By Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch Researcher.
The Asian Age, September 27, 2005
The screams of terror, the pervading stench of burning flesh, distant
lights as shops and homes burn down, the triumphant shouts of looters.
People who lived through 1984 in Delhi are unlikely to forget the
horrors. After years of inquiries, commissions, accusations and denials,
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has, last month, expressed regret for the
horrifying anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination of Indira
Gandhi, saying that, "I have no hesitation in apologising not only to
the Sikh community but the whole Indian nation because what took place
in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood and what is
enshrined in our Constitution."
After 20 years, it is the first time that an Indian Prime Minister has
taken responsibility for these appalling acts of state-sponsored
violence. This is all the more remarkable since the Congress Party is
deeply implicated in the violence. Congress leaders, including Jagdish
Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, who were blamed for organising the pogrom have
resigned from their posts.
The Prime Minister says that his government will try and take action
against police officials named in the Nanavati inquiry commission that
was placed before Parliament last month and led to his apology. "The
past is with us," the Prime Minister said. "But as human beings, we have
the willpower and we have the ability to write a better future for all
These are hopeful and welcome words. But it is important to remember
that soothing words about a better future will not be enough to make it
come true. There is also a need for justice, for those responsible to be
held accountable, for an accurate account of events to be established,
and for compensation to be paid to victims or their families. Only when
those responsible for wrongdoing have accepted responsibility or been
dealt with by the law, will those who have suffered be able to find
The 1984 riots have been discussed in movies, in books and public
debates. The statement of the Prime Minister will lead to even more
discussion. But there are other screams of terror and, once again, that
pervading stench of burning flesh, which are not being discussed. These
come from Punjab.
The Sikh separatist movement in Punjab claimed thousands of lives.
Unspeakable horrors were perpetrated as bombs went off in crowded
bazaars and movie halls, killing and maiming civilians. There were
numerous political assassinations. Hindu passengers were dragged off
public buses, lined up and shot down.
Instead of responding within the law, the Punjab police were given free
rein to contain the militancy. Thousands of alleged militants, human
rights activists, and ordinary Sikhs in Punjab were summarily executed
by security forces, based on the merest suspicion or, perhaps, not even
that. Most were young men, "disappeared," never to be seen again. Their
bodies were then cremated to destroy the evidence.
These were extrajudicial executions, state-sponsored terror. These acts,
too, were the negation of the concept of nationhood and what is
enshrined in India’s Constitution.
The pain of family members in cases of "disappearance" cannot be
overstated. The United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner For
Human Rights has described "enforced disappearance" as a particularly
grave crime because it puts a person outside the protection of the law
and has "a doubly paralysing form of suffering: for the victims,
frequently tortured and in constant fear for their lives, and for their
family members, ignorant of the fate of their loved ones, their emotions
alternating between hope and despair, wondering and waiting, sometimes
for years, for news that may never come."
Paramjit Khalra is still waiting for news. Ten years ago, in September
1995, her husband, Jaswant Singh Khalra, was abducted. The government
initially claimed that men masquerading as police officials had
kidnapped him, but it was later established that he was taken into
custody by government agents. The Central Bureau of Investigation has
charged six police officials for his illegal arrest.
He has not been heard from since. Investigations indicate that he was
murdered soon after his arrest. In February, one witness testified that
Khalra was killed in custody and named former Punjab director-general of
police K.P.S. Gill among those responsible.
Khalra’s crime? He had undertaken an investigation into the
"disappearance" of other Sikhs. His investigation led him to enquire
into the purchase of firewood by security forces. He found that
thousands of so-called unidentified or unclaimed bodies were being
secretly cremated by the police with this firewood. Many of these bodies
belonged to those that had "disappeared."
In reality, these bodies were not unidentified: their killers knew their
identities. They were not unclaimed: their families simply did not know
that they were dead. Many, sadly, are still hoping for their return.
