Ram Narayan Kumar
From early 1988, when reports of police atrocities
amid the escalation of the Sikh separatist violence became a regular
part of the news from Punjab, I began to travel in the State to
investigate. During these travels, I came in close contact with many who
had suffered illegal detention, interrogation under torture and other
atrocities. I also met relatives of those who had been killed while in
In two cases, I found that detainees had been done to
death after prolonged interrogation under severe torture. One case, from
the Muktsar subdivision of Faridkot district, involved Bhupinder Singh
Sarang, a fifteen-year-old lad, a student of class 10, and a local
football star. He had been picked up from his house, taken to Sadar
police station in Muktsar and was tortured under interrogation. I met
eyewitnesses to his torture, and also a local youth leader who had seen
Bhupinder Singh while in custody.
I also documented the case of sixteen-year-old
Gurbaksh Singh from Guru Harsahay sub-division of Ferozepur who had been
produced before the police by a large group of prominent local citizens.
The police then picked up Gurbaksh Singh's sister Balbir Kaur and her
husband Mahal Singh. Gurbaksh Singh was later shown to have been killed
in an armed encounter, along with another young Sikh, Balwant Singh.
Balbir Kaur was released after eight days of illegal detention in the
course of which she suffered severe torture and sexual abuse. She took
to bed, and died three months later.
I documented dozens of such cases which exposed a
clear pattern of illegal abduction, custodial torture under
interrogation culminating in executions, explained away as deaths in
These cases in which there were witnesses to illegal
arrests and custodial torture, before the police announced their deaths
in encounters, were rare in comparison to others in which persons were
whisked away by unidentified men, appearing out of the blue, in vehicles
without number plates, to be taken to undisclosed places for
interrogation, and to disappear forever.
I documented dozens of such cases. Rarely in some
instances, did the disappeared return from the "dragon's belly." Some of
them survived when the High Court of Punjab and Haryana or the Supreme
Court of India issued directives for their release. I became directly
involved in one such case, of Iqbal Singh from Muktsar.
Iqbal Singh had already been arrested once before,
following the crackdown on the Sikh religious shrines by the army in
June 1984, from Gurudwara Dukhniwaran in Patiala. Arrested on charges of
waging war against the government, Iqbal Singh was tortured under
interrogation at Ladha Kothi, previously a pleasure palace of Maharaja
Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, converted into a police interrogation center.
In August 1985, a court in Patiala acquitted him of
all charges, and he was released from prison. Iqbal Singh was again
picked up from the road outside his house in Muktsar by unidentified
policemen in plain clothes in cars without number plates and with tinted
glass. Iqbal Singh's mother learned from a minor police official about
his illegal custody and torture at an interrogation center in Faridkot.
The same official later helped Iqbal Singh to smuggle out a letter in
which he gave the location of his custody, and also expressed the fear
that he might be killed.
On the strength of this letter, the Committee for
Information and Initiative on Punjab petitioned the Supreme Court in May
1988 for a writ of habeas corpus. The court ordered the government of
Punjab to ensure production of the detainee before the nearest
magistrate and to arrange for his interview with his family and his
lawyers. The court also allowed the Committee to serve its orders on the
With this order, I and two lawyers from Delhi reached
Faridkot's Senior Superintendent of Police on 12 May 1988. A teleprinter
message about the court's order from the office of the Home Secretary
had already reached him. He asked who Iqbal Singh was. Almost
instantaneously, he announced that his police had never taken Iqbal
Singh into custody. But he promised to search all the jails, lock-ups
and police stations under his jurisdiction and to give us the results by
The next morning we were informed that the detainee
was not to be found in any of the police stations in the district. Later
in the day, we went to Muktsar to inform Iqbal Singh's mother on the
dismal outcome of our efforts. On reaching her house we discovered to
our surprise that Iqbal Singh had been released by Faridkot's SSP the
previous afternoon, a few hours before we heard the denials on Iqbal
Singh ever having been taken into custody. Iqbal Singh had been severely
tortured in the course of his detention. We saw marks of injury on his
body, and conducted a long interview with him in the course of which he
revealed concrete information on several custodial executions to which
he had been a witness.
