Brad Adams, Executive Director Of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. December 17, 2004
The story of history's losers is usually buried under layers of dirt,
shovelled courtesy of the winners. At the bottom of these layers are
individuals who opposed those in power. Lying next to them are people
aligned with or sympathetic to the losers.
Since the middle of the 20th century, social archaeologists have
identified many losers by another name: "human rights" victims,
eliminated by governments or their armed opponents. The nomenclature of
human rights has had a salutary impact. It has posthumously turned
forgotten or even scorned "losers" into individuals with flesh and bone
and thoughts worthy of remembrance.
Perversely, rights-abusing governments sometimes benefit from the
accretion of victims. In the rush to protect today's (and tomorrow's)
victims, yesterday's are often de-prioritised, forgotten, even cast
This is now the plight of India's Sikhs. In the early Eighties, armed
separatist groups demanded an independent state of Khalistan. To destroy
the movement, security forces were given a free hand, leading to the
worst kinds of abuse. India, grappling with new battles in Kashmir and
the Northeast and coping with religious conflict leading to the Mumbai
riots of 1992-1993 and the Gujarat pogrom in 2002, has largely forgotten
the crimes in Punjab. Each of these problems has piled a new layer of
dirt on the long-standing and still simmering problem of the Sikhs.
The Punjab violence peaked in June 1984 when Prime Minister Indira
Gandhi sent the Indian Army and paramilitary forces into the most sacred
of Sikh sites, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Huddled with hundreds of
Sikh militants were thousands of civilians, many of them pilgrims who
thought they were safe in a place considered an unthinkable target. A
brutal battle left nearly a hundred Indian security personnel dead.
Independent estimates suggest that thousands, mostly civilians,
perished. Some were reportedly found with their hands bound and bullets
in their heads. The attack on the Golden Temple soon cost Indira Gandhi
her life. On October 31, 1984, she was killed by two of her Sikh
bodyguards. Blaming all Sikhs instead of the individuals who pulled the
triggers, members of Gandhi's Congress party organised pogroms against
Sikhs in Delhi. In a rebuke to the party's spiritual founder, Mahatma
Gandhi, thousands were killed. Children were found beheaded. Seven
government-appointed commissions have investigated these attacks, but
all have either coated the layers of dirt with whitewash or been met
with official stonewalling and obstruction.
Victim groups, lawyers, and activists have long alleged state complicity
in the violence. For three days the police failed to act as gangs
carrying weapons and kerosene roamed the streets, exhorting non-Sikhs to
kill Sikhs and loot and burn their properties. Reacting to the
assassination, Mrs Gandhi's son, Rajiv, however, appeared to bless the
ensuing pogrom, saying, "When a big tree falls, the earth is bound to
For the next 10 years, politically active Sikhs in Punjab, and those who
stood up for victims and their families, were targeted for murder,
disappearance, and arrest by Indian security forces. Violence and
intimidation have continued at a lower level since, but a recent visit
to Amritsar made it clear just how widespread the fear and anguish
continue to be. Many Sikhs there continue to talk of fear of the police
and security forces and of receiving threats, often speaking in the low
voices of human rights victims in too many parts of the world.
Improbable and courageous leaders have emerged, such as Mrs Paramjit
Kaur Khalra, whose husband, Jaswant Singh Khalra, exposed the secret and
illegal cremation of thousands of bodies in Punjab officially labelled
as "unidentified or unclaimed." The killers certainly knew their
identities; they were "unclaimed" because their bodies were cremated
before family members ever knew they were missing. Yet, about 65 per
cent of the persons illegally killed and cremated by the Punjab police
have yet to be formally "identified." So widespread was the practice
that Jaswant Singh Khalra uncovered it by tracking the purchases of wood
(he learned that it takes 300 kilograms to burn a single body) by the
security services. He found that in just three crematoria in Amritsar
district one of the 13 districts in Punjab thousands of unidentified
people had been illegally cremated.
What Jaswant Singh Khalra learned cost him his life. In September 1995
he was abducted in broad daylight in front of his house and later
killed. His killers have been identified but have not been prosecuted.
Impunity reigns over the Punjab, to the point that former Punjab police
chief K.P.S. Gill has had the temerity to publicly demand that laws be
passed to grant immunity of police officers or their crimes in
recognition of their "service to the state."
For progress to be made, Congress will have to stop just pointing
fingers at the BJP for its stoking of communal violence and deal with
the skeletons in its own closet. Most of the killing and disappearances
took place under Mrs Gandhi and successor Congress governments. Some of
those allegedly responsible for the violence in Delhi in 1984 were
elected to Parliament in May's elections. Some are now ministers.
But groups like the Association of Families of the Disappeared in
Punjab, the Committee for Information and Initiative on Punjab, the
Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab (publisher of the
seminal Reduced to Ashes, The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab,
www.safhr.org), and ENSAAF (www.ensaaf.org), which just released Twenty
Years of Impunity: The November 1984 Pogroms of Sikhs in India, have
refused to allow the issue to be buried. It is largely due to their
efforts that recently the National Human Rights Commission ordered
compensation of Rs 2.5 lakhs each for the families of 109 people who
were killed in the custody of Punjab Police between 1984 and 1994. This
could be the beginning of a proper accounting, although the families
consider this too little, too late, and the state has made no admission
Justice will have failed unless the officials involved in such
violations are vigorously and transparently prosecuted in a clear
message that India does not tolerate human rights violations or excuse
it because the perpetrators claim to be patriotic enough to break the
law for national security.
The best and only way for Congress to overcome its record of human
rights abuses in Punjab and Delhi is to embrace the rule of law as the
vehicle for accountability and reconciliation. But a genuine
reconciliation requires a willingness to admit errors and rectify them.
Only a conscious exercise of political will on the part of the new
government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh - seemingly a serious and
principled politician - can bring about justice for the Sikhs.
Otherwise, discussions about the carnage in Gujarat and the need to take
action against BJP leaders risk being seen as a partisan ploy, divorced
from a genuine commitment to the rule of law and the imperative of
re-establishing the secular credentials of the state. And it is worth
contemplating the possibility that success in Punjab may open new
windows for peace and reconciliation in other areas of conflict still
visible in the dirt, such as Kashmir, Manipur and Nagaland.