‘Punjab Disappeared’ Recounts Mass Atrocities and the Struggle for Justice
The documentary reiterates the pleas of the people of Punjab that compensation – while an important component of it – is no alternative to justice.
“I believe today, when darkness is trying to overwhelm truth with full strength, then if nothing else, self-respecting Punjab, like a lamp, is challenging the darkness.” These poignant words of slain activist Jaswant Singh Khalra, from a speech in 1995, resonate throughout the 70-minute documentary Punjab Disappeared.
The film was screened at Jawahar Bhawan auditorium in New Delhi on April 26. It focuses on the ramifications of state violence and the resilience of the people of Punjab, decades after the insurgency in Punjab was successfully managed.
The film is stitched together using montages of testimonies, moving images of victim-survivors, the presence of the disappeared in photographs they carried and vignettes of violence from Manipur, Chhattisgarh and Kashmir. The viewer is guided by the voice of director Jaswant Kaur who narrates the decade long journey of documenting human rights abuses by the Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project (PDAP).
The documentary is a condensed form of a massive archive which has recorded over 8,000 cases of enforced disappearances. It is a brave attempt at privileging voices which have been systematically ignored: the narrative of victim-survivors over alleged perpetrators.
Mass illegal cremations in Punjab
I have written earlier on the role of NHRC in relegating social suffering of thousands of families and the role of alleged perpetrators to the sphere of invisibility. Instead, the Commission, through its final order in the Punjab Mass Illegal Cremations case, envisaged the prevalence of normalcy and peace in Punjab. It said, “both the State Authorities and the citizens should treat this order as an application of balm to whatever wounds were still left.”
Through this documentary, the people of Punjab respond to institutions of the country by reiterating that the pain from their wounds lingers: compensation is not an alternative to justice, but an important component of it. They remind us that their lived experience, memories and struggle are not a footnote but an important chapter which profoundly impacts their life.
Documentation of mass atrocities, decades after its occurrence, is colossal and equally hard due to limited resources, aged relatives and police officers who continue to wield influence. Nevertheless, the PDAP has achieved what Colin Gonsalves, a senior advocate in the Supreme Court calls, “the most important human rights documentation work emerging out of India”.
In the footsteps of Jaswant Singh Khalra, the PDAP perused the records at cremation grounds which provided important evidence that coalesced with victim and survivor testimonies. The testimonies reveal how Sikh men were abducted from their homes, farms, workplaces, taken off buses, motorcycles, scooters, and never seen again. The families remember dates of the abduction of their loved ones, names of police officers and the police station that the “raiding party” came from.
These details, when read alongside the dates and police stations provided in the RTI responses of the record from Municipal Cremation Grounds, substantiate the claims of families. It shows the glaring probability that their relatives were eliminated in an extrajudicial encounter and cremated unceremoniously after being “unclaimed”. Since the dead bodies were not returned and no death certificates were issued to the families of those killed, the circumstances of their deaths remained ambiguous.
Perhaps it is this violence of ambiguity, the trauma of not knowing what happened to a loved one and the seemingly never-ending wait at the doors of justice which made advocate Rajvinder Singh Bains ask, “which pain is longer?”
One of the reasons why the dead bodies of those killed were not returned to the families was due to the probability of unfavourable outcomes. Advocate Brijinder Singh Sodhi recounts that the pervasive use of torture during interrogation was so much that undertrials would be carried by another person in their arms so that they could appear for court hearings. It is important here to remember that despite admitting that 194 people were killed while in the Punjab police’s custody, the NHRC did not take cognisance of reports and findings of Physicians for Human Rights and Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture.
If the bodies were returned, the families would photograph them and want another post-mortem report which would make the entire edifice of an “encounter” fall.
The film is most compelling when it connects the struggles for accountability and justice across landscapes of conflict. Victim-survivors and activists from Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, Manipur and Punjab use colloquial expressions of zulm, atyachaar, tashadat, yatana: oppression and anguish to describe their lives in militarised regions.
