Spotlight On: Mallika Kaur

Mallika Kaur on Faith, Gender, and Activism in the Punjab Conflict (2020)

“I cannot remember exactly how I first met Justice Bains, but I do remember how we all surrounded a police station together.” A gossamer white chunni gracefully pulsates on Baljit Kaur’s shoulders against the beat of the ceiling fan. 

“They had picked up a boy. Kid, his family called him. He was only about twenty.”

When asked if there were any other women protesting, she gently shrugs. “I think … no!” A dimple momentarily appears on her bronzed face.

“They had guns drawn out. We said, ‘We will walk in unless we get what we came for.’ And I told the men, Please stay behind, they won’t shoot a lady.” 

The lady, now 75, shifts a little, adjusting herself on an emerald green cushion, the seat of a large, sparklingly re-varnished cane chair, reminiscent of a different era. “Well, at least it was less likely for them to shoot me.”

She pauses to swirl a spoon in floral china. A photograph of a bearded man with a sun visor over a small turban, golf club in mid-swing, looks over her right shoulder. “Good thing too, my husband didn’t exactly know we had gone to surround a police station!”

She stares down at the receding vortex in her teacup. “Ultimately it worked in the sense that this was the first time that the police met human rights resistance on their turf.”

It was July 1989, at the peak of violent conflict in Indian Punjab. 

The once part-time Air France employee and full-time homemaker, Baljit Kaur found herself at the center of Punjab’s hazardous human rights movement. Her closest comrades included Justice Ajit Singh Bains, known as a “communist judge” long before becoming the “people’s judge,” who would retort that he indeed had an unflinching stance on “terrorism” in Punjab: “I am against terrorists, in and out of uniform.” And Inderjit Singh Jaijee, once setting motorcycling world records far away from Punjab and his weighty Jaijee family legacy. Now, along with a handful of other concerned citizens, they were all combating violence as non-combatants.

In Faith, Gender, and Activism in the Punjab Conflict: The Wheat Fields Still Whisper, which will be released February 2020, I journey with the lives of these three Punjabis credited with saving countless lives in deadly times. Thus far, the Punjab conflict has mostly either festered in the shadows or been made hyper-visible through a gory and often disturbing telling, focused on combatants or hapless victims. Anywhere from 25,000 (police estimate) to 250,000 (civil society estimate) people were killed during Punjab’s deadliest decade (1984-94). Punjab conflict’s selective telling has fed the fascination for violence—through its spectacular events, bookended often by the 1984 assassination of Indian prime minister and the 1995 killing of the Punjab chief minister. My questions about the in-between led me to this book’s protagonists.

The events in Punjab have since been used by the State as a blueprint to respond to dissent and rebellion in other parts of India. Outside of counterinsurgency tactics, I wondered about what other blueprints Punjab might provide. I began exploring the stories of people from within the region who had witnessed the worst years. The human rights defenders particularly captivated me. The three chosen protagonists’ life stories refused to be written as ordinary oral histories: community memory, historical vignettes, and archival treasures push back against a singular narrative in this complicated region’s contested history. I have approached this topic deeply and personally conscious of the strong feelings it evokes. At the same time, I have sought not to do Punjab’s conflict the disservice of another hyper-simplified account.

The book highlights how when entire conflicts have been marginalized, we miss essential stories: of faith; of feminist action; of effective human rights intervention; and of strategies of principled resistance within electoral democracies—increasingly relevant for the world in 2020.

A 1984 baby, I grew with the growing alienations in Punjab. The Indian Army’s attack on Punjab in June 1984, epicentered at the heart of Sikhi, Darbar Sahib (“Golden Temple”)—akin in significance to the Vatican, Mecca, Temple of David—had elicited a visceral reaction from religious, irreligious, and areligious Sikhs alike, and indeed many non-Sikhs. Yet, by the time I could crawl, the justified necessity of the June massacres had taken hold in the same psyche, and these were being referred to by the Army code name ‘Operation Bluestar.’ Those mostly responsible won a (still unbroken) record landslide national election victory a few months later after anti-Sikh pogroms were unleashed immediately following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. And then any sympathy for Sikhs in the international community dissipated in the flames of Flight 182 from Canada, bombed allegedly by Sikh militants.

