1st June 1984
We were woken by an elderly woman, frantic but cautious. She whispered to all of us to wake up and leave the Gurdwara. She said the Gurdwara has been surrounded by the army and a curfew is in place. She chillingly said, “leave and save your children in any way that you can to my Mama and Mami.” My Mama cursed my Mami, “Stupid woman, I told you to wait a little longer before making this trip, the power-mad Bhindranvale and Indira Gandhi are both going to get us killed,” she lightly slapped him on his upper arm and said quietly “Keep your voice down, somebody could hear you.”
The reality of what was going on around me, suddenly dawned on me. I looked around and now realised that, what I thought was normal for the Golden Temple and Amritsar was possibly more sinister. I thought of armed Sikh men I had seen around the complex and the large presence of security forces across Amritsar.
We spent the rest of the day in the sweltering heat, flittering from pillar to post and thinking of what to do next. We didn’t leave, as there was indiscriminate fire from the army outside, into the complex. Luckily at this point the armed Sikhs in the complex were not firing back. This bamboozled me, as I had an image of gung-ho fire squads of Bhindranvale. To the contrary armed Sikhs across the complex were sheltering, guarding and guiding innocent pilgrims into safe havens across the complex. We ended up taking shelter in Guru Nanak Niwas and in rooms built to usually house about 3 people, about 20 of us were crammed in. There were literally thousands of pilgrims locked into the complex, a few brave pilgrims did leave through the exits near Baba Atal, the Sikh reference library and the Akaal Takhat as there were pockets of entry points through which they could risk leaving and not being detected or shot by the security forces.
I fell into a torrent of thoughts as night approached and we sweated profusely in the night hue and heat. I thought, I am only 14 years old, I have not got married, finished schooling, had children, I do not deserve to die! Even though I had never prayed before in my life, I mentally started reciting “Satnaam Vaaheguroo,” (True is the Name, He is the wondrous enlightener).
9.30pm We heard a loud knock at the door and someone shouting, “Open.” Everyone in the room was scared and someone near the door opened it. To our shock an armed Sikh was standing at the door, he looked like one of Bhindranvale’s henchmen. He mechanically looked around the room and ordered me and another girl, who was about 14years old also, to get up and leave with him. My Mama shouted “No way” he quietly replied “brother, we need her to do some seva with us,” my Mama’s voice got louder and he still said “NO” but then quickly said “Take me instead!” The Singh firmly said “No, we need her, we can do this the easy way or hard,” he pointed at his assault rifle. My Mama backed down, I and the other girl - Surjit, were ushered out of the room with the Singhs pointing their guns showing us the way.
The Singhs proceeded towards Manji Sahib Diwan Hall, one in front of us and one behind us. As we approached we could see a fire, as we got closer we realised it was a funeral pyre, I shuddered in fear. Horrified I thought, am I going to be burnt alive? There were about 20-25 Sikhs gathered around the fire, we were stopped about 20 feet way. The Singhs then said to us “He was a great Sikh, he was shot today on Baba Atal Gurdwara. He died a warriors death, his name is Bhai Mehnga Singh. We have brought you here, as we thought we can’t help everyone, but if we can help some younger sisters then we should try to do that.” They then sternly spoke, “More than likely you will die in the violence that is to follow. The government is hell-bent on killing innocent pilgrims and Sikhs, they have purposely decide to attack the complex now, as thousands are gathered here in preparation for the memorial programmes for the martyrdom of Sri Guru Arjan Dev Jee which is on the 5th June.”
I was now confused thinking what are they talking about, will they still kill us? The Singh continued, “You are young women and you may be abused by the army, we have two cyanide capsules,” the Singh reached into his pocket and handed me a capsule, as he did Surjit, “You should take this capsule if the situation gets too bad and death is a better option.” They then marched us back to the room, before re-entering our room at Guru Nanank Niwas, I requested that I be allowed to talk to Surjit, the Singhs gave us some space. I whishpered to Surjit “We can’t tell our families about these capsules, we must conceal them and not tell anyone,” Surjit nodded agreeing with the suggestion, she said “but what shall we say has just happened?” I said “Don’t worry, leave the talking to me, just follow my lead,” she again nodded in agreement. We signalled to the Singhs that we were happy to re-enter the room, they opened the door and we entered.
Both our families rushed to greet us, the Singhs just left without saying anything. I quickly said “The Singhs asked us to make chapattis in the Langar Hall and to tend to the wounds of their fighters, me and Surjit said we have never made chapattis and have no medical knowledge, so they brought us straight back.” Surjit half-winked at me, showing approval of my cover-up story. My Mami started blabbering, “How dare they, they knew this room has been designated for families with young children, they should have gone elsewhere.” I calmly put my hand on my Mami’s shoulder and said, “we are back safely,” and she hugged me and I could feel Suraj and Parveen clenching at my legs.
My brother Balwant, was very subdued and quiet. Once all my family had fallen asleep, I whispered to Balwant, “Are you okay?” he said “No! did those militants do anything to you?” I replied, “No – they were very polite to us.” He then gently stroked my head and said, “I love you, I know I haven’t been a good brother …” I could see the tears welling up in his eyes. I put my finger on his lips and said, “You don’t need to say anything, I know. Don’t worry we will get out alive.” Balwant – “I sure hope so.”