Charanjeet Singh was four years old when rioters broke into their home and killed his parents. Hiding under the bed with his brother, sisters and grandmother, he saw his father and mother being beaten mercilessly and burned alive. Today, 19 years later, Charanjeet, 23, and his siblings continue to fight for a normal life in spite of the social, financial and emotional handicaps that life has dealt them
I was just four at the time. We had a large plot of land in Baljeet Nagar, a Sikh colony, and a comfortable house. There was a gurdwara some distance from our house. Most Sikhs in the area lived near it. My earliest memory is of an announcement over loudspeakers: there was trouble in town, those who wanted shelter should rush to the gurdwara. By the time we understood, it was too late to make it to the gurdwara. We were not close enough. The loudspeaker continued to blare out news that Sikhs were being killed. In a panic, my father bolted the door and shut all the windows. He pushed me and my siblings — my elder brother and sister and my infant sister — under the cot. He then tried to fit my mother and grandmother in there as well.
By this time, the rioters had reached our door. Some of them banged violently at the door. Some others, meanwhile, had climbed onto our roof. They broke into our house through the roof. I am not sure, but I think there were four or five of them. They unbolted the door and dragged my father out. We were frozen under the bed, unable to even scream. From where we were, we could see them thrashing him mercilessly, hitting him with stones, and as he lay there bleeding profusely, they poured kerosene on him and set him on fire. He didn’t stand a chance. He was burned alive. I can still see it all as if it had happened just a few hours ago. His blue clothes. The fire. The screaming. My younger sister, mercifully, was too young to know what was happening. But for the rest of us there was no respite. And nothing has changed.
I remember my mother starting to scream from her hiding place. She could not take it any more. The rioters, finished with my father, turned their attention to her. They pulled my mother out by her hair. They beat her and kicked her, and pulled out her hair. Then they set her on fire as well.
Even today, in spite of our best attempts, we have no idea what happened to my parents’ bodies. We do not know if they were cremated or buried.
The world has never been the same for me since. People I trusted, people I called ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’, were either actively inciting the attackers or were silent spectators. Once our parents were dead, they ransacked our house and took everything we had. We waited under the bed till things went quiet. A long while later, we left the house, trying to stay out of sight, went to the gurdwara and hid there.
Eventually, my grandmother brought us here after many days in hiding. She never entirely recovered from the shock. Most of the money we got as compensation was spent on her treatment. She was our only surrogate parent, and we don’t know what we would have done without her. She finally passed away in 1998. As long as she was alive, we used to get a pension of Rs 1,000. When she died, even that stopped.
Now, it’s just the four of us. The three of us, actually. We got my elder sister married earlier this year. It was not easy to find a groom who would marry her without a dowry. Finally, we met my brother-in-law and he agreed to marry her, expecting nothing more than the ‘three clothes’ she wore.
The irony of the situation is that all prospective bridegrooms seem to think we have a lot of money. They say, "You got a compensation of Rs 3 lakh. Where is that? We want our wife’s share of that as dowry." They demand refrigerators and motorbikes. Even without a dowry, arranging a marriage is expensive business. We have taken loans of almost Rs 50,000. How are we ever going to pay it back? And there’s still our younger sister, who is now 19. We have to get her married too.
Then there is the cost of our own education. My brother and I have always been reasonably good students and took up private tuition for children when we were very young ourselves so that we could continue our education. I am now a final year undergraduate, and my brother has finished his graduation. Our younger sister is in class twelve. I say this with pride because I see other young men and women our age. They have not been able to cope with what they had to go through. Drug abuse is rampant in our colony. Most young people are not interested in an education. Our elders are all out of home, eking out whatever meagre living they can manage, and most youngsters turn into wastrels.
At the end of the day, we have no guarantee that our education will give us better lives. I cannot escape the feeling that we are branded in some manner, living as we do in Tilak Vihar.
Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh