By Preetika Nanda,
Year 2014 marks thirty years to two important, yet infamous events which left a deep scar on the Sikh psyche: Operation Bluestar and Delhi pogrom of 1984, on one hand and gave a fillip to the nascent movement against the central government on the other.
The insurgency in Punjab erupted at an intersection of various intertwined processes which have been neatly categorized in popular discourse underlabels of “terrorism” and “counter-insurgency”. These categories themselves revolve around individual personalities of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and KPS Gill thereby obliterating a complex history involving a myriad number of actors vying for hegemony over a distinctly marked population at regional and national level. This popular understanding of the “Punjab problem” fixes the reified category of “religious fundamentalism” which was ostensibly threatening the secular nation state as a prerequisite to the unquestionable and rigorously advocated counter-insurgency strategy which is expected to be emulated and exonerated for its apparent success.
However, what lies between the onset of a decade long insurgency and its “successful” management is an absence, of a large number people who became victims of gross human rights violations yet to be accounted for. Every absence has a history which lingers into the present in uneasy ways. In Punjab’s history it speaks of thirty years of impunity and societal silence, of largely unacknowledged state crimes: the enforced disappearances, mass ‘illegal cremations’, extrajudicial killings, custodial tortures and rapes. Every absence manifests itself in struggles of truth and justice. One such struggle; the legacy of which is being marked today, is that of Shaheed Jaswant Singh Khalra, the brave human rights activist from Punjab who exposed the mass ‘illegal cremations’ carried out during counter-insurgency operations by security apparatus of the state.
In the early 1990s, Jaswant Singh Khalra joined the Human Rights Wing of the political party Akali Dal. In 1994, while investigating the disappearance of a friend, Khalra discovered that the police had secretly cremated his body at DurgianaMandir cremation ground in Amritsar district. Khalra launched a wider investigation into secret cremations.
In January 1995, Jaswant Singh Khalra and his colleague Jaspal Singh Dhillon released a report on mass illegal cremations using government records. In February 1995, at a press conference, Khalra publicly disclosed the death threats made to him because of his human rights work. In March, the police tried to discredit Khalra by alleging that he had links with a militant group even asKhalra continued to expose police officials, speaking throughout Punjab and North America on the issue.
Eventually, on the morning of September 6, 1995, the Punjab police abducted Jaswant Singh Khalra. Rajiv Singh, a reporter from Ajit Newspaper, who was present at the Khalra residence, witnessed the abduction and identified the police officers involved.
After the abduction, Rajiv Singh called Paramjit Kaur, Khalra’s wife, and informed her of the abduction. She immediately came home from work and, accompanied by Rajiv Singh, went to Islamabad Police Station to make further inquiries. She then informed her family and husband’s colleagues, and also sent telegrams to the chief minister of Punjab, director general of police, chief justice of India, and chief justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, among others. A few days later, Paramjit Kaur Khalrafiled a habeas petition in the Supreme Court. Khalra’s abduction by the police was never recorded in police records, and the police maintained that there was no criminal case against him and thus no reason to arrest him.
In 2005, after ten years, six Punjab Police officers were convicted and sentenced for their roles in the abduction and murder of Khalra. While the convictions of lower-level officers more than a decade after the murder represent an exception to the impunity otherwise enjoyed by the security forces for serious abuses committed during the counterinsurgency, even in this case justice has not been done. The truth has not been established, the most responsible senior police officials have not been charged due to non-inclusion of the principle of superior command responsibility.
The Mass ‘Illegal Cremations’ Case
In 1995, Committee for Information and Initiative on Punjab (CIIP) moved the Supreme Court to demand a comprehensive inquiry into extrajudicial executions throughout Punjab. After Punjab police “disappeared” Jaswant Singh Khalra, the Supreme Court eventually ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India’s premier investigative agency, to investigate these crimes.
The CBI submitted its final report on December 9, 1996, limiting its investigations to Amritsar district. The CBI’s report, which the Supreme Court sealed, listed 2,097 illegal cremations at three cremation grounds of Amritsar district—then one of 13 districts in Punjab.
