Human Rights

Punjab’ Cremation Grounds 1984 - 1994

The Investigation Of Jaspal Singh Dhillon And Jaswant Singh Khalra Into The Disappearance Of Sikhs Between 1984 And 1995

The discovery of the practice of the Punjab police of cremating thousands of young Sikhs as 'unidentified' bodies go some way towards explaining the thousands of disappearances in this region, in the years following 1984 onwards.

The original discovery by two human rights activists of the disposal of over 3,000 bodies in this way in just 3 cremation grounds in one district of Punjab.

After the publication of the report in January 1995, the author's received threats from the Punjab police. Nine months later Jaswant Singh Khalra, one of the two investigators, disappeared. The Supreme Court of India ordered a full investigation of the report and Khalra's disappearance by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Upon hearing the petition Justice Kuldeep Singh described the discoveries as ‘Worse than Genocide’. The CBI confirmed the findings of the report and the matter was transferred to the National Human Rights Commission for a full Punjab-wide investigation. This enquiry has yet to commence.

This report explains the background to these disappearances, the progress of the petition through the courts, and continuing human rights abuses in Punjab.


Since the early 1980's there has been a great deal of concern expressed by human rights groups, lawyers and families as to the fate of those who 'disappear' in Punjab. Over the past decade, the High Court of Punjab and Haryana has received an alarmingly high number of habeas corpus petitions seeking the intervention of the Court in ascertaining the whereabouts of those who were taken into custody by the security forces operating in the region. Invariably, the authorities in Punjab decline to acknowledge the arrest of those brought in for questioning. More worrying are the hundreds of families who, through fear, lack of resources or lack of knowledge of the available remedies, had no recourse to official procedures. Many of these cases are only now surfacing.

The number and similarity of these instances suggests a pattern of long term and systematic human rights abuse. The findings of the Akali Dal Human Rights Wing into the cremation grounds in the District of Amritsar go some way to explaining the fate of a missing generation of young, predominately male Sikhs.

The uncertainty of their fate is often the hardest thing for families to deal with. In every village, human' rights workers investigating the abuse of civil liberties are shown photographs of missing relatives. Prevented from performing last rites, a family's hope lives on.

A common belief, and one that is encouraged and propagated by the Indian authorities, is that many of the young men have escaped abroad using false names and documentation to facilitate their passage away from the violence. In a visit to London in June 1994 the former Director General for Police, Mr K.P.S. Gill claimed that the allegations of 'disappearances' were entirely unfounded as they concerned young men who had left the country and were living abroad.

In January 1995 the Human Rights Wing (HRW) brought a public interest litigation action in the High Court of Punjab and Haryana calling for an investigation into their findings by an independent investigative body. The petition was dismissed on the grounds that the petitioners had no locus standi to present such an action and that their findings were 'too vague' in character to warrant proper investigation.

Members of the HRW with film makers Tapan Bose and Ram Narayan Kumar of the Committee for Information and Initiative on Punjab (CIIP) made a film on the basis of the report in early 1995. The report and the film were presented to the Supreme Court in April of that year in a second public interest litigation action.

In September 1995, Mr Jaswant Singh Khalra, one of the principle investigators, was picked up by police from outside his house. The Supreme Court were immediately informed of his disappearance by his wife Mrs Paramjit Khalra and Mr Gurcharan Singh Tohra, President of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC). The Court treated Mr Khalra's work and the findings of the HRW as an integral part of the habeas corpus action and ordered an enquiry into both his disappearance and the HRW report.

In July 1996 the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) presented its initial findings on the report to the Supreme Court, naming 9 officers responsible for the disappearance of Mr Khalra.

In December 1996, the CBI presented its final report. On the basis of this confidential investigation, which has yet to be published, the Supreme Court appointed India's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to make a full investigation of the HRW's work. At the time of writing the NHRC has yet to commence its investigation. The CBI have also been ordered to continue their investigations.

The Human Rights Wing Inquiry

At the inception of the Human Rights Wing of the Akali Dal (now the Human Rights and Democracy Forum) the group decided to set up a two-member team to investigate disappearances in Punjab. The team consisted of Jaswant Singh Khalra and Jaspal Singh Dhillon, respectively Chairman and General Secretary of the HRW.

Fully aware of the reputation of the Indian state for inefficiency, HRW began the investigation believing that if the state and/or its security forces were involved in these disappearances, at least some clues would remain. Moreover, the police practice of cremating bodies without the consent or knowledge of relatives was not entirely unknown.

The team quickly uncovered some remarkable leads, and learnt that the police regularly brought bodies to the municipality cremation grounds for cremation, declaring them "unclaimed". Restricted by finances, the group decided to limit its work to the Amritsar area and its neighbouring police districts.

At the cremation grounds Khalra and Dhillon asked to see all available records of cremations, and learnt that the bodies brought in by the police were recorded in a different books. These records take the form of receipt books recording the issue of firewood for the cremation of the body. The group made copies of these records, which appear in the appendices of this report. The team found that in the Amritsar district alone (out of 14 districts at that time), and in just 3 cremation grounds within this district, 3,000 bodies had been cremated by the police as unclaimed between 1 June 1984 and the end of 1994. It is now known that over 50 cremation grounds in Punjab were regularly used by the police to cremate bodies.

