As a student of an English-medium school, sixteen-year-old Nirpreet Kaur often refused to speak in her mother tongue, except while reading the Guru Granth Sahib. She was the quintessential teenager who dreamt of a life with “and they lived happily ever after” endings.
But all that changed on the morning of November 1, 1984 when she heard that a mob was desecrating a few gurudwaras in and around her locality. By the time Nirpreet ran to extricate a copy of the sacred text, all hell had broken loose. A little distance away, her father Nirmal Singh was fighting a losing battle. Leading the forces against him, albeit stealthily at the time, were two Congress leaders – Mahendra Yadav, who later became a Congress member of the Delhi state assembly between 1998-2003 and Sajjan Kumar, a sitting Member of Parliament from Outer Delhi. Yadav was convicted in September 2013 after a long-drawn-out legal battle in which Nirpreet Kaur was one of the leading dramatis personae.
While fleeing her home (WZ-241 in Raj Nagar near Delhi Cantonment) in an Air Force vehicle sent at the behest of Wing Commander LS Punnu, Nirpreet turned around one last time and saw her dead father’s leg aflame.
At the time, the desire to seek justice hadn’t taken root, she later told several courts; it was the next day when she returned to the colony to evacuate other Sikhs who had either been stranded or were facing attacks. Before reaching her home, she witnessed a mob that was, as she claimed, being exhorted by Sajjan Kumar, “Ek bhi Sardar zinda nahi bachna chahiye” (Not a single Sardar should be left alive).
The days and weeks following the ghastly killing of her father passed in a daze. Fortunately Nirpreet and her mother, Sampuran Kaur had the attention of a few influential people including Lt General Jagjit Singh Aurora, the 1971 war-hero-turned- founder-president of the Sikh Forum. In all the meetings with the General and his colleagues, young Nirpreet strongly demanded that cases be led against her father’s killers. But when Sajjan Kumar was re-nominated to contest the parliamentary polls in December 1984, Nirpreet lost all faith in the judicial process and decided not to testify in front of the Misra Commission. Instead, she swore to avenge the murder of her father and resolved to counter the system externally.
As a first step, she enrolled herself in Lyallpur Khalsa College for Women, Jalandhar and joined the All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF). It was during this phase when she fell in love with a khadku (Punjabi word for a militant) called Gurdev Singh alias Roshan Lal Bairagi who was originally from the Brahminical Bairagi order of Hindus, but there is no record of what had motivated him to first convert to Sikhism and then turn a militant. In 1986 at the age of eighteen, Nirpreet married Gurdev, but less than a fortnight later, everything came to an abrupt end. It happened on the day the couple decided to visit Nirpreet’s mother clandestinely in Delhi.
There are two versions of what happened thereafter. Nirpreet claimed that Bairagi was betrayed by an associate and the police later staged a mock encounter to eliminate him. According to the official version, he was killed after he had tried to escape in transit to judicial custody. In August 1987, Justice Ajit Singh Bains, a former judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court deposed vis-à-vis Bairagi’s eventual fate in a sworn affidavit. His declaration was particularly chilling:
The Punjab Human Rights Organisation, which I head, is currently enquiring into the allegations of fake encounters in Punjab particularly since the promulgation of Central Government’s rule in Punjab in May 1987. Our estimate is that about 1000 Sikhs have been killed during the past few months...Even some jail inmates are taken out of prisons and killed in fake encounters.
However, KPS Gill, the former DGP of Punjab and a man credited with snuffing out terrorism in the state, wrote in Punjab: The Knights of Falsehood that marriages amongst militants were often for sexual convenience or for upward mobility in the organisational ladder. In reference to Satnam Singh Chinna, chief of the (now defunct) militant outfit called the Bhindranwala Tigers Force of Khalistan, Gill wrote:
He (Chinna) “acquired” a 50 acre farm in the Puranpur district of Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, and had a large kothi constructed at Delhi. He had killed half a dozen of his close associates when they had demanded a share in the money looted by the group. He had two wives, and illicit relations with the wife of a certain Roshan Lal Bairagi, another girl named Pinki, and a third woman in Mannawala village in Ajnala.
After Bairagi’s death, Nirpreet Kaur returned to Punjab. Meanwhile, her mother was also arrested in 1986 for harbouring terrorists and remained in jail till 1990. In between, the daughter made her way back into the AISSF and after giving birth to a son, rejoined the militants inside the Golden Temple.
In May 1988, after the launch of Operation Black Thunder, Nirpreet Kaur – by then a Proclaimed Offender in Delhi – was amongst the first few to have turned herself in. I was among the group of reporters covering the event and remember the drama at high noon shortly after the first group of one hundred and fifty – including Surjit Singh Penta, a one-time athlete who had represented Delhi in national championships, but at the time notorious for the serial attacks in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park and Greater Kailash in June 1987 – walked out of the Golden Temple.
