Of the 22 cases that were investigated by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the majority are currently subject to a judicial stay for the past two decades. Even where the CBI has filed charge sheets (criminal charges), the accused Punjab Police personnel continue to repeatedly manipulate legal processes. Currently, the accused, through their counsel, have maintained that the cases require prosecution sanction from the Central Government. This argument was been rejected by four different tiers of courts in the last 15 years. The Supreme Court in 2016 emphatically rejected this argument. Despite this, the trials of these accused police officers are yet to commence before the CBI Special Court.
The CBI first became involved in the cases of enforced disappearances, fake encounters and illegal cremations, following the disappearance of human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra in 1995 by order from the Supreme Court of India. It was told to undertake a “high powered inquiry” into the matter.
In the mid-90s, the CBI had submitted six reports to the Supreme Court with their findings. In their final report submitted on 12 December 1996, they disclosed in open court that the Punjab Police and other security forces had illegally cremated 2,097 “unclaimed and unidentified” bodies in three districts of Amritsar. In some of its reports, the CBI described the situation as a “flagrant violation of human rights on mass scale”. Despite these findings, in the past 20 years, no details of the actual investigations including suspects, alleged perpetrators, or victims were ever made public. Request for their access even by lawyers representing the victims have been repeatedly denied.
On 19 July 2017, during the last hearing of this matter in the Supreme Court, the Court discussed enhancing the meagre compensation for the victims but again sidestepped the issue of disclosure of the contents of the reports. The following information pertinent to the case has never been disclosed:
- how many police officers were investigated,
- the nature of crimes committed by the Punjab Police,
- the total number of victims, and
- how the victims ended up as ”unclaimed and unidentified”.
The fundamental questions of whether this was an organised and systematic policy of killing and mass cremation, and where the ultimate responsibility lies, remain unanswered. The non-disclosure of the CBI investigation reports hampers any attempt to hold the state and prosecuting authorities to account.