I also came across several examples of purely bestial
abuse of police powers, against the absolutely innocent and the meek. In
one case, the police officer in-charge of a post at the village of Bham
in Batala subdivision of Gurdaspur district, kidnapped two teenage
girls, Salvinder Kaur and Sarabjit Kaur, in front of eye-witnesses in
his official jeep.
The officer in-charge of police station in
Hargovindpur denied their custody. Four days later, their naked
distended bodies were recovered from a nearby canal. Officers of
Hargovindpur police station tried to pressure the parents to sign a
declaration that the bodies were unidentified and unclaimed, and were
threatened that they would be eliminated in an "encounter" if they
disobeyed. But the Sub-divisional Magistrate of Batala interfered and
had the bodies handed over to the parents for cremation.
One month later, the Senior Superintendent of Police
of the district told a newspaper that the policeman alleged to have
kidnapped the girls was actually having an affair with one of them. The
policeman was later arrested on charges of kidnapping, rape and murder
to be soon released on bail, as the prosecution did not file a
charge-sheet against him within the stipulated period of three months.
I also came across examples of the police terrorizing
the whole villages in the border districts known to be militant
strongholds. Unable to distinguish silent sympathizers from active
militants, the security forces were using collective humiliation and
intimidation to wean them away from their political sympathies. In
reality, these methods were only adding to their alienation the thrust
The testimonies of victims of police powers, which I
recorded, not only established systematic violation of the domestic and
international guarantees of inalienable human rights, they also
repudiated the grand narrative of Indian officials and their
sympathizers who portrayed the situation in Punjab as a war between the
patriotic forces and anti-national mercenaries.
The evidence collected by me discredited their claims
that the government agencies represented the forces of social order,
justice and legitimacy. I failed to recognize anything noble in the
evidence of police operations. Although some of the cases documented by
me might have involved people with extremist connections, I gained the
impression that the majority of them had suffered primarily as victims
of arbitrariness, police powers gone haywire, absence of safeguards and
wilful infraction of fundamental human rights.
These investigations constituted the basis of the
detailed case studies of human rights violations, which the Committee
for Information and Initiative on Punjab published and circulated in the
hope that testimonies of victims may persuade many to see that the "war
without quarter" would destroy the very basis of the nation in whose
name it was being waged.
The bulk of these early reports also form part of my
book, published in 1991 under the title, "The Sikh Struggle: Origin,
evolution and present phase." Apart from publishing these reports, the
Committee has also been taking up cases of individual detainees, by
filing petitions for the writ of habeas corpus before the Supreme Court,
and in other ways.
Political Consensus On State Terrorism And The
Mandate Of 1992
Over the next three years, the government of India
changed party-hands four times. However, these changes made no
difference either to the government's political approach in regard to
the problem of unrest in Punjab or to the basic patterns of police
functioning in the State. From the very beginning of the problem in
Punjab, political elements within the government are known to have
hobnobbed with one militant faction or the other with the view to
isolate an immediate adversary in the ascendance.
Never was there any attempt to initiate discussions
with the extremist groups on the basis of concrete issues which
constitute the hard-core of Sikh discontent. All overtures and contacts
were always essentially mercenary in nature, based on calculations of
short-term paltry political advantages and negating the prospects of
transparent deliberations on the merits of the issues involved.
In March 1988, the Indian parliament passed the 59th
Amendment of the Constitution which enabled the central government to
extend the President's rule in the State beyond one year; to impose
emergency on the ground of "internal disturbance" and to suspend Article
21 of the Constitution which guaranteed that no person shall be deprived
of life and liberty except according to the procedure established by
The Union government decided to bring about this
amendment to the constitution to selectively take away the right to life
for the people of Punjab, in spite of the fact that there were already
in force special legislations, which not only conflicted with the
elemental principles of due process, but also eliminated the existing
legal safeguards of free and fair trial.
Apart from the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities
(Prevention) Act of 1987, and the Terrorist Affected Areas (Special
Courts) Act of 1984, there were also other laws like the National
Security Act of 1980, as amended by Act 24 of 1984 specifically with the
reference to "the extremist and terrorist elements in the disturbed
areas of Punjab and Chandigarh."