To ensure the non-repetition of these crimes, Manipuri activist Babloo Loitongbam, stressed the importance of a united struggle so that the “hegemonic structures of the Indian state can change”. The patterns of military and police excesses in Manipur mirror those in Punjab and so do the long legal encounters which people have to endure in the hope for justice.
Different bureaucratic and judicial encounters in the cases of mass violence, however, have largely coalesced around institutional impunity. It is further deepened through a policy of awards and promotions.
The women confronting state violence
It is the women who have challenged this juggernaut by negotiating through masculine spaces like torture centres, police stations and army camps. They have weaponised their vulnerabilities under grave risks and spoken out against rape, extrajudicial executions and disappearances. Parveena Ahangar and members of the Association of Parents of Disappeared People have publicly mourned and protested against the enforced disappearances in Kashmir on the tenth of every month in Srinagar.
In Chhattisgarh, both Adivasi men and women have been subjected to rampant sexual violence and extrajudicial executions. Soni Sori pointed out the precarity of Adivasi men in approaching police officials who can be apprehended without evidence. It is the women who march long distances in large number and gherao police stations to make themselves heard.
Unlike Punjab where bodies were not returned to the families, in Chhattisgarh, bodies of those killed in fake encounters are returned to the kith only when they sign an affidavit stating that their family member was a Maoist. Thus, the state seeks legitimacy for unlawful acts through coercion, extending its control of the killable or encounterable body.
In Punjab, Paramjit Kaur Khalra’s indomitable spirit has guided the human rights movement for over two decades. In her own words, “Punjab will never forget what happened to its people in the name of counter-insurgency”. The documentary highlights how the scars of violence have an inter-generational effect.
On Friday, Tejbir Kaur whose parents were shot dead in police custody in 1992 when she was only ten months old, said:
“I was raised in an orphanage. They told me I was with my parents when they were apprehended by the police. I was handed over to a lady constable after my parents were killed. I know very less about them, but I want their killers punished.”
In my various conversations with the documentation team in the summer of 2018, the “right hand” of the PDAP, as Barrister Satnam Singh Bains called them, an overarching sentiment was that of “chardi kala” or the Sikh tenet of high spirits in every endeavour.
In retrospect, it is this resilience which has kept Satnam and Jaswant going. “Many people told us, why are you doing this work? It will lead to a “revival” in Punjab,” said Satnam. “I say, yes. Yes, it will revive the hope for justice”.
Preetika Nanda has worked with the Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project and researches violence, memory and resistance in ‘post-conflict’ Punjab.
Note: This article has been reproduced the The Wire website. You can read the original article here.
Film on missing youth of Punjab calls for justice
Tribune News Service
New Delhi, April 26
A documentary on the alleged disappearances of thousands of youth from Punjab during the 1980s and 1990s was screened in Delhi here on Friday evening seeking to reignite the spark to seek justice for the victims.
Satnam Singh Bains, a barrister in the United Kingdom and human-rights activist, making the opening statement, said: “This documentary takes you to the deepest and darkest hour of Punjab. It’s about the desire to seek justice and renew the spark for justice for the disappearances that took place between 1984 and 1995”.
He quoted the Khalra Commission that documented 8,257 killings. “Victims were killed and cremated as unidentified”, he said. The documentary claimed the extra-judicial killings were done by the “Punjab Police, paramilitary and the armed forces”.
The 70-minute documentary follows the story of victims of alleged disappearances and extrajudicial killings, whose bodies were secretly cremated in a decade of armed conflict. The victims’ ongoing fight for justice highlights the work of a murdered human rights activist, Jaswant Singh Khalra, and a 10-year investigation that has uncovered new evidence of thousands of previously unknown secret cremations from which victims have been identified.
The documentary highlights the determination and resilience of the victims in their two-decade-long struggle before the courts for the truth, justice and accountability.
During the 1980s and 1990s, as the Khalistani movement for a separate homeland for Sikhs gained traction, an unprecedented rise in insurgency and violence was witnessed. In response, the state carried out several counterinsurgency operations, leading to massive rights violations. The true extent of this violence is slowly surfacing in the public domain, claims the group ‘Punjab Disappeared’ which has worked on the documentary.
