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Life after 1984

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Rajani Choudhary
Rajani Choudhary
Software Developer, avid reader.

Two of the best occasions to meet interesting people are during train journeys and flight layovers. People are relaxed and not distracted by important engagements. The feeling that you will possibly never see the person again brings people at ease and makes them uncharacteristically open to each other.

It was during one such long layovers at Amsterdam airport that a met an amazing lady from the Punjab state of India. She was a Khalsa (Amritdhari Sikh); she had all the overt signs of deep religiosity – uncut hair, sporting a turban, carrying a Kanga (wooden comb) and a Kirpan (small steel sword) and wearing a Kara (steel bracelet). After meeting her, I became one of the few people who can claim to have met and interacted with someone who has spent years in jail; and for no mean offence either.

She had spent two years in jail on charges of TADA. TADA – Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention Act), was an Indian anti-terrorism law which was in force between 1985 and 1995 under the background of Punjab insurgency. This law gave wide powers to the law enforcement agencies for dealing with national terrorist and ‘socially disruptive’ activities.

I was travelling alone and so was she. She asked me if I was travelling to Delhi. I was. Acting a little lost and unsure as elderly Indian ladies are sometimes, she requested me to stay close as she was scared of missing her flight. I was happy to help. It was only after a little while that I understood that she was only making conversation and securing company for the long layover. I was anyway happy to tag along with her. She was friendly and talkative; full of interesting stories.

She ran an orphanage for Sikh children in Punjab who had lost their families during the violent times the Sikhs faced in 1984 post the assassination of the then Indian Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. She was returning after a month-long tour to raise awareness about and funds for her orphanage from wealthy benefactors of her community. The Sikh community had not forgotten the plight of their own during those black years and was very supportive of her efforts to help these children. She was very proud of her work.

To say that it was a hard time for Sikhs in India post-Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 is a gross understatement. She did not get into the details of the politics and the situation at that time. Her arrest was under charges of possessing arms under TADA act. She was accused to be running away together with two men on a bike when confronted. The law enforcement agencies reported that three people were involved- a man was driving and a man was sitting behind her while she was brandishing a gun at the police.

Her life must have been very stressful. She was laughing about it now.

“How stupid they were. When sitting on a bike with two men, a woman will never sit in the middle. She would always sit at the back,” she laughed. This kind of argument to prove one’s innocence in such a situation could only be valid in India. It made complete sense to me.

However, I could not comprehend how she could laugh about that even now. It was not just the two years spent in jail. The constant fear before and after that for all these years, being targeted for no fault of hers, seeing her family and people killed or jailed, the whole community living in fear, people fleeing away leaving their homes to save their lives. It was such a period of distress which could suck the life out of the living. People were killed in police custody, in false encounters, on suspicion of possessing arms and supporting the ISI supported Khalistan movement; families were wiped out; children were orphaned. She herself had lost most of her family. Many Sikhs had fled to other parts of India; many had cut off their hair to escape explicit identification.

How do we not give enough recognition to this brutality against the small Sikh community in India? Where were the Human Rights watch groups when these massacres were taking place?

“They framed false charges and arrested many people. After two years, they could not prove anything against me; and I was free.” She concluded with a satisfied look.

She talked about how she arranged matrimonial matches for the orphaned children. She was proud about the matches she had made between seemingly unmatched couples: lying where needed, hiding facts about the financial status of candidates where she thought necessary; using any means she felt right to help the orphaned kids make a good marriage. It was indeed a very important service as marriages in India are still for the most part arranged by family members. She had an extensive network within her community who supported her in her endeavours.

Her positivity and chirpiness, after having endured years in jail, and living in fear before and after that, was infectious. She talked about her own daughters and how they encouraged her to use social media to raise awareness for her cause. She talked about movies. She talked about Punjab. She talked of the children she had helped and how happy it made her see them having families of their own.

Being unfairly jailed under false charges did not break her. Instead, it gave her life a new purpose. There was no bitterness. She was full of life and excitement. I did not ask much about her time in jail. I assumed it would have been a tough time that she would not have wanted to talk about. Looking back now and remembering her exuberance, I think she would have described her jail time in a matter of fact way; something that had happened in her past and now stays in the past. She was safe and happy now and I could feel her gratitude for the present; and hopes for the future.

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Rajani Choudhary
Rajani Choudhary
Software Developer, avid reader.
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