On a November evening in 1991, an hour before 21-year-old bridegroom Angrej Singh was due to set out on his baraat, his celebrating household was attacked by four gunmen.
Eighteen people dead.
“We were feasting just before the baraat when they jumped over the wall and started shooting at everything they could see. I crouched behind a pile of logs, my mother hid behind the shamiana,” remembers Angrej, now a greying farmer in his 40s. Others were not so lucky; his father, eldest brother, teenage cousins, and a pregnant aunt were all caught in the indiscriminate firing, which also killed the halwaivala and kabirwala.
Sukhwinder Kaur, the waiting bride, was already dressed in her finery, and panchayat elders insisted that her wedding with Angrej continue. She refuses to talk about the brief ceremony, which took place even as the bodies strewn across the yard were being cleared away, just hours before the mass cremations.
Tragic as it seems, the incident was simply one gory battle in the long-drawn private war fought between the local mafia and the Khalistan terrorists who fought in Punjab in the 1980s and early 1990s. Two of Angrej's brothers — members of the Khalistan Commando Force-Zafarwal (KCF-Z) militia — started a feud with Piara Singh's brother, who was the local don and allegedly a police informer. Almost 50 people on both sides died over the course of the feud, including the multiple revenge attacks after the wedding massacre.
Two decades later, the twin villages of Basarke-Baini are still divided by the feud. Pratap Singh, sarpanch of Baini village, points out the crumbling ancestral home of his erstwhile neighbour Piara Singh, which has now been rented out to strangers.
“We have been uprooted from our home and forced to move from one rented place to another in fear of revenge,” says Piara's son Balwinder, who is now a head constable with the Punjab Police. “I am the only man left to look after my mother, and the families of my brothers and my cousin, so I could not get married...My father is in his mid-eighties and can't see clearly or walk properly. Why do they still want to kill him? Why can't they let bygones be bygones?”
While the family fought the case till the sessions court, they were forced to rely on legal aid in the higher courts. After 20 years on death row, Piara and his fellow convicts had their sentence commuted to life imprisonment earlier this year.
While Piara Singh and his family were convicted of murder, Angrej's brother surrendered to the police at the end of the era of militancy. “On the one side, there is a terrorist who kills 400 innocent people, but because he surrenders, he is given amnesty and left scot-free. Piara kills 18 people who were terrorist sympathisers as an act of desperation and he is rotting in prison. How is that justice,” asks Baini sarpanch Pratap Singh.
That kind of argument leaves Basarke's widowed sarpanch Amrik Kaur seething with anger. Her husband Sher Singh belonged to neither camp in the militant-mafia feud, but was shot on his bed simply because he was an influential man in the village, she says.
“[Piara] should not come out of there alive … Rather let the dogs drag his body through the village,” she says, fuming at the decision to commute the death sentence.
Two other victimised families abandoned the legal route long ago. Taking advantage of the confused governance of the militant era, they claimed that their kin were killed in terrorist attacks and claimed compensation from the State.
After the massacre at his wedding, Angrej Singh left the village to escape revenge attacks, which, he claims, Piara ordered from his prison cell. Selling his ancestral property to help finance his legal fight, he bought two guns to protect his family and built an unpainted brick house in the town of Chheharta on the outskirts of Amritsar.
His widowed mother Swaran Kaur misses her friends and neighbours in Basarke and worries that her town-bred grandsons will never know their native fields, but she refuses to give up the fight. This wrinkled village woman travelled to Delhi for each Supreme Court hearing, going as far as the Rashtrapati Bhavan to argue against a mercy petition. “I told President Abdul Kalam that if you want to leave them scot-free, we will commit suicide because we don't want to die at their hands,” she says.
The tragedy that marred Angrej's wedding day still casts a long shadow over the marital prospects of another 21-year-old. With his father Piara Singh and brothers in jail for the massacre, Balwinder Singh has never been able to marry.