Presents new evidence
The documentary looks at extra-judicial killings and mass cremations in the state during the 1980s and 1990s. It presents new evidence of previously unknown killings, cremations and disappearances.
Read the original article on The Tribune website here.
The Call of the Nation
Sarah Ahmad | 25 APRIL, 2019
We absorb, we pray, we ache, we vote, we live
Five Years, and I’ve had it, can’t bear another five, yet I live in the fear that it might be inevitable, and they will be back; but also, in the hope that this too shall pass. Yet change is not easy to come by, and when it does it can be catastrophic; winters have warm uncertain days, summer has cold brutal rains, autumn peculiar flowers, and leaves fall in spring.
The same applies to our political state, our social outlook, or electoral rights. When our fear comes to life, that a little typhoon near the coast has finally made its way inland, in the depths of a land locked town, burning at the touch. When we don’t take care of our environment we bear its brunt, yet many celebrate its annihilation like the advent of a miraculous spirit.
An eccentric event, hosted in New Delhi by a collaboration of community development organisations, Those in Need and Our Voix, is about liberation and emancipation. The event called The Global Bubble Parade is about defining the power of one’s voice. Its central aim is to make people raise their voice, share stories where it or collective voices have had an impact. It is a peaceful walk of soapy bubbles and music, engaging participants and encouraging them to break their bubble of self-consciousness.
A film – The Magnificent Journey: Times and Tales of Democracy – brings to light the landscape of our times in and how the idea of democracy is under severe threat. The film celebrates democracy for its ambition, the engagement and the excitement it generates, while also identifying the many challenges it faces. Directed by Abhijit Banerjee and Ranu Ghosh, it draws upon unique footage from hundreds of conversations with would be voters and local leaders in various towns and villages of north India, with all the humour, passion and intellectual depth that the participants bring to their decisions.
And Punjab Disappeared – a documentary following the work of the Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project, uncovers the decade of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and mass secret cremations that took place in Punjab. Thousands of people, mainly young Sikh men and boys, disappeared after being abducted by the Punjab police, were murdered in staged encounters and their bodies cremated as unidentified. You can watch a trailer here.
Change is coming, yet there is a chance of no change. We might witness the further extension of the world we live in today, an expansion of the fear we face, pain and feebleness the marginalised encounter. Still, we move on. Leaves fall, winds become hurricanes, humans become beasts, yet we absorb, we pray, we ache, we vote, we live.
. The Global Bubble Parade: 26th May, 3pm-6pm, at Lodi Gardens, Lodi Road, New Delhi
. The Magnificent Journey: Times and Tales of Democracy on 30th April, 6:30 pm, at the India International Centre, New Delhi
. Punjab Disappeared, followed by a panel discussion, on 26th April 5:30 pm at Jawahar Bhavan, RSVP over email or Facebook.
Read the original article on TheCitizen.in website here.
Delhi Film Screening and Discussion – 26th of April 2019. 5:30 pm
Jawahar Bhavan (opposite Shastri Bhavan) Dr Rajendra Prasad Road, New Delhi,
Link to the trailer : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rONhLvZXqII&t=34s
About the Film:
Punjab Disappeared is a documentary which uncovers the decade of enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings and mass secret cremations that took place in Punjab. Thousands of people, mainly young Sikh men and boys, disappeared after being abducted by the Punjab police, murdered in staged encounters and their bodies cremated as unclaimed and unidentified.
The film traces the work of the Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project furthering the pioneering work of murdered Punjab activist Jaswant Singh Khalra in identifying over 8000 cases of enforced disappearances and secret cremations from new investigations, and gives fresh impetus to the survivors 25 year struggle for justice.
For years, the voices of the families of those disappeared remained silenced. The documentary explores the complexities of mass state violence in India which is interwoven with their determined voices and the unacknowledged collective trauma shared with other genocide survivors.
The film narrates, primarily through moving contemporary accounts given by bereaved relatives, of how over thousands of young Punjabi men and in some cases women, were abducted by police or security forces and never seen again. The stories of the disappeared, and their families’ subsequent struggle to find answers to the question ‘what happened to our loved ones?’
