Article originally appeared in The Caravan. In 1919, soldiers of the British Indian Army sprayed bullets on a large body of Indians who had gathered at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar to peacefully protest the Rowlatt Act, which authorised the Raj to – among other things – arrest anyone suspected to be a ‘terrorist’ (namely, our garden-variety freedom-fighter) without trial. Today, the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial stands as a symbol of State repression in the colonial era. A stone’s throw away stands another monument, the Golden Temple, another symbol of ‘the Sword of State’ that testified that the legacy of authoritarianism carried on after the British left the country.
A year after the Jallianwala Bagh incident, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, on whose orders the British police opened fire killing around 2,000 people (according to an inscription at the Memorial), was made to resign. Although one official’s resignation is too meagre to be called justice, the move was a monumental apology compared to the bald establishmentarian impunity that followed the hundreds, if not thousands, of non-Army casualties in the Indian army’s attack, known as Operation Blue Star, in June 1984 on the 16th century Golden Temple complex. The attack aimed at finishing off the militant proponents of Khalistan, a proposed independent Sikh state. Operation Blue Star marked the beginning of a decade-long conflict between armed representatives of the State – both the Central and the state governments – and Khalistani militants, in which thousands of people, mainly Sikh youth, were subjected to torture and rape and disappeared in extrajudicial killings. The almost total impunity of the State was partly bestowed by the draconian Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA, which sought, in essence, to replicate the purpose of the Rowlatt Act) and partly by the State’s role as both perpetrator and defender.
Today, the hustle-bustle of city life in Amritsar, known as the capital of Sikhism, has eclipsed the wounded psyche of a community which time has not healed. But a closer look reveals the stories of those who lost virtually everything to the non-liability of the State.
At the Golden Temple complex, not a single one of the white marble stones on the walls makes any mention of Operation Blue Star, not even in the Akal Takht building, which was the epicentre of the fiercest gunbattle. On most of these stones are etched the names of the martyred Sikh who fought the British; others have the names of generous donors to the temple.
But mention Operation Blue Star to any of the Sikh volunteers here and they whisper, “Bullet marks are still visible on the walls of Akal Takht.” Elsewhere in the city, try to start a conversation on the Punjab Police and while the volume drops, the content does not – there is story upon story of abduction, slaughter and torture. Some people who have seen their family members tortured and killed by the Punjab Police seem to have vowed not to move on until they get justice.
“Sacrifice is in our blood. We will keep fighting for justice,” said Paramjit Kaur Khalra, whose husband, human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra, was abducted and killed by the police in 1995 as punishment for exposing the secret, illegal cremations of people killed by the police between 1984 and 1994. Her head and shoulders covered with a shawl, she rarely smiles. Framed pictures of her husband plaster the walls of her living room. As she spoke, she kept getting off the sofa to answer a series of phone calls from the next of kin of victims of police abductions and killings for assistance in their compensation cases.
While illegal arrests and killings by the police had never been a secret since the mayhem began in the early 1980s, evidence crept out only in 1995 after Jaswant Singh Khalra and his associate, Jaspal Singh Dhillon, produced records of three crematoria in Amritsar that showed 2,097 secret cremations.
In 1994, the police abducted and killed a personal friend of Khalra, Piara Singh, a director of the Central Cooperative Bank in Amritsar. While investigating his whereabouts, Khalra, a law graduate, stumbled upon the cremation records of the Durgiana Mandir (a Hindu temple) cremation ground in Amritsar. The records not only marked Piara Singh as an unclaimed body, but were also evidence of around 300 more such cremations. “My husband then managed to procure records of the Patti and Tarn Taran cremation grounds as well, and made public the 2,097 cases of illegal cremations,” said Mrs Khalra.
Mrs Khalra mentioned another specific case related to the Durgiana Mandir crematorium in 1992. On November 5 that year, the police killed Pragat Singh, the 25-year-old son of Baldev Singh, a retired army officer who had suffered serious injuries in the 1965 India-Pakistan war. On being informed by an employee of a government hospital, Baldev Singh reached the cremation ground in the nick of time. The pyre had been lit and the head was already burning. The shattered father could at least collect the ashes for the last rites. However, the abduction, killing and the illegal cremation of his son remained officially unacknowledged. Following the incident, Baldev Singh’s eldest daughter, Manjit Kaur, at the time India’s top weightlifter with 19 gold medals to her credit, decided not to represent India in any competition in future.