The Act provided for detention without charge or
trial for one year in all parts of India, and two years in Punjab. Also
in force was the Armed Forces (Punjab and Chandigarh) Special Powers
Act, which empowered the security forces to enter and search any
premises, and to arrest any person without a warrant. It also allowed
the security forces to destroy any place on the suspicion of being a
"terrorist hideout" and to shoot to kill a suspected terrorist with
immunity from prosecution.
In November 1991, Punjab came under the Disturbed
Areas Act, which gave the security forces extensive powers to search,
detain and interrogate anyone without judicial warrants. Along with
these steps, the central government announced that the elections to
parliament and the State Assembly for Punjab would be held in the first
quarter of 1992. A meeting of all the major Akali Sikh groups held on 4
January 1992, decided to boycott the elections. The government reported
28 per cent of polling. The turnout in the urban areas was between 25
and 40 per cent. In the rural constituencies it was between 5 and 20 per
cent. The results declared on 20 February, returned the Congress with a
two-thirds majority in the State Assembly. Beant Singh, who had been
dismissed from the Ministry of Darbara Singh in 1983 on the charge of
having instigated a faked encounter, formed a Congress ministry as the
new Chief Minister of Punjab.
Silencing The Punjab Human Rights Groups
The state government projected its success at the
hustings, a corollary of the poll-boycott by the main Akali groups, as
the democratic mandate, which it had received to stamp out the Sikh
separatist militancy by whatever means. Several human rights groups in
Punjab, although disorganized and faction-ridden, had been embarrassing
the government by publicizing police excesses. The government under
Chief Minister Beant Singh decided to first silence these groups before
confronting the larger problems of militancy in Punjab's countryside.
Ram Singh Biling, a reporter with the Punjabi daily
newspaper Ajit and the Secretary of Punjab Human Rights Organization for
his home district of Sangrur, was picked up and unceremoniously executed
soon after the Congress government took office.
Next was the turn of Ajit Singh Bains, retired judge
of the Punjab and Haryana High Court and Chairman of the Punjab Human
Rights Organization. His illegal arrest in April 1992 was not
acknowledged for two days. Bains was manhandled, abused and publicly
exhibited in handcuffs. Later, his arrest was formalized under TADA. The
accusation was that Bains had taken part in a secret meeting of militant
leaders, held at Anandpur on March 18, where they hatched a conspiracy
to carry out terrorist actions.
An inquiry later ordered by the High Court of Punjab
established that Ajit Singh Bains' name did not figure in the original
First Information Report about the "illegal meeting." However, the idea
of arresting Bains was not to secure his conviction under the law, but
to paralyse PHRO, and to demoralize other human rights groups with the
example. Chief Minister Beant Singh told the State Legislative Assembly
on April 6 that his government would not release Bains because his
organization was engaged in defending terrorists.
A human rights lawyer, Jagwinder Singh, was picked up
from his house in Kapurthala by a group of uniformed policemen on 25
September 1992. Although the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary
promised to intervene, Jagwinder Singh never returned.
On 18 May 1992, Amritsar police picked up Param
Satinderjit Singh, a student of Guru Nanak Dev University, from the
university campus. He was forced to identify suspected sympathizers of
the separatist cause within the university, who were also picked up. The
police brought Param Satinderjit Singh to the university campus several
times for this purpose. The university students held a demonstration to
protest against the abduction, and his father went on a hunger strike.
But Param Satinderjit Singh was not released. There was no trace of him
The Punjab government kept up the pressure on the
PHRO by arresting Malwinder Singh Malli, General Secretary of the
organization, in August 1992. Malli was also the editor of "Paigam," a
vernacular journal affiliated with a Marxist-Leninist group, whose work
in the field had led to several exhaustive reports on police atrocities.