The documentary critiques the significance of the Punjab conflict and whether lessons from Punjab were learned in the context of contemporary mass state violence in India: Midnight knocks, people are taken, never to be heard from again and the multi layered actions taken to cover these mass crimes.
The Peoples Tribunal expert panel of activists, lawyers including a retired Supreme Court Judge, critically examine the role played by state institutions and why despite endemic and institutional failures, the struggle for justice and accountability is enduring.
The viewer is taken through an often-emotional journey of grief, fear and despair but ultimately the film carries a message of hope, and resistance. Expressing solidarity, support and a shared desire for justice, survivors from Manipur, Kashmir and Chhattisgarh ask difficult and searching questions of how the security forces in India are still able to act with impunity, and the relevance of Punjab to the victim families of other conflicts in India. Punjab Disappeared is a clarion call for the State and civil society to take action now, for truth, justice and reparation, and most importantly for non-repetition through the indomitable spirit, dignity and determination of its survivors.
The world premiere of the documentary, followed by a panel discussion is the 26th of April 2019 5:30 pm at the Jawahar Bhavan ( opposite Shastri Bhavan) Dr Rajendra Prasad Road, New Delhi, tel: 8860 268 853. Please share with your friends.
This article has been reproduced from the original article on the Asian Independent. Read the original article here.
Former SHO gets life term in fake encounter case
Tribune News Service
Mohali, February 27
In a 16-year-old fake encounter case, the special CBI court on Wednesday awarded life imprisonment to former SHO of Ropar Sadar police station Harjinder Pal Singh.
Two other accused, the then DSP Avtar Singh and ASI Bachan Dass, have been ordered to live as good character for one year after holding them guilty. Another three tried in the case were acquitted.
The SHO was the key accused in the fake encounter of two alleged extremists Gurmail Singh and Kuldip Singh at Bhaddal village in Ropar in 1993. The court has also imposed a fine of Rs 5 lakh on him.
Avtar Singh and Bachan Dass have been fined Rs 20,000 each. Those acquitted are the then Ropar DSP (D) Jaspal Singh and constables Harji Ram and Karnail Singh.
The CBI had registered a case in May 1997 on the directions of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. Earlier, the Ropar police had registered an FIR on February 1, 1993.
The police had stated the SHO had gone to recover arms along with Kuldeep Singh and Gurmail Singh. It was stated that the police team was attacked by some unidentified persons near Bhadal village and the duo was killed in cross-firing between the attackers and the police. The accused cops later cremated the duo claiming them to be unidentified.
Two other accused, the then DSP Avtar Singh and ASI Bachan Dass, have been ordered to live as good character for one year after holding them guilty.
Other three tried in the case — then Ropar DSP (D) Jaspal Singh and constables Harji Ram and Karnail Singh — have been acquitted.
Read the original article here .
A couple of weeks back, four former Punjab Police personnel were handed life sentences by a CBI court for extra-judicial killing of a teenager and the enforced disappearance of a youth in 1992. It took the Indian justice system 26 years to be able to punish the culprits yet Satnam Singh Bains, the lawyer who represented the complainants, believes it offered some solace to the families who fought back pressure and coercion. But what led a Barrister at Law to leave behind a comfortable lifestyle and come to India to pursue such cases of disappeared people in Delhi and Punjab? Bains narrates the journey:
I was born and brought up in London. I studied law in London and took my Bar exams from the same Inns of Court School of Law as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. I began my practice with a leading chambers of human rights lawyers because my interest area as a lawyer lay in keeping a check on the unbridled power of the state.
As a student, what happened in Punjab during the militancy period and the 1984 massacre of Sikhs left an indelible impact. As with many of my generation, we were pained at the harrowing accounts of people who had suffered during those turbulent times, as well as thousands who were massacred at the hands of murderous mobs, while the State was a mute spectator. In 2007, with Jaswant Kaur, my wife, a fellow human rights advocate we came to India with a pressing need for accountability and redress for these gross human rights violations. I joined senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, known for his path-breaking work on human rights. At that time, Gonsalves was working on the Punjab Mass Cremations case which arose from the enforced disappearance and killing of human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra.