“After he (Khalra) procured the crematoria documents, the World Sikh Council in Canada invited him, and he raised the issue of police killing and illegal cremations there. But ever since he got back to Amritsar, in late July 1995, the police began chasing him, threatening that he would be killed if he pursued the case,” Mrs Khalra said, looking at her husband’s photograph on a table next to her. It had ‘Shaheed (Martyr) Jaswant Singh Khalra (1952-1995)’ imprinted below it. “On September 6, I left for work in the morning, and my husband was to meet a journalist from The Indian Express in the afternoon. But before he could meet the journalist, the police surrounded the Kabir Park area (where Khalra’s residence is) and took him,” added Mrs Khalra, who resigned from her job at Amritsar’s Guru Nanak Dev University in 1999 to devote all her time to fighting the case.
She continued after a brief pause, “That was the last I saw him. My son was seven, and daughter nine. I, along with my relatives and friends, went to all police stations, but the police denied having picked him. Later, I was informed that he had been taken to the Jhabal police station on Senior Superintendent of Police Ajit Singh Sandhu’s orders, and was subsequently killed and thrown into the river near Harike Pattan.” Sandhu, who was allegedly responsible for over 1,000 killings, reportedly committed suicide in 1998.
Although Khalra could only produce evidence of 2,097 killings and cremations, he estimated that the police killed, extra-judicially, at least 25,000 people. The police targeted all Sikh youth between the ages of 18 and 45, in general, and those who fought against police brutality, in particular, and tried to arrest them, said Mrs Khalra.
“During the Beant Singh’s (of the Congress party) rule (1992-95) in Punjab, many police officials were given out-of-turn promotions and incentives in proportion to the number of people they killed,” said Mrs Khalra. Beant Singh was assassinated by a car bomb planted by a separatist group, Babbar Khalsa, on August 31, 1995 in Chandigarh.
Besides the abduction, killing and subsequent cremation of bodies, the police used horrific methods of torture on Sikh youth and allegedly raped women.
Baljeet Singh, from a Punjabi magazine, Khalsa Fatehnama, witnessed a young girl being raped by around 20 policemen. “I was detained by the police in Ludhiana on June 14, 1992, as I was a member of the Sikh Students Federation of India. I was kept in a lockup in the Dehlo police station in Jagraon area of Ludhiana. On the 16th or the 17th, the police brought four youth, including a young woman. They let the men go but detained the woman. Then they stripped her naked and raped her one after the other. The Station House Officer Darshan Singh also raped her,” he alleged. Singh was released on June 28.
In May and June 2005, Ensaaf, a US-based non-profit group, organised the Physicians for Human Rights and the Bellevue/New York University School of Medicine Program for Survivors of Torture to conduct a study of 127 families who had survived the disappearance of their family members in Amritsar. While some participants had no knowledge about what happened to their relatives before they were killed, 52 percent stated that they knew about the police torture in custody, said the report that was submitted to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in October 2005. Also, around seven percent said that a relative of theirs had been tortured by another agency, such as the military.
“They did everything to my brother in front of my own eyes. He was stripped and totally naked. Electric shocks were put on his genitals. He was beaten with sticks, and rollers were put on his thighs. Then they took him to a nearby room; from where I could hear his shrieks. I did not see my brother after that. They did not even give us the body,” stated a 44-year-old man describing the torture of his brother.
Another man recalled that his brother had told him after his arrest that he was tortured and kept in custody for around 12 days. He got back home with swollen feet and legs. “They applied electric shocks,” the man said. “They stretched his legs. We had to bribe the police in order to get him released, every time (as he was rearrested several times).”
A 45-year-old widow narrated how her deceased husband was tortured: “During his detention, they cut his thighs and put chili in the wounds. He had wounds on his legs. The skin on his thighs was burned with objects. His legs were stretched, and he couldn’t walk.”
“Salt and chili were put into their open wounds,” said a 70-year-old woman describing what the police did to her deceased son and husband. “Their legs were stretched and were given electric shocks. They were…suspended upside down. My son’s fingernails were pulled out with some instrument.”