The killing of Jaswant Singh Khalra cannot, and should not, be
forgotten. For Jaswant Singh Khalra took on an indispensable job in a
democracy: he dared to ask questions. In January 1995, he had filed a
petition asking the courts to investigate the mass cremations. Yet,
because he began to talk about the illegal cremations, in a sad irony
he, too, was abducted, in broad daylight from outside his house, and
then murdered, just like those whose deaths he had been investigating.
No one has apologised for his death. No one has even accepted
responsibility. While six men have been charged with kidnapping, no
murder charges have been filed. Khalra’s family is still waiting for
And it is not just the Khalra family that is waiting. According to a
December 1996 report of the CBI, at least 2,098 illegal cremations took
place in Amritsar district alone. No investigation took place into the
thousands of other bodies that were secretly cremated in other parts of
Punjab. The government of Punjab and the government of India have failed
to identify and prosecute those responsible for these murders.
Thus far, the Supreme Court and the National Human Rights Commission
(NHRC) have failed the victims. At one point, the Supreme Court referred
the matter to the NHRC, which initially attempted to investigate all
cases of "disappearances." But after the NHRC was challenged by the
government, it chose to limit its investigations to only three cremation
grounds in Amritsar district. In November 2004, the NHRC, finding the
state of Punjab "accountable and vicariously responsible for the
infringement of the indefeasible right to life," ordered compensation of
Rs 250,000 for each of more than 100 victims. Other cases are still
But many relatives of those that were killed or are still missing say
they do not want compensation if it is not matched by justice. After
awarding compensation, the NHRC has indicated that the terms of future
investigations will be limited to the legality or illegality of
cremations and that it will not take up the central question of
responsibility for the unlawful arrests and murders that preceded the
This is absurd. Unless a credible body like the NHRC is allowed to
freely conduct a full investigation, it will be difficult to hold the
government accountable and force it into providing justice by
prosecuting those found responsible. The slow pace of the NHRC’s work
also plays into the hands of the perpetrators of these crimes, who hope
that the "investigations" will drag on until the families of victims are
exhausted and accept compensation as part of a final settlement, or
simply give in to hopelessness.
In evaluating what happened in Punjab, the NHRC warned that the state
should not "go overboard in its war against terrorism by chilling civil
liberties." Yet, that is exactly what was done in Punjab. Officials take
pride in how the "Punjab problem was solved." But the methods included
murder. And these kinds of extrajudicial executions continue in numerous
other states in India where there are internal conflicts.
Many in the security forces speak scathingly of human rights defenders,
calling them pestilence that point fingers while the troops bravely face
bullets for their security. But it is people like Jaswant Singh Khalra
that show that the security personnel, in the name of protecting
citizens, systematically commit crimes in places like Kashmir and
This is where the willpower of the Prime Minister and the Indian
government will be tested most acutely. This government has addressed
some human rights problems, such as repealing the Prevention of
Terrorism Act or promising recently during talks with Kashmiri leaders
that human rights abuses will not be allowed, but it still hasn’t
mustered the political will to address the ubiquitous impunity of the
Indian security forces. India is indeed the world’s biggest democracy,
but it still hasn’t established the principle that no one is above the
law, even if they are troops who believe they are acting in the national
There can be no better future unless people who are guilty of human
rights violations are brought to justice. For Jaswant Singh Khalra,
justice has already been delayed for a decade. The Prime Minister should
take the first step. Make this case an example of a new commitment by
the state to root out the killers in its midst, even if, as many claim,
it upsets troop morale or, in the case of the 1984 riots, leads to
important figures within Congress. Khalra wasn’t just kidnapped, he was
murdered. It is time to order an immediate and independent criminal
investigation into and prosecution of his killers.
And on the Khalra case and all others, the NHRC should be encouraged and
empowered to do its job, not pressured to keep silent. Every case of
"disappearance" and every unexplained cremation in Punjab should be
investigated. Only then will survivors like Paramjit Khalra, who has
tirelessly campaigned for justice, be able to rest.