It's been 25 years, but Inderjit Singh Jagraon talks about his experiences in early June, 1984, inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, as if he just walked out of the complex. His voice quivers as he recounts the horrific scene: dead bodies everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, he repeats. Men with open bullet wounds and limbs missing; floors awash in blood and water.
Mr. Jagraon recalls running from gunfire. The man next to him was shot and fell forward on his head. "He died in my hands," Mr. Jagraon said in an interview this week. "He did not move. I left him where he was. I ran away." Everyone was trying to find a place to hide, like mice. "We ran from room to room," he said.
Mr. Jagraon, who is now married, the father of three daughters and living in Toronto, was a 19-year-old student in 1984, in his second year of studies in civil engineering in his hometown of Jagraon, about two hours away from the holiest shrine in the Sikh religion.
He was active in the Sikh Student Federation, a group considered to be a terrorist organization by the government of India. The group was involved mostly in educating people about the Sikh religion, Mr. Jagraon said. But they did more than that and some members paid a price. "Anyone asking for their rights and justice [at that time]was beaten up or killed, and their voice ... quieted," he said without elaborating.
On June 1, 1984, he heard that government forces had killed a number of people at the temple. He went with a friend to find out what was happening. No one stopped them from going in, but once inside the temple complex, he was unable to leave.
The Golden Temple is actually a collection of religious halls, offices and dormitories. Armed terrorists were in the central temple building. Mr. Jagraon stayed in a dormitory called Guru Ram Das Sarai. He says he was not involved in the fighting. "I was a student, a young kid; I was not trained to do all those things," he said.
The shooting and explosions began around 4:30 a.m. on June 4, his second night at the temple, and continued into the next day. He recalled a voice on a loudspeaker around 5 p.m. on June 5, saying whoever wants to come out would be allowed to leave. He stayed but others went. He saw them being beaten with steel rods as they stepped out.
The exchange of fire ended on June 6. Mr. Jagraon was taken into custody that night. He had fallen asleep and was awaken by a soldier pointing a gun at his chest. Soldiers lined up hundreds of people. He was left sitting for hours with dead bodies on the floor nearby. He recalled seeing people die from their wounds, after asking soldiers for water.
He was eventually put on a bus and taken to a camp in an isolated location. He remembers the intense heat. People went crazy for water, he said. He saw an army tank point its barrel and shoot some of those people. He estimated around 60 people were killed.
He was held in a high-security prison until March, 1989, convicted of fighting against the Indian army. Mr. Jagraon came to Canada via Kenya in August, 1991.
"Now everything is okay," said Mr. Jagraon, who works as a realtor. He continues to support the goals of the student federation that led to his troubles. "I am a well-wisher of all those organizations who seek Sikh rights," he said, "but I'm not really involved in any [of them]"
"When you look at Rwanda, the whole world knew what was happening and was shaken right to the core," Kirpa Kaur, a member of a group called B.C. Sikh Youth, said earlier this week. "So few people know about [the attacks of 1984]and they perceive it as a story brought up needlessly."
She believes human-rights violations that occurred 25 years ago continue to sting because those responsible for the actions were never punished. "As Canadians who have deeply emotional and social connections to the injustices that happened in Punjab, we would hope that the Canadian government would support us in fighting injustices, in helping us indict those who clearly have been found guilty... [by non-governmental organizations]" she said.