I found a unique opportunity to understand these cases and the systematic killings which had taken place in Punjab. This later led to a documentation project where we compiled cases of fake encounters, enforced disappearances and unclaimed and unidentified dead bodies across Punjab.
While working on these cases, we were so anguished that Jaswant and I decided to stay back in India and pursue them to a logical end. I still practice in London, but my emphasis moved towards my work in India.
After seven years of data collection and documentation our group, Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project, released our investigative report “Identifying the Unidentified” in 2017 and formed the basis for an Independent People’s Tribunal in Amritsar, which considered our findings. Despite the lapse of time we continued pushing as strongly as we could to help these families get justice.
While successive governments have remained silent on extra-judicial killings in Punjab during the militancy period, Jaswant Singh Khalra, a human rights activist, took up the cudgels against state oppression. He uncovered the records of Municipal Corporation of Amritsar city which contained names, age, addresses of many people who had been consigned to flames by police as “unclaimed unidentified” bodies. Khalra visited three cremation grounds in Punjab to find that there were 2,097 cases of unidentified bodies being cremated at government expense in Amritsar alone.
In 1995, Khalra was picked from his house and never found. His wife, Mrs Parmjit Kaur Khalra petitioned the Supreme Court which ordered the CBI inquiry not only into his disappearance but also in those 2,097 cases raised by him. The Supreme Court tasked the CBI to investigate these deaths and disappearances and to identify the unclaimed bodies. Out of the total, 1,514 bodies were eventually identified. The NHRC was delegated the task of identifying the bodies and it took them 16-17 years to identify, however we found that less than 2% were investigated by the CBI as criminal enquiries.
Even if those cases where the CBI had investigated and filed charge sheets, the accused police officers made various applications to further delay the proceedings. They claimed that as Punjab was under the Punjab Disturbed Areas Act at the time, this in essence gave them immunity and the right to abduct or kill innocent people. These cases were stalled for years because of misconceived arguments challenging sanction for prosecution. We worked towards vacating the various stays imposed with the matters reaching the CBI trial court and the trials in some of the cases resuming.
It is a matter of small solace that two such cases recently ended in the court handing out life sentences to four former Punjab Police personnel held responsible for staging a fake encounters of a teenager and disappearance of a youth. The first case was of 15-year-old Harpal Singh who was gunned down by police in 1992 accusing him of being a militant. They claimed that a total of 217 rounds were fired during the ‘encounter’. Despite claiming so many rounds of fire were opened at a 15-year-old, it was found that no bullet hit any of the police officials or their vehicle.
Their defence exposes their unaccountable position in those dark days. The real firearm was never recovered. None of the recoveries of arms or ammunition were shown as exhibits. The site map of the incident merely showed a dead body but no illustration of how the bullets were fired and in what direction. The clinching piece of evidence was that there were just two gunshots, to the head and under the eye, at the distance of three meters. It was a cold-blooded murder. And they thought they would get away with it.
The second case was of an enforced disappearance where a 22-year-old man, Harjit Singh, was abducted from his house and never seen again. His father was detained for 22 days, he was released but nobody knows what happened to his son. An enforced disappearance is considered to be one of the most heinous crimes under International and Indian law, where the perpetrators are those tasked to uphold the law, the circumstances of the murder are never revealed and the victim’s body is never found or returned to the loved one. The conviction in the two cases are quite bold in terms of proving that there was something more organised and systematic behind these killings.
These two judgments are from a batch of 27 cases in which the Supreme Court had ruled that no sanction for prosecution was required. These cases are 27-28 years old. In these cases, there was never a political will.
However, the CBI courts have demonstrated that they have worked independently. If the investigation would have been assigned to the Punjab Police, these cases would not have got as far as they did.