By the time I learned to speak, the militants enjoyed as much popular support in the rural countryside as the government’s reattacks on Darbar Sahib did in the Indian “mainstream”; President’s Rule was introduced in Punjab, and Sikh diaspora populations multiplied as people scurried out of Punjab.

Seven years old when Rajiv Gandhi was killed, I knew that Sikhs, now categorized national enemies, were in imminent danger unless someone else would immediately be blamed. (It turned out to be a Tamil woman suicide bomber retaliating against Gandhi’s support to Sri Lanka, actively quashing Tamil guerillas.)

By the time I could follow adult conversations, the various infiltrations and infighting in the militant cadres had wreaked havoc in the countryside; various organizations had successfully fueled distrust among Sikhs; Punjab’s first elections in four years were first postponed by the government at the last minute and then subsequent polls were boycotted by “militants” under suspicious circumstances, forever rendering the handling of an electoral opportunity a heatedly debated mystery of the secessionist movement.

Knowing that she could perhaps repeat a “Sikh view” to her best friend who was Sikh, but not to her other best friend who was a Punjabi Hindu, gradually makes a child doubt the validity of the minority view. More importantly, I knew when showing any awareness or interest was dangerous.

By the time I studied conflicts elsewhere in the world and returned to Punjab, I knew our conflict, within the world’s largest democracy, had been long eclipsed by other grotesque happenings in India and the world.

On the heels of November 1984, thousands were killed and disfigured, but this time by a gas leak in the foreign-owned Union Carbide plant in Central India’s Bhopal region, and attention turned to one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. Then, as Chernobyl was melting and mutating its citizenry under forced unawareness in 1986, Punjab’s secessionist movement reached its true peak. While Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina were marching for the disappeared, Punjab’s boys were practising guerrilla warfare, which brought the Indian politicians to the negotiating table.

As the Berlin Wall fell, and the United States’ unipolar moment began, Punjab’s countryside was alight. The homespun militancy was as popular at the grassroots, as it was hounded by the state in 1989. By the time Yugoslavia was coming apart in 1991, the real threat of Punjab’s militancy fragmenting the nation had been undone. As the world watched Mandela being elected in 1994, prisoners of conscience had been murdered in Punjab, chilling civil society.

While the 100 days of genocide in Rwanda highlighted the horrific threshold of the so-called international community, Punjab was calling for international monitors to assist with counting its dead. But India declared a return of “normalcy” in Punjab, without any period of transition or justice.

It is perhaps more impossible than unfair to try to understand Punjab’s conflict without recognizing the history of the land that lives in its progeny. Thus each chapter, while focusing on a conflict year, contains an interwoven section that quickly traverses the earlier history of Punjab. As the reader begins the book by travelling back from 1995, the arguable end of the conflict, the earlier history of Punjab, starting in 1839 during the transition from Sikh rule to British colonial rule, travels forward to embrace the reader. Like a loving relative, this embrace is pesky and inconvenient at times, but unavoidable. To understand Jaijee, Kaur, and Bains, understanding what they describe as their historical roots is essential. To understand why today there are even fewer people who persist, as these veterans have, understanding the roots of this conflict is essential. The two timelines, descending from 1995 and ascending from 1839, converge in the final chapter, marking the pivotal year of Punjab’s conflicted recent history: 1984. 

Today, when India’s handling of minorities and dissent is again under scrutiny, it's timely to draw lessons from citizen activists who persevered in Punjab during ‘those days’: an entire period packed too neatly into one word—Militancy (and with passing time, Terrorism)—out of which peek unanswered questions.

Mallika Kaur is a lawyer and writer who focuses on human rights, with a specialization in gender and minority issues. She received her Master in Public Policy from Harvard University, USA, and her Juris Doctorate from the UC Berkeley School of Law, USA, where she currently teaches.