In 2017, Dr. Sandeep Sabhlok —then a resident at the University of California, San Francisco— was conducting a psychometric evaluation to study the mental health status of his patient when she experienced a 30-second flashback, a specific symptom for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“I was taken back to the moment when I saw my husband burning on the ground,” his interviewee said.
Sabhlok was assessing subjects for PTSD and Multiple Depression Disorder (MDD) in Tilak Vihar, West Delhi, India. Now infamously called “Widow Colony,” this settlement was built by the Indian government to compensate and relocate over 3000 widows after the loss of their family members in the 1984 Sikh genocide. Most of the women — who came from Mongolpuri, Sultanpuri and Trilokpuri in Delhi — readily accepted the government’s offer to provide for their children and ensure their safety. Those who rejected, returned to Punjab or emigrated out of the country.
Instigated by prominent political figures of the ruling party, the Indian National Congress (INC) — Jagdish Tytler, H.K.L. Bhagat, and Lalit Maken, the genocide was a response to the murder of the former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards — Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, on Nov. 1, 1984.
Earlier in June, Gandhi had ordered a military attack on Sikhism’s holiest shrines, the Harmandir Sahib Gurdwara, in Amritsar, India. Innocent Sikh families were caught in the tension between the Indian government and political activists who had taken refuge inside the Gurdwara during the busy Gurpurab festivities. These activists were demanding economic progress and religious and linguistic preservation for India’s Sikh minority of 1.9% in the state of Punjab, where 57.69% of the population identifies as Sikh.
In an array of atrocities inflicted upon Sikhs across the country, copies of the Sikh holy scripture, Guru Granth Sahibji, were burned and urinated on. Sikh temples in Delhi and other cities— where hundreds of families were taking refuge— were hunted down and attacked. Conservative estimates record around 700 civilian deaths, but reported figures could range up to 20,000.
To highlight the trauma and mental displacement that the widows experienced, Manmeet Singh, producer of the documentary, Widow Colony: India’s Unsettled Settlement (2009), also interviewed Sikh women in Tilak Vihar, who told stories of their family members who were dragged out of their homes and gang-raped on the streets. Their brothers, husbands, and fathers were beaten and unturbaned by angered masses.
“The word rape comes with a great amount of discomfort, [and so does being] beaten up with rebars and having cut hair,” Singh said.
Sikhs cover their heads as part of the Bana or the military uniform outlined by their religious Gurus and as a mark of respect for their religion. To them, losing their turbans and letting their uncut hair down in public is synonymous with losing their Sikh identity.
“For some Sikhs, they [would] accept death with no qualms, but they won’t give up their identity,” Singh said.
According to Singh, young boys’ mothers were forced to braid their hair to camouflage them as girls and protect them from the mobs. This memory lingers on in the aftermath of the massacre, instilling a fear of identifying as a Sikh.
Singh’s documentary highlights mothers and children who lament the loss of their homes. Some of them do not want to go back for fear of vivid memories. Nevertheless, each year during the anniversary of these attacks, the entire community comes together to honor the lost lives of their loved ones.
Upholding the value of Chardikala which teaches Sikhs to be optimistic in the face of adversities, the women in the colony live through life and its everyday emotions courageously. Whether it is by working tirelessly for hours in the Nishkam community sewing center or through job opportunities provided by other businesses, the women have managed to put the pieces together. However, the widows still suffer pronounced mental distress.
“When I was doing the evaluation, I almost felt like I was a psychiatrist holding mental health counseling sessions because no one had ever asked [the women] about their health,” Sahblok said.
A significant setback for Sabhlok’s study was that these instruments were not designed to fit the Indian context. Of the four PTSD symptoms — intrusion, avoidance, negative alterations in cognition or mood, and alterations that allow activity– the avoidance cluster was most difficult for the women to fathom.
In response to questions like “In this past month, how much were you bothered by avoiding memories, thoughts, or feelings related to the stressful experience (here, November 1984)?” women told Sabhlok that the killings were ingrained in their minds; they were a vital part of their lives. Low scores on the avoidance cluster caused the results to be scientifically inconclusive.
Cultural contextuality is essential for such screening instruments given the rising worldwide risk of displacement for vulnerable populations. Women in Widow Colony have been battling the repercussions of both mental and physical displacement for over thirty five years now. Despite their different approaches to highlighting the experiences of the widows, both Singh and Sablokh concur that every individual can contribute to rebuilding the realities of the women.
For Sahblock, being able to measure the trauma is the first step in healing.
“With India at a risk of becoming a bed of ethno-religious violence, and with the stigma within the Indian culture of mental health issues, I think it is very important that we highlight this in our community for vulnerable people, who are often unable to get care,” Sabhlok said.