Mass Cremations & Jaswant Singh Khalra.

Jaswant Singh Khalra was an Amritsar-based activist who began the work of uncovering mass executions in Punjab.

While trying to discover the whereabouts of people he knew were picked up for questioning by police but never returned home, he focus his investigations on three cremation grounds – Patti, Tarn Taran and Durgiana Mandir – all in the Amritsar district.

His investigative work led him to examining receipts for firewood used in cremations, showing the quantity bought by the police. Three hundred kilograms of wood was required for each body.  In this way, he was able to deduce that there had been a series of inexplicable spikes in the number of cremations of ‘unidentified and unclaimed’ corpses at certain times. He matched the dates and numbers with records kept by the Municipal Committee of Amritsar, detailing the names, ages and addresses of those who had been killed and later cremated by the Punjab Police and security forces. This contradicted the claim of the Punjab police that the bodies were of unidentified individuals, suggesting a cover up. This lead him to the inevitable conclusion that these were the bodies of victims of unlawful killings.

Using this approach, he was able to piece together evidence of more than 2,000 mass cremations in the Amritsar district alone.

On 16 January 1995, Jaswant Singh Khalra issued a press release alleging that Punjab’s security fervices had cremated thousands of unidentified and unclaimed bodies between 1984 and 1994. The evidence to prove these illegal cremations consisted of records from firewood purchase registers at three crematoria in the Amritsar district.

In the same month, Khalra’s organisation filed a writ petition in the Punjab & Haryana High Court requesting an independent investigation of the disappearances and cremations. The High Court dismissed Khalra’s petition on the grounds that it had no reason for lawful intervention, despite the Supreme Court ruling way back in 1986 that any citizen with sufficient knowledge and interest could claim standing in litigation for the purpose of redressing public injury, enforcing public duty or vindicating public interest.

On 6 September 1995, Khalra was abducted by Punjab police from outside his home, illegally detained, tortured. He was never seen again. 

Khalra’s abduction and disappearance case finally made its way to the Supreme Court which issued an order for a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and later the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) into his death and also the 2,097 illegal cremations he had exposed.

Khalra’s work and legacy was continued in meticulous and painstaking detail by the Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab (the CCDP).

It was not until 18 November 2005, ten years after Khalra’s disappearance, that six Punjab police officials were finally convicted and sentenced to seven years imprisonment for abducting and murdering him. On 16 October 2007, a division bench of Punjab and Haryana High Court extended their sentence to life imprisonment for four of those convicted: Satnam Singh, Surinder Pal Singh, Jasbir Singh – all former Sub Inspectors – and Prithipal Singh, a former Head Constable.

Had those responsible for Khalra’s death been brought to justice sooner, the climate of fear in which other human rights activists operate might have been mitigated. The Punjab police, paramilitary forces and intelligence agencies, emboldened by a sense of impunity, created a climate of fear for human rights activist at that time, and took the lives of four advocates and two journalist who had bravely continued the work that Khalra had started.

The four disappeared advocates, who fought fearlessly for victims undeterred by the consequences were Sukhwinder Singh Bhatti, Kulwant Singh Saini, Jagwinder Singh, Ranbir Singh Mansahia.

The disappeared journalists who paid the highest price for presenting the truth to the world and exposed the brutality and upheld the freedom of the press were Ram Singh Biling and Avtar Singh Mandar.

Jaswant Singh Khalra’s wife Paramjit Kaur also fought relentlessly for two decades for justice both as a victim in her husband’s abduction case, as well as a petitioner in what came to be known as the ‘Punjab Mass Cremations case’. Despite threats, pressure and implication in false cases, she stood steadfast in ensuring that at least some of Khalra’s killers were brought to justice.

Paramjit Kaur said, “I make the same plea, […] please keep the flame alight within yourselves for our martyrs, that we must do something for them. They have gone from this world but their names have gone down in history and no-one can ever remove their names from history. […] Something should be done for the people of Punjab to help them get justice, even if we have to go to Delhi or protest at the door to the courts. Even if the courts do not give us justice, it is still important to tell our stories to the world, for the sake of many of our martyrs, who sacrificed their lives for this cause without a second thought or without a thought for their families. It is our duty to stand against violations wherever they may be.”

PDAP has now undertaken a forensic audit of 2,267 applications submitted to the NHRC, which shows that the vast majority of applicants were arbitrarily rejected only because the the cremations took place outside of Amritsar. In 2017, lawyers associated with PDAP pursued a further appeal in the Khalra case, which led to a small enhancement of compensation for 109 families by the Supreme Court. However, no criminal investigation was ordered to ascertain the circumstances of death of these victims.