by SS Shanti Kaur Khalsa, Espanola NM
2021 (Second Quarter)
As I sit in my post-pandemic awareness and think about the decade of the 1980s, it feels like a million miles away…and just like yesterday. For me, and for many in the Sikh Dharma Ministry, the 1980s was a coming of age and an awakening to the harsh realities of sacrifice.
In March of 1984, I accompanied the students on their way to Guru Nanak’s Fifth Centenary School in Mussoorie, India. It was my second trip to India, and I felt the emotional pull of the Guru’s land. After safely leaving the children in Mussoorie, I traveled to Amritsar to bow at the sacred Sri Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple.
I was not aware of politics or the developing critical situation in India. In 1984, news from India was slow in coming—there was no internet, no cellphones, and not much human interest from the United States.
India was a very long way away from Ronald Reagan’s America. But as I pulled into the train station in Amritsar (the airport was not yet built), it was like dropping into a war zone.
Stepping off the train, I saw destruction throughout the terminal—broken things heaped in piles and smears of blood on the floor.
The conductor told me in a quick, halting voice that a train earlier in the day had been attacked and people had been killed. I went numb, uncertain, and frozen as I grappled with the reality of what I was seeing.
I moved out to the front of the station to get a cab, but there were no cars to be seen. I hired a tonga—a horse and cart—and moved through the familiar streets of Amritsar towards the Darbar Sahib.
But nothing was familiar! All the shops were closed and boarded up. Not a single car was on the roads, just horses and carts and pedal rickshaws. I later learned that no one would risk the Amritsar streets.
The Home of Guru Ram Das
Once I arrived at Guru Nanak Niwas, I felt relieved and safe in the home of Guru Ram Das. I got to my room, dropped my bags, and ran to the roof, taking the stairs two at a time with growing excitement to get my first look at the Golden Temple after being away for seven years.
As I rounded the last landing, at the door to the roof stood a young Nihung with a rifle in his hands, shouting “Stop!” I did stop, dead in my tracks.
“I just want to see the Golden Temple,” I gasped, out of breath.
“No!” was all he said. He was young and looked like my brother.
“Well, I am going,” I said. “Shoot me if you must, but I am going.” I stepped around him through the door onto the roof. There below me stretched the gleaming white parkarma and the golden dome of the Sri Harimandir Sahib. I was overwhelmed with that deep emotion and memory that comes every time I see the warmth of that golden light.
But then I noticed my surroundings—there were sandbag bunkers and machine gun placements on the four corners of the roof. No wonder the guard did not want me to come up here!
I stayed in Amritsar for four more days in the company of some of our Sikh Dharma sangat. During that time, we saw army personnel start mobilizing into Amritsar.
We heard the roar of helicopters and the staccato of gunfire throughout the night, leaving us anxious for the safety of the sangat that was growing daily around the Darbar Sahib. I did my best to really understand what was going on, what the issues were, and what the Sikhs were facing.
Two months later, on the night of June 5th, while we were safe and comfortable in our homes, the Indian Army invaded the Golden Temple.
There was great loss of life and an unspeakable human tragedy. The brick and mortar of the Akal Takhat was destroyed, and the Sikhs were devasted.
As the Sikh Dharma Ministry, this was our first awakening to the importance of connecting to and serving Sikhs around the world.
Before 1984, we were very inwardly focused on the needs of our growing community.
But after 1984, our eyes were opened to the needs of and our responsibility to the greater panth. We learned that it is incumbent upon us to stay informed about the current issues facing Sikhs today.
The 1980s taught us this important lesson—the need for the safety and well-being of our worldwide communities of sangat, so that we can serve all people in meaningful ways as Ministers of Sikh Dharma.
Photos circa 1984 courtesy of author.
About the Author
SS Shanti Kaur Khalsa is an ordained Sikh Dharma Minister, a yoga teacher, and a business consultant who brings spiritual values to every aspect of life. After becoming a Sikh Dharma Minister in 1977, she traveled widely, teaching and giving inspirational Sikh kirtan and lecture programs. Shanti Kaur lives in Espanola with her husband and currently heads the Dharmic Office of Public Affairs for the Siri Singh Sahib Corporation. www.dharmic-opa.org