The work ahead of us is enormous. There are volumes of cases pending; in many cases inquiry is still not completed and; there are thousands others where the inquiry was not even ordered. Ironically, the Supreme Court ordered investigations only into the cases related to just three cremation grounds investigated by Khalra. So the biggest injustice to people of Punjab ,who suffered similar fates but belonged to district outside of Amritsar, fell outside the purview of the CBI investigation.
When the NHRC was delegated the task to investigate these cases, they were flooded with claim forms from all across the state. Most of these claim forms were not rejected because the people were not ready to testify; these were rejected because their cases did not fall under those three cremation grounds. This was the biggest miscarriage of justice to the victims of Punjab.
Political parties misused the issue but only limited it to the elections. Whilst compensation and a rehabilitation package were given to the victims of terrorism, including benefits like jobs, free education and even pensions, the families who lost their kin to police repression have constantly remained deprived of rehabilitation and compensation.
Contrast the position of fake encounters with the rest of India. Take the recent death of an Apple executive , in the last few weeks who was allegedly killed when policeman fired at him for not stopping his car in Uttar Pradesh. The government immediately announced 25 lakh rupees as interim compensation and benefits before the investigation has begun. But in the present cases from Punjab, the court took decades to finally give justice and only granted compensation of one lakh rupees. These families faced all sorts of pressures, coercion but never gave up. It is the determination of these survivors that drives me.
In Punjab villages, people have long memories. They would narrate before you the incidents that took place in the 1980’s and 1990’s in a manner as if it happened yesterday. When you hear those stories, you can only feel anguished from deep within and the sense of injustice is palpable. We want to take forward the work of Jaswant Singh Khalra to its logical end in identifying those deaths and disappearances that continue to haunt thousands of families.
I strongly believe that for any state to function effectively, all its institutions are obliged to fulfil their functions and roles and uphold the rule of law. The decision of holding someone guilty can only be left to the courts. The job of the police is to gather evidence. But when the police becomes the executioner, the sanctity of the law is violated. The courts need to ‘zealously safeguard’ this sanctity. There is still a pressing and urgent need for a credible and independent Commission to investigate the mass extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances that took place across Punjab.
Uncovering Extra-Judicial Killings in Punjab, and the Police Impunity That Followed
A recently-released report by an advocacy group claims that over 8,000 extra-judicial executions and enforced disappearances took place in the state between 1980 and 1995.
The death toll from enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings and illegal cremations continues to grow in Punjab, according to the report ‘Identifying the Unidentified’ by the Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project (PDAP). The organisation has, as part of a seven-year investigation, unearthed 8,257 instances of such killings between the 1980s and the mid-1990s, when Punjab was in the throes of militancy and counter insurgency.
PDAP undertook this investigation in order to identify the true identities of the thousands of victims of enforced disappearances whose whereabouts remain unknown to this day.
The PDAP and its team of volunteers travelled to several districts of Punjab including Gurdaspur, Batala, Pathankot, Ferozepur, Jalandhar, Nakodar, Jagraon, Mansa, Kapurthala, Sultanpur Lodhi, Hoshiarpur, Dasuya, Faridkot, Ludhiana, Moga, Nangal, Anandpur Sahib, Zira, Muktsar, Barnala, Sangrur and Phagwara. By obtaining records from all the municipal committees of these districts, they were able to identify hundreds of victims who were cremated as unclaimed and were unidentified by the Punjab police.
Satnam Singh Bains, a human rights advocate for the PDAP, pointed out: “Our investigation revealed that 5,648 mass cremations of unclaimed and unidentified persons took place in Punjab between 1984 and 1995. The highest concentration of killings and illegal cremations took place between 1990 and 1993. The identities of another 2,609 victims have been ascertained, thereby bringing the total to 8,257.”
Most of these bodies were disposed of in an illegal manner.
By visiting numerous cremation grounds in Punjab, this team of human rights lawyers and activists was able to gather 800 pages of records from across the 22 districts of the state. These details were then cross-checked against FIRs. Further cross-referencing was undertaken with victim and family testimonies, and also corroborated with news reports in the then vernacular and other dailies.
