place on Halloween 34 years ago still remains a Specter that haunts. It’s the specter of memory.

Let’s neutralize this ghost with knowledge. Read this book: Amritsar: Indira Gandhi’s Last Battle by Mark Tully and Satish Jacob. Because for me, things became a lot more clear.

For one, it fully confirmed that the Dal Khalsa leaders were housed both at Nanak Niwas and Guru Ram Das Niwas at the very same time we were there. Which was the winter of 1982-83 and the winter 1983-84 (when we were mostly in Anandpur Sahib, Damdama Sahib and Fatehgursahib, but made trips to Amritsar on occasion). This must be why I remember seeing men with guns. By the time we were at school in Mussoorie, Bindranwale–along with his people and a massive caché of weapons–moved their HQ from the Niwas to the 3rd floor of the Akal Takht. By the spring of 84, Amritsar had erupted in unchecked violence–much of it at the hands of Bindranwale–and culminating in the disastrous Operation Blue Star. As fall approached, revenge plans were solidified and Indira Gandhi lost her life. And we were up in the mountains, wondering if the riots and war that had broken out would reach our school. We weren’t told much. Just to put our shoes and sweaters by our beds in case we had to be evacuated.

I have always wanted to to know more. I have always wanted to connect the dots between what we experienced as young children, and what was actually going on in India at the time. Well this book makes the horror clearer than I have ever known.

And the violence and aftermath at this time was indeed beyond horrific, but the book does not make it propagandistic. It does a good job of providing thorough political, religious and geographical coverage. And Tully and Jacob are equally thorough in outlining the arrangement of the Golden Temple complex–which includes the surrounding hostels–allowing us to appreciate the sense of time and place as we follow the various paths of people and activities that took place during this time.

But, what else can it do?

The book underscores the seriousness of the situation. So for me, it tells me that our parents were woefully misled and therefore woefully ill-prepared to deal with any situation that might have been on this level of violence and catastrophe. It tells me that our parents were given license to downplay, or even rationalize this period of political upheaval. So by the time Ms. Gandhi was assassinated, they were primed and ready to ignore its gravitas. I actually have an old VHS tape in which my father is literally doing just this: distancing, excusing, rationalizing and downplaying. Remind me to transfer it to a digital copy.

No one in their rational mind would send children alone into a war zone. No one. So why did our parents do it? 

One, they had already been conditioned to ignore and suppress their parental instincts. That physical and emotional bond between child and parent had been deprived time and again–through all the camps, family child swapping, and finally boarding school. It’s the precipitous journey of a mind being exerted upon through acts of coercion.


I remember the winter of 1983/84. My mother came to India to be a winter break guide for all the little girls. At the end, she took the three of us girls to Amritsar for a week before she was to head back home. We stayed in a room in Nanak Niwas. It was delightful and wonderful. We prayed at the Golden Temple, we ate Langar everyday and our dear Mataji bought each of us a special gift: a harmonium for my older sister, a harp for me, and sword for my little sister. Photos of the trip are happy and cheerful. Sometimes I think: If they wanted us to learn Sikhi, couldn’t we have just done it this way? Smaller, more intimate vacations to Amritsar with our parents? 

I also remember the day she left. She was kneeling down toward us and she began to cry. She told us she loved us, and she told us that she would write to us every week (which she always did). Then, we parted ways, and the joy and fun came to an abrupt halt. Our toys were confiscated right away. That special gift from my beautiful and loving Mataji was stolen from me the moment she was out of sight.

When I reflect on the tears in my Mataji’s eyes that day, I think about her feelings too, and it’s just heartbreaking. Her pain must have been very real. The pain of separation–even if someone was thinking they were doing the right thing–is still very real. It’s real, it’s horrible, and it’s unconscionable.

Thanks for reading. You can hit me up on Twitter if you have comments or questions.

My original post “Halloween, 1984” is here. In it I refer to the Khalistan Separatist Movement, which is more or less synonymous with Dal Khalsa. But please note that there are complexities to all these designations, and it’s better to just do the research.