Growing up, whenever Diljit Dosanjh was asked his birthdate, the answer always brought about the same reaction.
“I’d say 6 January, 1984, and each time the response would be, ‘Oh! You were born during the massacres.’ I never understood what they meant. What is this [massacre] they are talking about,” says Mr. Dosanjh, a popular Punjabi singer-actor and star of the movie Punjab 1984, which opens across 60 theatres in North America on Friday.
“When I was about 10-11 years old, I started to understand things a little more. This conversation, the incidents around ’84, the atmosphere of ’84, those memories are still fresh in the minds of Punjabis everywhere.”
Dressed in a black shirt, jeans and a crisp white turban, Mr. Dosanjh, who is known for his MTV-style Punjabi music videos, insisted on carrying out the interview with The Globe in Punjabi.
The issue of language strained relationships between Punjab state and India’s federal government, causing tensions that led to the explosive events of 1984, which in turn led to the deepest scar on the collective conscience of Canada’s Sikh community – the Air India bombing of 1985 that killed 329.
Punjab 1984 was written and shot in India, but was produced by Vancouver-based White Hill Productions.
Anurag Singh, the writer-director of Punjab 1984, maintains the film is not political.
Set against the backdrop of the unrest in Punjab between 1984 and 1986, the movie is about “a mother’s search for her missing son,” he said. “The story I have tried to tell is a story that is not part of headlines anywhere,” he says. “It’s a story that maybe the larger media is not interested in. For them, these people are just figures – so many people are missing, so many people died.”
Shortly after Indian independence from British rule, when Hindi was declared India’s national language, the Punjabi suba movement sought to establish Punjabi as the region’s official language. The language issue came up again in India this week, when recently elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi instructed Indian bureaucrats to use Hindi instead of English on all social media platforms, immediately drawing criticisms from representatives of non-Hindi speaking regions.
Punjabi eventually got its status, but other issues of contention such as territorial disputes, a demand for a larger share of water resources for a province known as India’s breadbasket, and demands for greater autonomy from the federal government, continued.
The growing unrest in Punjab came to head in 1984, when the controversial Sikh preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed followers took residence inside the Golden Temple, the Sikh version of the Vatican.
Indian authorities believed he was running a parallel government from inside the temple. Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi gave orders to the Indian army to attack the Golden Temple to flush out Mr. Bhindranwale. The mission was called Operation Bluestar. According to unofficial figures, thousands died in the crossfire, many of them innocent pilgrims.
The assault on Sikhism’s holiest site outraged many, and Sikh separatists began calling for an independent state of Khalistan.
“Nineteen-eighty-four was a watershed year for Punjabis,” says Mr. Singh, in a telephone interview from his parents’ home in Punjab. “I still remember Operation Bluestar. We used to live in a rented place close to the Golden Temple. I was on the terrace playing, and it was growing dark, when I started to hear noises. Then I saw the sky lighting up, traces of light crisscrossing the night sky. I thought it was firecrackers.”
Many families still have no news of sons and fathers who went missing during the time, says Mr. Singh, who conducted extensive interviews with victims’ families.
“It was emotionally wrenching, listening to those stories,” Mr. Singh says.
“The grief, hurt, and even anger, it’s still there … They have tried to move on with their lives, but they still carry the photographs of those they lost in those times.”