Khalra himself, however, had discussed over 6,000 cremations in Amritsar district. Moreover, CIIP had stated in its original writ petition that interviews with cremation ground workers disclosed that multiple people were often cremated with the firewood normally required for completely burning one body.87 Thus, many more than 2,097 bodies could have been cremated.
In December 1996, the Supreme Court referred the mass cremations case to the National Human Rights Commission, observing that the CBI’s inquiry report disclosed a “flagrant violation of human rights on a mass scale.”
In this case, the Supreme Court appointed the NHRC as its sui generis body, with the extraordinary powers of the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution to redress fundamental human rights violations. The Supreme Court requested the NHRC “to have the matter examined in accordance with law and determine all the issues which are raised before the Commission by the learned counsel for the parties,” and also ordered that any compensation awarded by the NHRC would be “binding and payable.” Thus, the NHRC had the powers to forge new remedies and fashion new strategies to enforce fundamental human rights.
The Supreme Court also entrusted the CBI with investigations into the culpability of police officials in the secret cremations case, leaving “all the issues which are raised before the Commission” to the NHRC.
Throughout the decade-long proceedings, the NHRC ignored the fundamental rights violations that had occurred in Punjab and thus shieldedperpetrators from accountability. It refused to allow a single victim family to testify and failed to conduct any independent investigations towards identifying responsible officers. Instead, the NHRC based its findings on information provided by the Punjab police, the perpetrators of the crimes. Furthermore, the Commission refused to consider mass cremations, extrajudicial executions, and “disappearances” throughout the rest of Punjab. Despite having wide powers under Article 32, the NHRC’s actions were restrictive even when compared to steps it has taken in other cases under its normal limited powers.
It restricted itself to the narrow issue of the procedural correctness of the cremations, ignoring the violations of the right to life and liberty, the glaring probability of extrajudicial executions and custodial torture and rape leading to the deaths and thereby ‘illegal cremations’ in order to destroy evidence and protect the perpetrators.
It refused to investigate a single cremation, and thus never hearing any evidence from survivor families or witnesses, despite the drastically differing accounts put forward by the families and the accused. Nor did the NHRC accept challenges to the police version of events, based on victim testimony.
Moreover, in a classic case of institutional impunity, it refused to hold any officials accountable for the violations, repeatedly stating in its orders: “[W]e are not expressing any opinion about the culpability or other- wise of any police officer or officials, nor shall we be understood to have ex- pressed any opinion about the responsibility of any of the officials of the state for the unlawful and unceremonious cremations of the deceased, without following the rules, conventions and the humanitarian law.”
Throughout the 10 years of proceedings, the NHRC failed to investigate the illegality of individual killings, the role of state security forces or their agents in planning or carrying out illegal killings, other rights violations suffered by family members, or the identities of individual perpetrators, among other issues.
In its October 9, 2006 order, which effectively closed the case, the NHRC compensated the next of kin of 1,245 individuals for the wrongful cremation of the decedent, where the Punjab Police did not follow the rules for proper cremations.Thus, in ten years of litigation, the NHRC only found that the police had not followed the rules, guidelines, and procedures required before cremating 1,245 identified decedents.
The NHRC thus closed the doors for truth, reconciliation and reparations in Punjab and further entrenched the culture of impunity which replicates itself across the country specifically in borderlands which time and again question the legitimacy, the Indian state seeks to profess.
The conclusion of the matter in front of the NHRC, for ENSAAF, is the culmination of a decade of denials and refusals to acknowledge the suffering of the families of the disappeared and the widespread and systematic violations of the rights to life and liberty. The state promoted the perpetrators who organized and committed the crimes, rather than punishing them. The counter-insurgency strategies employed in Punjab continue to be executed in all corners of the country. The NHRC’s refusal to investigate the disappearances amounts to a sanction of these practices and betrays India’s claim to be the world’s largest democracy.
In times of institutional resistance to plurality of opinions and self-presentation reflected in banning of films on events relating to Punjab 1984, and as the state moves in to monopolize the past , memorialization of the legacies of individuals like Jaswant Singh Khalra who bared witness to injustice and testified against it becomes important.
The author studied conflict and peace studies at Jamia Millia Islamia and her MA dissertation was on patterns of abuse and impunity in insurgency ridden Punjab.