The testimonies never stopped coming, and each one sounded worse than the other. A 75-year-old man described his own experience: “I and my younger son were picked up by police and asked the whereabouts of my now deceased son. I was not given food for days, hung and suspended by my hands bound behind my back, and beaten on the ear. My left arm was broken when my arms were tied behind my back. They put me on the ground and pulled my arm back and broke it. They tied hot objects to my feet and I couldn’t stand… They opened my underwear and put red chili power and gas in my anus… They treated us like this for one month… Always banging on my ears, puss came out, especially from my right ear. And some of my teeth fell out when I was beaten.”
A 34-year-old brother of one of the deceased reported a series of brutal events he had experienced. The police hung him upside down, stretched his legs apart and beat him with sticks. Drunk, they danced around him, saying they had killed his brother, who used to threaten them. “Then they ordered us to run. I refused. The other seven ran, but I was unable to run because of the torture. They killed the seven who ran… Then they tied my hair with a rope to the back of a vehicle, and they dragged me for quite some time. I was unconscious by that time, and I don’t know where they took me… Still I feel the pain (testifying 10 years later), and during the winter I cannot wear shoes because my feet swell.”
Only half the family members surveyed were able to pluck up the courage to directly ask the police how their relatives were killed. And the typical answer most of them got was “encounter killing.” Around 77 percent of the respondents stated that they were not intimated about their relative’s cremation, and 54 percent said that they could not even get the ashes of the decedent. Nearly half of the family member said that they could identify the person or people who arrested their relatives prior to their deaths, and around 38 percent could identify the individuals who they believed killed their relative, in most cases a police officer.
Despite the passage of more than 10 years since the torture and killings took place, the Ensaaf/NYU study reported a high degree of psychological distress among family members. Nearly 40 percent of those evaluated showed symptoms of depression. Said a 45-year-old widow, “Because of the stress on my mind, I was in a state of despair, so I took the medicine for two years from the mental hospital. Both my daughters also were there in the mental hospital with me because they were also not well… Yes, sometimes, even now, I get mentally disturbed. I would beat myself and pull my hair, and only after taking my medicine would I return to normal. I have a complete loss of appetite. I just don’t feel like taking any food.” A 70-year-old father said he wanted justice. “The person who has done my son wrong should be executed and there should be justice. I don’t want money… Two years ago they came to offer me money for a compromise. I told them I would give them (rupees) five lakh, ‘but first let me kill your son.’”
A young man whose brother was killed by the police wanted an assurance that the persecution would not recur. “First and foremost, the government needs to reassure us that there is nothing we need to worry about, because we are still scared,” he said. “Of course the ones who are guilty should be punished… Because they roam free, that’s why we are scared. We have never heard of any case where justice has been given… But to this day, the government has never asked us anything.”
That such cries for justice were falling on deaf ears became clear in 2005. Between June and August that year, the Punjab police once again went on a torture spree. They arrested at least 70 people on terrorism-related charges, following two bomb blasts in movie theatres in Delhi and the arrest of Jagtar Singh Hawara, leader of the Indian wing of Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) and an accused in the August 1995 assassination of then Punjab chief minister Beant Singh.
The police held nine detainees for one to four days in illegal detention, four detainees for five to seven days and five detainees for nine to 11 days before formally arresting them, revealed another report by ENSAAF in which 26 informants were interviewed and 28 cases of detention documented in August and September 2005. In only four cases did the police formally arrest or acknowledge detention. Baldeep Singh, a resident of Ropar district and one of the 12 who were allegedly tortured, said that he was held in illegal detention for five days before being officially arrested from a police checkpost near a gurudwara in Fatehgarh Sahib on June 25. He said the police tortured him with electric shocks and by tying his hair to his feet and hanging him upside down. The police had tortured his brother using similar methods a few days earlier.
Since the police repression continues, “I do not feel I am a citizen of India. Is this how you treat your fellow citizens?” said Mrs Khalra. “I am happy that at least in one case, that of my husband’s killing, a court has convicted the culprit. But that is not sufficient. What has happened in other cases?”
