rooh before. during. and after the 1984 sikh genocide.
photographer: rupi kaur & baljit singh
art direction: rupi kaur & baljit singh
written by: rupi kaur
the word ‘rooh’ is originated from arabic, persian, punjabi, and urdu languages— meaning soul or spirit. it is this very same rooh. living in many untold stories that continues to haunt us 31 years later after the sikh genocide.
a few months before the sikh genocide of november 1984, a wedding takes place in delhi, india. the bride sits with her mother and sisters, her face glowing like an oil lamp. they adorn her with the traditional emblems of her people. bangles through her wrists. mustard gold jewelry around her neck. a chunni casually draped over her head. she can’t wait to see him.
fast forward. it is oct 31st 1984. the two are hiding in a neighbor’s home before the attackers find them. drag them out. she is thrown aside. she is not their objective yet. her husband is. they begin to dress him with the traditional emblems of their nation. necklace him in a black rubber tire. douse his body with gasoline. she cries out when a match is lit. screams for a second time. cause a different pain has suddenly enveloped her. now it is her they are hurting.
today. the dreams of that wedding are gone. the gasoline fuelled reality of that genocide have prevailed. she holds her husband, but through a photo frame.
mornings are always the same in this home. the young boy wakes up. does his chores. then right after braiding his hair, tying it atop his head, and braiding his sister’s, their mother prepares lunch. four steaming roti’s with subji and yogurt. she sits them on the verandah to eat while chiding him for yesterday’s mischiefs and tomorrow’s expected troubles.
a few weeks later, when news of the genocide arrives, her motherly instincts burst through her. sensing the horror of the mob approaching before it actually does she runs frantically inside the house. grabs a pair of scissors. runs back to her children. begins snipping off their hair as fast as she can. some of us might not understand the sadness encasing this moment but for her it is like severing their limbs. hundreds of sikh mothers cut their children’s hair that night. ridding them of their sikh identity. in the hopes the attackers might think they belong to a different faith- and spare their lives.
today. it is november 1st 2015. the young boy lives in ontario, canada where he attained refugee status. his mother and sister currently live in punjab, india. if you look at him now you see he has returned to his sikh identity. the one he had removed in order to save his life. he crowns his head with his turban. he has a full time position at a factory lifting boxes. works 12 hour days which start and end at this bus stop. always in uniform. unshapely black winter coat. greasy pants and heavy work boots. this is when he misses home the most. imagines the thought of combing through his long hair on that sunny verandah. the smell of his ma’s punjabi roti filling his lungs. the fleeting feeling of the ebb and flow of a city that turned on itself that one night 31 years ago.
5 months before the attack he sits by himself and fiddles with his radio. his family came to delhi 37 years ago during the largest mass migration in human history: the partition of india. they’d packed into a train which left their lahore, hurtling past the wanton carnage of the newly mutilated punjab. today it is june 10th 1984. and they’ve tried to carve out the heart of his punjab again. he scrambles the dials on the radio, desperate for any news about his sons and daughters. operation blue star, a systemized attack by the indian state against the golden temple, the heart of sikhs, has finally ceased. for a week, in the villages and gurdwaras of his punjab, his children have resisted the government’s tanks and missiles. his entire life, he’d sung to them. he’d told them theirs was a centuries old tradition of resistance. today thousands of them lay killed. his children had given themselves for their people. his tears tonight are different. revolution is in the air but he cries because he knows the world will never know their hopes and aspirations. they’ll be silenced by the media.
they find him on the 2nd of november 1984, a few months after operation bluestar. sitting on the same couch. struggling to find a news station that works. they knew where to go because his house was already marked. the politicians had circulated a list of all sikhs in delhi and a man had come earlier in the day and chalked off an X. they confirmed the marking when they saw his turban. he smelled them arriving before he saw them. the melting rubber on the tires they were burning gave them up. he picked up his sword and walked outside to meet the mob.
the radio is all that’s left of him. days after when the media blackout is long past, folk music plays from it. someone eventually comes by and turns it off. on the news there was no mention of his death. or the deaths of thousands of others that died just like him that day. the government made them invisible. the newspapers spread lies. those who hear will repeat the government’s rhetoric. his memory will eventually fade. life will go on.
their neighbor had heard the mobs coming. ran into their home and brought them into the safety of his own. sister and brother sit hiding now. the streets are destroyed. their people are murdered. waheguru. waheguru. waheguru. they pray.
silence. so they crack open the door just a bit. peek out. and they see him. walking amidst the dead bodies. a smug look on his face. it is the politician their parents voted for. how is he here. why is he not protecting the people of this city. instead he’s giving each member of the mob a 100 rupees and a bottle of liquor. telling them good job. then gets back in his government car and drives away.
what do you do when your country has failed you. when the killings were not random. when they were systematic. strategized. when the bodies piled up in the city streets and they didn’t take responsibility. cause it is a genocide carried out from the top. from the institutions meant to protect you. what do you do when the police stand around and watch. when the government supplies the weapons. you go beyond. after seeing so much wrong you fall in love with what is righteous. freedom. justice. the safety of your people. you collapse into higher notions of existence. of love. of revolution. che. malcolm. mandela. sukha. jinda. are your teachers. you read. you become hungry. for justice. for peace. you are