Four years and several bitter experiences later, Nirpreet Kaur’s identity was sadly entwined with her husband’s and she was counted amongst several nameless and dangerous women who had joined the ranks of terrorists.
I remember her sitting next to Paramjit Kaur, the pregnant wife of Penta who had watched her husband die after swallowing a cyanide pill that he carried on his person.
Operation Black Thunder lasted for three days during which other dreaded terrorists like Chanchal Singh Udoke and Nirvair Singh also surrendered. Nirpreet Kaur was later arrested and jailed for eight years for terror activities and the woman who eventually walked out of jail was a far cry from the young girl who had fled home in November 1984 after witnessing her father’s murder.
The scene was straight out of a Hindi film script. On a certain winter afternoon, a short, stocky woman in her early fifties sat cross-legged on a queen-size bed in one of the guest rooms in Delhi’s historic Gurudwara Rakabganj Sahib. This was the same shrine where after an episode of violence, senior Congress leader, Kamal Nath and the then Additional Commissioner of Police, Gautam Kaul (a cousin of Rajiv Gandhi), were accused of instigating a mob which had killed two people.
The woman was speaking on the phone with Joginder Singh, a witness in the case involving former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar for abetting his cousin, Surjit Singh’s killing in Sultanpuri. In July 1987, Joginder Singh had led an affidavit before the Jain-Banerjee Commitee detailing the case.
In more than two and a half decades since then, Joginder Singh had swung back and forth during depositions: in 1992, 1995 and yet again in 2003. At times he turned completely hostile and denied (along with his sister-in-law, Rajwant Kaur) having witnessed the killing. But there were occasions when he stood by his affidavit and testified, most famously before the Nanavati Commission. Many suspected that Joginder Singh had been bought over which seemed unfair because not only was his son set aflame during the riots (but survived miraculously), even his daughter was kidnapped and never found. Subsequently, as a result of his inconsistent testimonies and also Anek Kaur’s (another witness, who died in 2001) backtracking on her affidavit in 1994, the case against Sajjan Kumar and other co-accused was closed. Later at the behest of the Nanavati Commission report, the case was reopened for investigation.
On that afternoon of December 2013, Joginder Singh drove a hard bargain and it had fallen upon Nirpreet Kaur to negotiate the price. Nirpreet displayed little emotion as she haggled with the man who had a dubious past. She spoke on the phone in front of a group of Sikhs from the United Kingdom, similar to the ones established in Canada and the United States to provide assistance for the victims of 1984.
Nirpreet wound up the conversation and it was obvious she had good news. Turning to the group of men, she exclaimed how it was sheer coincidence that the man had called her! The phone call, she added was proof that witnesses had to be paid.
The middle-aged Nirpreet was twice married. The first time to a militant, which was cut short by fate and the second time to a Non-Resident Indian settled in Germany, which had failed of its own accord. A fledgling entrepreneur, she had two sons, one from each husband, and shared an uneasy relationship with most of her immediate family. These and several other nuggets about her personal life were often grist for salacious gossip.
But Nirpreet Kaur remained unperturbed. After all she was the star witness in the Sajjan Kumar case and one of the most sought-after activists in her community.
In 2011, she had assisted the well- known investigative journalist, Harinder Baweja in conducting a sting operation to establish that money was offered to her by HS Hanspal, a Congress leader close to Sajjan Kumar.
As Nirpreet surveyed the people sitting before her, the scene unfolded for the umpteenth time. She admitted she was an important player in the saga of 1984 and how it had become imperative for her survival. But it had not only brought her immense grief, but hatred from several quarters, she said. By now she was ranting about her elder son who she claimed was in cahoots with some Congress leaders and was pressurising her to compromise by changing her testimony.
In truth, Nirpreet was not badly off. Her frequent interactions with overseas Sikh groups and easy access to the media had benefitted her as an entrepreneur.
I asked Nirpreet what kind of a closure did she want?
“The politics over 1984 is deeply entrenched,” she said.
What about your father’s murder? I asked.
“Yes. That is my personal tragedy. I demand harsh jail terms for the accused,” she said.
The only time Nirpreet appeared fragile was when I asked her if it had been a wise decision to keep the truth away from her younger son?
Nirpreet Kaur had spent eleven years in prison for crimes she hadn’t committed. She had even crossed over to the other side when terrorism was at its peak after 1984, but had returned and for several years thereafter mentored victims in sorting out legal disputes, even helping their children to pursue their education etc. But she had failed to connect with her own children. The legal complexities involving several court cases had left her little time to be her son’s mother.
Excerpted with permission from Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, Westland.