Elimination of Ram Singh Biling and Jagwinder Singh,
and arrests of Ajit Singh Bains and Malwinder Singh Malli effectively
paralyzed the regional human rights groups. Several prominent members of
the PHRO either took temporary asylum in foreign countries, or went into
hibernation. Those who remained active were suppressed or silenced. Now
the security forces could give undivided attention to eliminating the
ring-leaders of the separatist militancy.
The War Without Quarter
The Sikhs of Punjab had never clearly understood the
rationale of the militants' objectives. These groups in their hay-days
had generally relied on vacuous sympathies to find hideouts and other
forms of support to keep up their operations. With the rural Sikhs
totally dismayed at the state of affairs, militants were now helpless
against the security forces who began to hunt them down like game of
prey. Thus, within six months of assuming office, the government of
Beant Singh was able to break the backbone of the Sikh militant
movement. Main leaders of guerrilla outfits were either killed, or
compelled to flee the scene. Hundreds of them also surrendered.
Thousands of others suffered torture in custody, long periods of illegal
imprisonment and myriad other forms of physical and psychological
I have exhaustively documented the historical context
of the Sikh separatist violence, its political and psychological aspects
and its irrationality in my second book on Punjab, published by Ajanta
Books International in 1997 under the title: "The Sikh Unrest and the
Indian State: Politics, Personalities and Historical retrospective."
Evidence Of Mass-Cremations
Following the decimation of the guerrilla groups
under Beant Singh's government in Punjab, the cleansing the countryside
of militant sympathizers apparently became the next main task of the
security forces in the State. According to the police figures, published
in 1993, security forces in Punjab killed 2,119 militants in the year
1992 under the euphemism of "encounters."
A larger number of people in the border districts,
picked up by the police for interrogation, simply "disappeared."
Evidence that later surfaced shows that the "disappeared" were killed
and their bodies quietly disposed of. First appeared reports that
Punjab's irrigation canals had become the dumping ground for bodies of
killed militants and their sympathizers. Reports carried by the Pioneer
on 26 and 27 March 1992 said that the government of Rajasthan had
formally complained to Punjab's Chief Secretary that these canals were
carrying large number of dead bodies into the State. The newspaper
reports also said that many dead bodies, with hands and feet tied
together, were being fished out when water in-flow in canals was stopped
for repair works.
Jaswant Singh Khalra from Amritsar produced more
incriminating evidence in the form of official records from the
cremation grounds of Amritsar, Patti and Tarn Taran for the year 1992.
These records showed that the police had burnt more than 1,400 bodies in
these three cremation grounds alone by stating that they were unclaimed
or unidentified. Jaswant Singh Khalra claimed, later corroborated by my
own investigations, that the cremated were those who had earlier been
picked up for interrogation.
I travelled extensively in the region of Amritsar to
investigate these revelations. Examination of cremation records from the
office of the Registrar of Births and Deaths, Amritsar showed that three
hundred bodies were cremated as unidentified/unclaimed in 1992 alone at
the Durgiana mandir cremation grounds even though in the case of one
hundred and twelve the names had actually been recorded. Forty-one were
shown as having died of bullet injuries.
A firewood purchase register maintained at the Patti
municipal cremation grounds showed that five hundred and thirty-eight
bodies were cremated as unidentified/unclaimed between 1991 and 1994.
After examining these records, I talked to attendants of the cremation
grounds, the doctors who had conducted post-mortems and also the
relatives of victims who furnished the necessary evidence to establish
linkages between the disappearances and illegal cremations. Two
attendants of the cremation ground at Patti told me that the police
would often buy firewood for the cremation of one or two persons but
would cremate several bodies together on a single pyre.
The Chief Medical Officer of the Civil Hospital at
Patti confessed that a post-mortem was completed in less than five
minutes. The whole procedure had been simplified to the extent that it
meant no more than filling a paper that announced the cause of death and
the time of death, with the policemen providing the information. He also
gave me gruesome details of Sarabjit Singh's post-mortem.
On 30 October 1993, supposedly the dead body of
Sarabjit Singh was brought to Patti hospital by officers of Valtoha
police station in Amritsar district for post-mortem. The doctor who was
to carry out the autopsy discovered that the man who had a bullet injury
in his head was still breathing. Thereupon, Valtoha police officers
insisted on taking him away. After some time, they brought him back
really dead and forced a different doctor to fill-in an autopsy report.