The three cremation grounds investigated by the HRW were the Durgiana Mandir in the city of Amritsar, the Patti municipal cremation ground, and the Tarn Taran cremation ground.

Durgiana Mandir, Amritsar.

The largest number of cremations took place in the cremation ground near the Durgiana Mandir, in the city of Amritsar. The officials at the cremation ground would not show records, but directed the investigating team to the Amritsar Registry of births and deaths. These records showed that over 2,000 bodies were cremated by the police between 1 June 1984 and the end of 1994.

The records of cremations between January and December 1992 (the first year of Beant Singh's government) are shown in Appendix 2. They show that 300 bodies were taken to the cremation ground at Durgiana Mandir in this year. Far from being unclaimed, 112 of these bodies were named. 5 bodies were recorded as female, of which 3 were named. 41 were recorded as having died of bullet injuries as a result of police encounters. 24 of the bodies under had undergone autopsies at Amritsar Medical College.

One of those cremated as "unclaimed" was Bhagel Singh, also known as Gurdarshan Singh, from Deriwal village. In late November 1991 he was picked up by the Punjab police in Bihar. The incident was widely reported in the press. Many organisations in Punjab feared that he would be eliminated in a false encounter. These records show that on 19 December 1991 he was brought to the cremation ground near Durgiana Mandir for cremation as an unidentified and unclaimed body.

Another of those cremated as 'unclaimed' was Mr Piara Singh, the Director of the Central Cooperative Bank and uncle of a suspected 'militant' (Harminder Singh Sultanvind). His abduction was similarly well-publici sed. One morning a group of 'doctors' dressed in wrnte coats and carrying stethoscopes drove up to his house in a jeep and told Mr Piara Singh that a VIP was coming to the neighbouring village to open a government medical clinic. They told him that they needed some respectable citizens to attend the ceremony. Mr Piara Singh accompanied them. He was never seen again, but his body was burnt at the Durgiana Mandir cremation ground on 16 December 1992.

Another body was that of Mr Pargat Singh. He was being treated at Guru Nanak Hospital in Amritsar when he was abducted by officers from Raja Sansi Police Station. His 'unidentified' body was taken to the Durgiana Mandir cremation ground on 5 November 1992.

Patti Cremation Ground

Records gathered by Khalra and Dhillon show that between 1991 and October 1994 538 bodies were brought for cremation to the Patti municipal cremation ground. Bodies were brought to the Ground from at least 10 police stations: Patti (115 bodies), Khikiwind (103), Valtoha (101), Khalra (61), Harike (50), Khemkaran (35), Kacha-Pacca (9), Sabra (5), Karion (5), and Gh9.riala (2). A further 52 bodies were brought in by the poljce. This is evidenced by the records of firewood supplies, provided by Mr Sukhdev Singh Virdi, of Lahore Road, Patti.

The team also spoke to officials of the cremation ground and many people in the town. The Human Rights Wing state:

"Officials at the cremation grounds informed us that on some days only 2 bodies were brought by the police while on other days even 10 bodies were brought together. Although firewood was purchased for the cremation of one or two bodies, on many occasions several bodies were cremated together. Another official, who got posted to the Patti cremation ground about 7 months back, informed us that the bodies brought back by the police were never cremated on the built up concrete platform but were cremated in the ditches and neglected portions of the grounds. As more than one body was cremated with the firewood sufficient only for one body the limbs would mostly remain half burnt or charred. This official on assuming charge of the cremation ground gathered a large number of limbs and after sealing them in a bag dumped them in the Rajasthan feeder (i.e. canal) close-by.

"A prominent citizen of Patti who is also a close associate of a Congress MP and whose land is adjoining the cremation grounds told us that stray dogs would often carry away half-bumt limbs to his fields and he had on several occasions gathered the remains and cremated them."

The team saw records covering 4 years.

Tarn Taran Cremation Ground

Receipt books recording the issue of firewood at Tarn Taran municipal cremation ground show that 700 "unclaimed" bodies were brought to the ground by the police. The records show the date and number of bodies brought.

Having discovered illegal cremations in Patti and Amritsar itself, the large number of bodies found to have been illegally cremated in Tarn Taran was no surprise. Tarn Taran was, and continues to be, one of the areas which has borne the brunt of the violence and police brutality. As Joyce Pettigrew notes, the Tarn Taran area 'was fought over by a number of warlords ... the Director-General of Police had designated this area as the heartland of resistance. He believed that if he defeated the militants in the Tarn Taran area, the battle would be won in Punjab as a whole.'

The HRW findings show that many of the bodies were clearly not unidentified or unclaimed. In those rare instances where relatives do not claim bodies, police procedure and conduct is strictly governed.

The Human Rights Wing also found evidence to show that some of the police had made false entries into the record books in attempts to deliberately disguise the identity of the cremated bodies.

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