Human Rights

Evidence Of Extra-Judicial Killings In Punjab

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 police custody.

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 armed-encounters.

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 respondents personally.

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 next morning.

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 of hatred.

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 law.

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 thereafter.

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 torment.

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 separatist militancy.

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 separatist movement.

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 citizens.

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