On November 18, 2005, more than 10 years after his disappearance, a local court convicted six Punjab police officials for Khalra’s abduction and murder, sentencing them to seven years imprisonment each. Furthermore, on October 16, 2007, a division bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court extended the sentence to life imprisonment for four of the six convicted: sub-inspectors Satnam Singh, Surinder Pal Singh and Jasbir Singh, and head constable Prithipal Singh.
“I have been informed that some of the convicts are being treated as the state’s guests, and they are allowed to visit pubs and family from time to time,” said Mrs Khalra. “But we will fight against this as well.” She added that she had been offered money and positions by “agents of subsequent governments” in exchange for keeping silent.
Mrs Khalra is also disappointed at the way the case concerning enforced disappearances is being treated.
In January 1995, when Khalra and Dhillon produced evidence against the Punjab Police, they moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court demanding investigation. The court dismissed their petition, calling it “vague.” However, the Committee for Information and Initiative on Punjab (CIIP), a non-governmental organisation, approached the Supreme Court, which subsequently ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate the crimes. In December 1996, the CBI identified 585 of the 2,097 people cremated by the police, and termed 274 as “partially identified” and 1,238 as “unidentified.” In response, the apex court on December 12 handed over the case to the NHRC, stating that the CBI’s report showed a “flagrant violation of human rights on a mass scale.” The court also directed the CBI to determine the culpability of police officials.
On August 4, 1997, the NHRC asserted itself, stating that it had, in this case, more powers than granted under the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, as it represented the Supreme Court with its powers under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution. It also held that prior to dealing with the question of compensation for survivors of victims, it would establish liability by laying down the factual foundations. In another order, it called for a meeting to discuss mechanisms for conducting inquiries. The nervous Government of India challenged its decision before the Supreme Court, which upheld the NHRC’s interpretation in September 1998.
What happened three months later is beyond comprehension: the Commission itself limited its own mandate in its January 13, 1999 order. It decided to investigate only those illegal cremations that had occurred in the three crematoria, although it was clear that other methods of disposing of bodies had also been used, such as throwing bodies in rivers. The CIIP produced detailed evidence of disappearances, arbitrary executions and illegal cremations in other districts of Punjab, but neither the NHRC nor the Supreme Court changed its stand.
More inexplicably, the NHRC, in its August 18, 2000 order, acceded to the Punjab government’s proposal to offer compensation to 18 families without establishing the guilt of officials. And this despite having admitted that the Punjab government had “neither conducted any detailed examination in these cases on merits nor (did) it admit its liability.” The order concluded: “It does not matter whether the custody was lawful or unlawful, or the exercise of power of control over the person was justified or not; and it is not necessary even to identify the individual officer or officers responsible/concerned.” The families unanimously rejected the offer of compensation.
On November 11, 2004, the NHRC ordered compensation to the next of kin of 109 persons who had been illegally cremated by the police. However, it observed, “It is clarified that while granting the monetary relief as aforesaid, we are not expressing any opinion about the culpability or otherwise of any police officer or officials…”
In its October 9, 2006 order, the NHRC compensated the next of kin of 1,245 individuals for the wrongful cremation of the deceased, in which cases the Punjab police had not followed the rules for cremation. As regards the remaining 814 bodies under its consideration, the Commission delegated the task to Justice KS Bhalla, a retired judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. In other words, all the NHRC could come up with after 10 years of litigation is the finding that the police had not followed the rules, guidelines and procedures required before cremating 1,245 identified deceased.
The NHRC, however, fared better than the CBI, which is handling the case concerning the culpability of police officials. The CBI’s press information officer, RK Gaur, pleaded ignorance, not only for himself but also on behalf of Harsh Bhal, the CBI spokesperson. “Don’t call him up but write an email, as he will not know about the case,” he said. Bhal chose neither to reply and nor to acknowledge having received the email. The attempts to speak to him on phone were unsuccessful.
The Punjab Police’s heavy-handedness continues. Says VPS Bhatia, a senior advocate of the Amritsar district courts, “Although the police are less corrupt and brutal if compared with the insurgency period, citizens are not free from the fear of police yet.” Bhatia represented several Sikh youth who were arrested on charges of sedition but were later acquitted by the court.
