India: Punjab’s Disappearances
Fri, 30 Aug 2019 18:01 GMT
“After 10 days (of detention), he was killed. When you have already killed our son, kill us too,” says an elderly gentleman from Punjab, a state bordering Pakistan in India. These are the opening lines of the trailer of ‘Punjab Disappeared’, a 70-minute documentary by the Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project (PADP), a civil society organisation.
The film, directed by Jaswant Kaur, addresses the enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings and mass secret cremations in Punjab from the period 1984 to 1995.
The relatives of the victims struggle and fight for justice, as a petition has been filed in India’s top legislative body, the Supreme Court.
In the 1980s, this north Indian state witnessed a political movement, which called for regional autonomy as an independent Sikh state. It was known as the Khalistan movement. A military operation, code-named Operation Blue Star, ran from June 1st to 8th 1984. It was a campaign to remove the religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers who were said to be in the grounds of the Golden Temple, the epicentre of the Sikh faith.
Five months later, Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard. In the aftermath, a number of counter insurgency operations were launched and the security forces were given extraordinary powers. This resulted in extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances of combatants as well as non-combatants. PADP has investigated 8,257 cases of such enforced disappearances and illegal cremations, which took place during those years.
Satinder Pal Singh, a resident of Punjab recalls the ordeal his family faced during the period. “Back then, being a Sikh (people who follow Sikhism) and sporting a beard, was reason enough for the authorities to detain or shoot people,” he says.
“My uncle Ranjeet Singh had joined Budha Dal, a section of the Sikh Community (SC), in 1986. He was shot at, during one of their programmes, while he was praying. The atmosphere was extremely tense, and it was like a full-time job for people to defend themselves,” he says in the film. Subsequently in 1992, he lost his father Sardar Sukhdev Singh, who was a farmer as well.
“The prevailing situation was such that people could not even do their jobs. This was my father’s case. One fine day, he was arrested, detained for ten days without any reason, and later killed,” recalls Pal Singh.
Many other families from Punjab have similar stories to tell. Barrister Satnam Singh Bains, a human rights lawyer, shares the case of another victim, and one of the petitioners in the SC case. Jasbir Singh’s brother Punjab Singh was abducted from their home at 5pm on December 3rd 1991 in Dhapai Village in front of his family, including his parents, by police officers from Sri Hargobindpur police station. “His home had been surrounded by Inspector Baldev Singh, the then Station House Officer (SHO), along with seven or eight gunmen. Punjab Singh was then bundled into a waiting vehicle and never seen again. Mann Singh, the father of Punjab Singh and other village elders tried in vain to secure his release from the said police station and repeatedly told the SHO, that Punjab Singh was innocent and was not involved with the militant movement. The family was asked to pay a bribe of Rs100,000 to secure his release,” Bains said.
He further stated that out of desperation, Mann Singh mortgaged his land and paid bribes but to no avail. Even after the payment was made, Punjab Singh was killed in a staged encounter, along with five other people.
“On the December 11th 1991 at about 6am, SHO Baldev Singh along with other policemen, shot Punjab Singh and five other youths on an isolated footpath at Dhade Mahesh Village under the jurisdiction of Ghuman Police Station, one kilometre away from Punjab Singh’s home. The local villagers still remember the sound of the gunshots that killed the youths,” said Bains.
But who was behind these disappearances? Bains answered: “The prevailing narrative is that these officers were fighting terrorism. In the cases we have petitioned before the Supreme Court, we have shown that the victims were not terrorists, but had been killed and their bodies were secretly cremated by the security forces under a catch-kill-and-reward policy.”
He added that it had taken two decades for a small number of cases, which were investigated by India’s premier investigating agency the Central Bureau of Investigation to prove conclusively that the victims were innocent young men, who were abducted from their homes, brutally tortured, and killed in staged encounters and their bodies were secretly cremated or thrown into rivers.
“These investigations also resulted in the conviction of some police officers, and it has been categorically proven that the victims were not terrorists, and that the highest echelons of the Punjabi police were involved in the killings.” Bains said.
Jaswant Singh Khalra unearthed the true scale of crimes
It was only after Jaswant Singh Khalra released compelling evidence of over 2000 unclaimed and unidentified bodies that the true magnitude of the issue emerged. Khalra himself was abducted and killed in 1995 after he attracted global attention for uncovering the facts.
Investigations since 2008
PADP started their investigations in 2008. “Over a 10-year period the organisation travelled extensively across Punjab, visiting more than 1600 villages to record testimonies of eyewitnesses and surviving victims whose loved ones had been abducted and tortured and then disappeared. Starting from the Gurdaspur district, we undertook a detailed and exhaustive process, attempting to match and corroborate the identities of those killed. We compared the records of those cremated by the police and security forces as ‘unclaimed and unidentified’ from records obtained from municipal cremation grounds, local administration and police reports.
“In this way they were able to piece together complex and intricate fragments of information, to reveal the sophisticated and systematic method of concealing victims’ identities and the secret disposal of their bodies.
“We repeated this process in 15 of Punjab’s 22 districts. We were able to access information of 6,140 cremations across 15 districts and over 1400 police First Information Reports (FIRs) of alleged ‘encounters’ or ‘escapes’ from police custody, which contained a wide range of corroborative evidential information, enabling us to establish not only the identities of victims but also those of perpetrators and the circumstances surrounding the deaths of thousands of victims.
“Our documented case studies revealed systematised disappearances, killings and illegal cremations having taken place in all 22 districts of Punjab in a broadly similar manner with relatively minor regional variations and practices,” Bains said.
A case in the Supreme Court
The experience was traumatic for the families of the victims and Bains stated that their investigations revealed an overwhelming majority of families of those who disappeared, have had no official acknowledgement from the State as to the fate of their loved ones.
“Most have had no access to justice or recourse to the courts to ascertain what happened. Today thousands of families across Punjab turn their attention to the Supreme Court awaiting the first hearing, asking again, ‘What happened to our loved ones?’ They hope to get this question that has eluded them for over two decades finally answered.
“There is a remarkable spirit of determination. In many cases we have represented the victims who despite abject poverty and threats, have fearlessly deposed before the courts, even after 25 years. Our latest attempt is to bring these cases back before the Supreme Court, and it has given hope to many others,” he said.
The case was filed in summer this year and they hope it will come up for hearing shortly. “The Supreme Court is now being asked to set up an Independent Commission to finally uncover the truth. Whilst this has been a long-standing demand by the people of Punjab, the latest evidence and its corroboration provide new hope for justice,” Bains said, updating 7D News about the status of the case.
Read the original article here.