Explaining the methodology used, Bains said, “We have used 87,000 archived reports of different newspapers for the period between 1984 and 1995. These included Ajit, Jagbani, Punjab Tribune, English Tribune and other Punjabi and Sikh periodicals to help facilitate this identification process.”
An examination of 6,004 encounter killings has revealed that 95% of these were extra-judicial killings. The largest number of killings in a single encounter has been 17.
Response of NHRC
The families of victims have filed 2,500 petitions before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) between 1997 and 2012. The organisation, however, chose to restrict its enquiry to the 2,097 cremations in the three crematoria in Amritsar and refused to investigate any killings that took place outside the district. This refusal resulted in the derailment of proceedings by 21 years.
The PDAP is now planning to submit their findings before the Supreme Court so that justice can be meted out victims’ families.
The advocacy group started its investigation from the Gurdaspur district in the Majha belt, which they believed witnessed a large number of extra-judicial killings. One such hotspot was the Beeko Interrogation Centre located in the Batala district of Gurdaspur – which was earlier a factory. Hundreds are believed to have been tortured here.
These bodies, the report claims, were cremated with utmost secrecy in the municipal cremation ground, the records of which have helped provide some estimation about the number of people who died there.
The procedure at the cremation grounds was as follows. When a body would be brought for cremation, a summary of the cremation expenditure, comprising firewood and cloth, would be prepared and submitted before the municipal committee, which would then approve the cost and put it down in the register.
The PDAP investigation unearthed that 469 unclaimed and unidentified cremations were conducted in the Batala cremation grounds. In Amritsar, 538 cremations were conducted in the Patti cremation ground.
In all, the team was able to uncover 612 unclaimed and unidentified cremations in Gurdaspur’s three crematoria between 1984-1990 and 1994-1995. Data for the four years in between was missing. In all, 800 pages of records from different districts have been collected.
This investigation has faced its own set of problems. To start with, Bains said, “Since there were no dead bodies to exhume, no bones, no DNA profiling could be done. We had to fall back on witness evidence and corroborate these with official records. We decided to divide our findings in three categories. The first category comprised exact identification when the dates of the death coincided with the dates of the accounts given. The second was of highly likely matches where the cremations can be matched with the witness evidence in a short window of two days and there is the third category of possible matches where the evidence remains evidential.”
Police officials speak out
PDAP has also managed to talk to people who were witness to these extra-judicial killings. Punjab police constable Satwant Singh Manak is one of the few cops who spoke on how he witnessed 15 of them. The turning point, Manak told this reporter, was when he witnessed the killing of a young teenager by the name of Kulwant Singh Kanta.
Manak said, “He must have been around 16-18 years of age. He was at his bua’s (aunt’s) house when the cops came knocking. The cops were looking for a militant by that name. The boy was picked up though the cops knew he was innocent. He was tortured and killed and his body was disposed by throwing it in the canal.”
“This boy’s killing disturbed me so much that I left the police force and filed a legal petition against the officers responsible for his death. The families of ten other boys whose death I had witnessed have joined me in this petition which is presently pending before the Supreme Court,” he added.
He admits to having received offers of inducements but he has refused to withdraw his charges, stating, “Money is not everything. When I said I would expose false encounters witnessed during my service, I was implicated in false cases and my family members including my father were tortured. It is not about money now. I need justice for myself and my family and for those innocents who became prey to overambitious cops who just wanted promotions at any cost.”
Bains points out that Manak is not the only police office to have spoken out. In 2015, Kanwar Sandhu did a lengthy interview with Gurmeet Singh Pinky, an officer of the Punjab police who admitted on the record to having witnessed over 50 fake encounters.
The report highlights how other eyewitnesses have also corroborated that police officials use third-degree torture during interrogations.
Problems faced during investigation
PDAP activists admit to limitations in their collection of evidence. For example, not every “unclaimed and unidentified body” resulted in an application for firewood and cloth. If the cremation attendants or the police did not apply for firewood and cloth, the bodies would be cremated as unclaimed and unidentified and there would be no entry in the firewood stock register, as was the case in the Khalra mass cremations. Also, this data was dependent on the municipal committee’s own records. If no expenditure took place, there would be no records – but that did not mean a cremation did not take place.