Although a nurse in the hospital was able to identify Sarabjit Singh,
and also knew where his parents lived, the police officers took away the
body for a hasty cremation.
I was also able to interview many police officers
who, on the condition of anonymity, provided detailed narratives which
explained abductions, custodial torture, summary executions and illegal
cremations as aspects of a strategy to weed out from the roots the Sikh
Khalra's Disappearance And The Supreme Court's
Order For An Inquiry
At this time, Jaswant Singh Khalra was the General
Secretary of the Akali Dal's Human Rights Wing. In 1995, this
organization filed a Writ Petition No. 990 in the Punjab and Haryana
High Court to pray for an independent inquiry into the revelations on
mass cremations. However, the High Court dismissed the petition with the
remarks that it was "too vague" and that the petitioner had no standing
in the matter.
Following the dismissal of the petition by the High
Court, the Committee for Information and Initiative on Punjab moved the
Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution to demand a CBI
inquiry into the matter. After detailing the facts, the petition asked
for an inquiry by an independent agency. Persons had been cremated as
unidentified, against the prescribed procedure in such cases, not
because their identities were not known or knowable, or because there
were none to claim them, but by virtue of a systematic policy of
extra-judicial executions and secret disposal of dead bodies.
While the petition before the Supreme Court was still
in the preliminary stage of hearing, uniformed commandos of the Punjab
police abducted Jaswant Singh Khalra from outside his house on 6
September 1995. Without Khalra's resourcefulness and extensive contacts
in the district of Amritsar, it would not have been possible to so
conclusively expose the methods the government had followed to crush the
Khalra had also been in the forefront of human rights
campaign to punish the guilty who now wanted him out of the way.
According to the affidavits sworn by Khalra's colleagues and
acquaintances including Sikh Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee's chief
Gurcharan Singh Tohra, former judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court
Ajit Singh Bains, he had been receiving threats from Ajit Singh Sandhu,
the Senior Superintendent of Police, Tarn Taran to stop investigating
into the matter of illegal cremations. Khalra's wife petitioned the
Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus. A bench of the court presided
by Justice Kuldip Singh ordered the CBI to investigate not only the
matter of Khalra's disappearance, but also the larger issue of "illegal
cremations," for which he had apparently sacrificed his life.
Report By The CBI, And The Reference To The
National Human Rights Commission
The CBI held police officials under Ajit Singh Sandhu,
former Senior Superintendent of Tarn Taran police district, responsible
for Khalra's abduction. The investigation into the allegations of secret
cremations was completed in December 1996.
Although the court decided to keep the report secret,
it released the figures on illegal cremations at three cremation grounds
in the Amritsar district. Out of the total number of bodies the Punjab
police cremated at these sites, the CBI had completed the identification
of 585 bodies, only partially identifying 274, but failing in the
identification of over 1,238.
In its order dated 11 December 1996, the Supreme
Court observed: "Needless to say that the report discloses flagrant
violation of human rights on a mass scale." The Court went on to pass
the order requesting the National Human Rights Commission to examine and
to give its findings on all the issues which arise from the CBI's report
and are raised by the parties. The court further clarified that as the
Commission was going to examine the matter at the request of the Court,
any compensation awarded by the Commission shall be binding and payable.
The issue at hand is justice, which to deserve its
name, must be an open process. The principles violated must be
reinstated and vindicated, which presupposes total openness and
transparency. The real purpose of justice is rehabilitation, of
principles and even of people who have offended them; punishment being
only a means to that end.
Let us not forget that judicial justice, as codified
in laws and administered by tribunals, is a historical, man-made
institution, contingent in its forms, but built on the timeless
foundation of human conscience. Schematically, people have ceded to the
State their residual autonomy on the understanding that its institutions
would ensure freedom, justice and security, impartially, according to
the normative standards applicable to all, and in the broad light of the
day. Sovereignty of the State suggests itself to be inviolable so long
as the State does not rebound from these terms of its compact with the