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ARKIB : 01/11/2004

Twenty years on, India's Sikh widows wait for justice

NEW DELHI - It's a memory that will haunt Ravel Kaur for the rest of her life.

A day after Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards 20 years ago, an angry mob invaded Kaur's New Delhi home, dragged out her husband and two sons by their hair, set them on fire and then bludgeoned them to death.

``I just managed to save my 10-year-old son by removing his turban, braiding his hair and making him wear a girl's dress,'' Kaur sobbed in her ramshackle glass shop, surrounded by pictures of Hindu gods and Guru Nanak, the founder of her religion.

``I lost seven people - my husband, two sons, a daughter, a daughter-in-law and two grand-children - on that day. But until today, we've got no justice. The people who killed my family still haven't been punished.''

As India marks Sunday's 20th anniversary of Gandhi's death, about 800 Sikh women, widowed in an orgy of anti-Sikh violence in the capital after the assassination, still seethe with anger.

Living in a warren of tenements in a corner of Delhi often called ``Widows' Colony'', all tell horrific tales of bloodthirsty mobs ``necklacing'' members of their families with burning tyres, setting their turbans on fire or beating them with iron rods.

Sikh men, with their beards and distinctive turbans - their religion prohibits them from cutting their hair - are easy to spot in India and all over the world.

The government says some 2,733 people died nationwide in the wave of attacks on Sikhs after Gandhi was shot dead. The bodyguards who killed her sought revenge for her decision to send the army to flush Sikh separatists out of the holy Golden Temple in Amritsar.

But activists say about 4,000 people were killed in the riots, said to be the worst religious violence since the bloody partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Sikhs in New Delhi bore the brunt of the violence.

Two decades and many investigations and inquiries later, H.S. Phoolka, a lawyer fighting for the riot victims, says only 10 people have been convicted of murder. About 600 cases of arson, killing and rioting were registered, but the police closed half of them, ostensibly for lack of evidence.

``There has been no progress because there is a nexus between politicians and police,'' Phoolka said.

Living as virtual refugees in their own country, the Sikh widows - part of a community of about 19 million people - say that all they have received in all these years is compensation of 300,000 rupees ($6,600) and dank quarters in the ``Widows' Colony''.

``This trauma will remain with us for the rest of our lives,'' said Narinder Singh, president of a social organisation working with Sikh riot victims, the Nishkam Sikh Welfare Council.

``Many people have developed mental problems like schizophrenia after the riots. There's never been any apology and no action has ever been taken against the culprits.''

The wounds still fester because of a host of social problems. The widows' children have grown up with a burning sense of revenge that has propelled many into a life of crime and drugs.

``Nobody cared to listen to the cries of widows. We were almost treated like whores,'' screamed Jaissi Bai, a grey-haired woman on crutches who lost her husband and son in the riots.

``Our children are treated like criminals''.

Most of the women said they had given up all hope of ever getting justice after the Congress party returned to power this year. Sikhs accuse the Congress of setting off the 1984 riots. Congress denies the charge.

Few are hopeful even though the country now has its first Sikh prime minister, Manmohan Singh.

``Chances of getting justice after 20 years are not even one percent,'' said K.T.S. Tulsi, a lawyer fighting for riot victims.

``This rankling sense of injustice is most dangerous.'' - Reuters

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