The report refers to evidence provided by villagers which has not been accepted by the NHRC. It cites the example of how a police operation in the village of Behla in Amritsar on June 9, 1992, to track down a militant named Surjit Singh and two of his associates, led police officials to raid the house of an ex-MLA where these militants were suspected to be hiding.
In this operation, the cops used seven to eight villagers as human shields. One of the villagers was Kartar Singh, whose son Virsa Singh is now fighting for justice for his father.
This encounter in Behla village lasted 34 hours as the militants were hiding in a bunker and were heavily armed. It resulted in the killing of all three militants and six villagers who were used as human shields. The cops tried to cover up the killings of the villagers by portraying them as being “militants killed in a genuine encounter”.
Virsa, before the Independent People’s Tribunal (IPT) held on April 1-2, 2017, talked about how his father Karta along with other villagers was forced to act as a shield while the cops tried to eliminate the militants. The dead bodies of the villagers were cremated at Tarn Taran. He also revealed that he tried to secure his father’s dead body to perform his final rites but the hospital refused to give it. Virsa pointed out that no mention of the cremations of the nine people killed on June 9, 1992 has been made into the CBI list of unidentified cremations, even though the SHO Gurbachan Singh had listed their names in the FIR that was filed in his thana.
Patricia Grossman, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, has in her book India’s Secret Armies written about a police officer who estimated that at the height of Operation Rakshak, “500 people were killed by the police from his police station alone.”
The trigger for the PDAP investigation has been the abduction and killing of human rights activist and lawyer Jaswant Singh Khalra, who had joined the Human Rights Wing of the Akali Dal in the 1990s. In 1994, Khalra was investigating the disappearance of a friend whose body, he discovered, the police had secretly cremated at the Durgiana Mandir cremation ground in Amritsar district.
Khalra had launched an investigation on these secret cremations and used these government records to release a report on the disappearances. The police attempted to discredit him by claiming he had links with militants, but Khalra was willing to take the authorities head on. On September 6, 1995, he was picked up by the cops in the presence of Rajiv Singh, a journalist from the Ajit groups of papers.
Jaswant’s wife Paramjit Kaur, when trying to track down her husband, learnt that he had “mysteriously disappeared”. She subsequently filed a habeas petition in the Supreme Court but her husband could not be tracked down. While Paramjit received compensation of Rs 10 lakh for the disappearance of her husband, the NHRC gave a compensation payment of Rs 1.75 lakh to 1,245 individuals who were the next of kin of those wrongfully cremated.
By refusing to investigate cremations that took place outside Amritsar, to hear any evidence from survivor families or witnesses, and to accept challenges to the police version of events based on victim testimony, the NHRC has in effect shielded the perpetrators, pointed out human rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves, who represented the survivors families before the NHRC .
Justice A.K. Ganguly (retd), a Supreme Court judge speaking at the IPT panel, expressed shock and dismay that the NHRC had limited its investigation to the three crematoria in Amritsar, Tarn Taran and Majitha, and left the rest of Punjab completely untouched. “As a human rights activist, I feel that any case of cremation of human bodies and then describing them as unidentified, is itself a gross violation of human rights…this is a total denial of the rights of the people of Punjab.”
Nor did the NHRC hold any officials accountable for repeated violations of the law, thereby creating a sense of impunity amongst people who have broken the law. This led tribal activist Soni Sori to emphasise at the IPT that if the Punjab police had been taken to task for their excesses, then the systematic violations of the rights of life and liberty in the states of Chhattisgarh, Kashmir and Manipur would not have occurred.
The PDAP are hoping that the highest court in the land will help provide a sense of reconciliation and reparation to thousands of affected families. This should also help remove the stigma attached to victims of ‘terrorists’, as they fall outside the scope of rehabilitation extended to other civilians. They are also demanding the setting up of an Independent Special Prosecution Office that can investigate and prosecute these mass state crimes.
Rashme Sehgal is a freelance journalist based in Delhi.
This article is was first published on the news website The Wire. You can read the original article here.