Bhatia holds governments and the British legacy responsible. Police act only after sensing the mood of their political bosses, he said, sitting in his crowded chamber in the district courts complex. He added that the Indian police were anti-people. “Section 25 of the Indian Evidence Act, which was drafted and enacted by the British administration in 1871 (apparently with intent to suppress the freedom movement following the ‘Indian Mutiny’), states that the statement of an accused before a police official shall not be admissible before a court,” he said. “The British included this clause because they knew they had created a corrupt and brutal police. This is why such a statement is admissible in the courts in the UK, as police officials there are seemingly trusted there.”
What makes the matter worse is that governments can subvert both the judiciary and any human rights panel, leaving victims with no hope of justice. Bhatia’s client Sarabjit Singh, a businessman and social activist from Amritsar, said that he was arrested in July 1998 on charges of sedition for following up the Khalra case along with six others, including a journalist from The Indian Express, Rashpal Singh. “We were jailed for a month and subsequently granted bail by a court,” he said, adding that although the Punjab Human Rights Commission (PHRC) passed an order in July 2000 telling the police to quash the complaint against them and give each of them Rs 50,000 as compensation, the police refused to obey. In 2001, the police managed to get a say on the PHRC’s direction from the high court.” The seven were finally acquitted by the district court on March 1, 2007.
Why were the police, many of whom were Sikh themselves, so brutal to the community? Khalsa Fatehnama’s Baljeet Singh, who looks after children of those who were killed by the police as part of the Khalra Trust, believes that the Congress-ruled government at the Centre had given “full rein” to the police in the early 1990s, particularly to Punjab’s Director General of Police KPS Gill, to crush the Khalistan movement “no matter what the cost.” The Congress was in power at the Centre from January 1996 to March 1977 and from January 1980 to October 1998, when Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards following Operation Blue Star, was prime minister; from October 1984 to December 1989 under Rajiv Gandhi; and again from June 1991 to May 1996 under PV Narasimha Rao.
Baljeet Singh has his own take on the origins of the Punjab violence. Showing pages from his book in Punjabi, Punjab’s Own Terrorism, he said, “What started as a peaceful Punjabi Suba movement (for a separate state for the Punjabi-speaking people), turned into an armed struggle for an independent Sikh nation in 1971 when 13 Sikhs were killed by the police for peacefully protesting against the Nirankari sect, which most Sikhs consider as blasphemous. We believe that the government was supporting the group to take the people of our community away from us to weaken the Suba movement.” Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale assassinated the leader of the Nirankari sect, Gurbachan Singh, in 1978.
“Then came Operation Blue Star, which was conducted on the day of a Sikh festival on June 3, 1984, which forced many more Sikhs to take up arms,” Baljeet Singh said. Indira Gandhi ordered the operation from June 3-6, when Punjab was under President’s Rule, to kill Bhindranwale and his supporters. The government put the number of civilian deaths at 492, including women and children, in addition to 83 Indian Army personnel, but independent estimates, including from Amnesty International, were much higher.
“And following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in October that year, hundreds of innocent Sikhs were killed in the riot, mainly in Delhi, instigated by the Congress, further fuelling the armed movement,” Baljeet Singh added.
Separatist sentiments amongst sections of the Sikh community have existed since before the Independence. Jawaharlal Nehru reportedly assured the Sikhs at the All-India Congress Committee meeting in Calcutta in 1946 that they would be permitted to function as a semi-autonomous unit. On December 9, 1946, the Indian Constituent Assembly passed a resolution to that effect.
Punjab was trifurcated in 1966, leading to the further formation of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. However, many Sikhs, dissatisfied with the demarcation of the new state, have since been demanding the inclusion in the state of Punjab of some Punjabi-speaking parts of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. They have also been calling for exclusive ownership of Chandigarh, which is capital to both Punjab and Haryana and a Union Territory.
Mrs Khalra agrees with Baljeet Singh. “Most of us are not separatists, but the constant neglect and persecution made some to go astray and pick up arms,” she said. “But what about the unlawful terror of the police; aren’t they accountable to anyone?”
“Our fight for justice will be on; we’ve accepted it as a challenge, like my husband did,” she said, adding that along with other Sikh activists, she would not stop “blackening the faces” of those responsible for the civilian victims. “The bountiful evidence against the police is our weapon.”